Sunday, 31 August 2008

The End is Nigh!

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) & Crack in the World (1965)

During the 1960s, the Bomb, as it was simply known, held very much the same place in public consciousness as global warming does today. The fear of nuclear war was very real and even though the Cuban Missile Crisis had shown that the US and USSR could pull back from the brink, there remained the possibility that a nuclear war could be started by accident. Hollywood’s output reflected this fear with Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy Dr. Strangelove and the documentary-styled Failsafe, both released in 1964.

The possibility that mankind might be placed in peril simply by the testing of nuclear weapons or indeed by an attempt to make benign use of them was less prominent in the public imagination; nevertheless this sub-genre gave rise to two excellent “doomsday” movies: the British-made The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and the US-made Crack in the World (1965).

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is an offbeat but smart piece of movie-making. It was directed and produced by the late Val Guest, who also directed the first two screen-adaptations of the Quatermass series. Screenplay was also by Guest, in conjunction with Wolf Mankowitz. The film starred Janet Monroe, Leo McKern and Edward Judd, and featured former Daily Express editor Arthur Christansen playing himself. It was filmed in black and white, with some orange-tinted sequences.

The tinted opening of the movie shows journalist and reformed alcoholic Peter Stenning (Judd) making his way down a deserted, heat-baked Fleet Street to the Daily Express building, to cover what may well be the last news story ever. Four nuclear devices, the most powerful yet devised, have just been detonated in an attempt to push the Earth back into its proper orbit. It is too early yet to tell if the attempt has been successful.

Reverting to conventional b/w, the main section of the movie then tells the story of the events of the previous 90 days, beginning with near-simultaneous bomb tests by the United States and the Soviet Union. In the days that follow, earthquakes and freak weather conditions occur in many parts of the world, and a total eclipse of the sun is seen in London ten days before it was due. Soon after, the whole world begins to experience heat-wave conditions. London experiences thick fog, followed by violent storms.

These events are seen through the eyes of Stenning and fellow journalist Bill Maguire (McKern). Stenning’s relationships with his ex-wife (who left him for another man), his son and new love Jeannie Craig (Monroe) are skilfully worked into the story, forming an integral part of the narrative drive. Encouraged by Editor Arthur Christiansen (himself), Stenning and Maguire, with assistance from Craig, eventually expose a government cover-up. The bombs have caused an eleven-degree shift in the tilt of the Earth’s axis. The Prime Minister goes on the air to reassure the public that the Earth’s axial tilt has altered in the past without catastrophic effects, and that things will eventually settle down.

But temperatures continue to rise inexorably. Water rationing is brought in and the Thames dries up. Eventually Christiansen learns from a Russian correspondent that that the bomb tests have also affected the Earth’s orbit, and it is moving towards the Sun. With doomsday just four months away, the Prime Minister goes on the air again to inform the public that the heads of governments world-wide have decided that the only hope for mankind is to detonate four very large nuclear bombs, in order to reverse the motion towards the Sun. Meanwhile, law and order is breaking down. People are coming down with typhoid from contaminated bootleg water and bottles of Coca Cola are fetching four pounds (about £80 at today’s prices). A street party held the night before the corrective bombs are detonated gets out of hand and rioting breaks out.

The countdown is broadcast to an anxiously-waiting world by radio, by loudspeakers set up in the streets of cities around the world, and by producer-gas fuelled police cars on the streets of London. Stenning, Maguire and Craig follow events from the Old Bell, Fleet Street [a pub in which I have spent many hours!] and the bombs are detonated, through the only immediate effect is a that cloud of dust is shaken up. Stenning begs Maguire to let him cover the story.

The story returns to the tinted “frame” that began the film. Stenning dictates his copy, his typewriter having seized up. A camera pans between two versions of tomorrow’s front page, ready to go to press. One reads “World Saved”, the other “World Doomed”. Several shots show clocks, both inside and outside the building, each showing a later time than the last, suggesting the passage of time. Church bells ring out across the City of London, implying that the Earth was saved.

It has been suggested that the church bells were added at the insistence of the distributer, and Guest intended a completely open ending. In a director’s commentary to the DVD edition, he does not mention the ending. Val Guest died in 2006, aged 94.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is the definitive “cult movie”, a term that should be reserved for movies that punch above their weight, while delivering what they set out to deliver. This film does just that: in addition to the intelligent screenplay, the special effects belie the small budget, especially the scenes where Thames dries up. Londoners will particularly appreciate the location filming around the capital.

The film is not without some “bad science”, however. Nuclear bombs could not possibly affect the Earth’s orbit. A major meteorite impact, such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, would be many times more powerful than the world’s combined nuclear arsenals, but it would have a negligible effect on the orbit. Indeed, anything powerful enough to affect the Earth’s orbit to the extent implied by the film would almost certainly destroy the planet at the outset.

A solar eclipse can only take place at New Moon and one occurring ten days early would not happen without warning, as it would be apparent for days in advance that something was seriously wrong with the Moon’s phases. Four days before the eclipse, the Moon would have been seen as a waning crescent when it should still have been full. This would be noticed by astronomers and indeed any casual observer in possession of a diary or calendar. The anomaly would certainly have been picked up at a newspaper, where the current phase of the Moon is often published with sunrise and sunset times.

A eleven degree alteration of the Earth's axial tilt would significantly alter sunrise and sunset times around the world, and postions of constellations in the night sky. Again, this would be widely noticed almost immediately.

Made four years later, Crack in the World is a more orthodox SF/disaster movie. It starred Dana Andrews, Janette Scott, Keiron Moore and Alexander Knox. The screenplay was by John Manchip White and Julian Zimet. The film was shot on location in Spain and its memorable score was composed by Johnny Douglas.

Project Inner Space is an international effort to tap geothermal energy by drilling down to the Earth’s mantle, but attempts are being frustrated by a layer of dense material lying at the boundary between it and the crust above. The project’s director, cancer sufferer Dr. Stephen Sorenson (Andrews) wants to use an atomic bomb to blast through the obstruction, and a government team headed by Sir Charles Eggerston (Knox) travels to the Project’s site, a massive complex two miles underground, to consider Sorenson’s plan. This is supported by nearly all the Project’s scientists, including Sorenson’s wife Dr. Maggie Sorenson (Scott). The one dissenter is Maggie’s former lover Dr. Ted Rampion (Moore), who has developed a “Rampion Theory” that the Earth’s crust has already been seriously weakened by underground nuclear testing, and that Sorenson’s plan would trigger a global catastrophe.

Despite Rampion’s objections, the attempt goes ahead but shortly before it does Sorenson learns that his illness is terminal. However he bravely keeps this knowledge to himself. The bomb does blast through the obstruction, and magma bubbles to the surface. All appears to be well, and Rampion happily concedes that he was wrong.

However a series of earthquakes begin to occur along a (fictitious) geological flaw in the Earth’s crust known as the Macedo Fault. Many of the places affected have no history of seismic disturbance. Rampion and his assistant Steele take a DSV to investigate an underwater portion of the fault and determines that a spreading crack has opened up in the Earth’s crust. If a way of stopping the rupture isn’t found, the Earth will be torn apart.

Sorenson and Rampion put aside their differences and try to come up with a solution. They decide the best hope of averting disaster is to explode a hydrogen bomb in the shaft of an active volcano that lies in the path of the spreading crack. Rampion and Steele volunteer for the difficult assignment of lowering the bomb into the volcanic shaft.

The bomb is successfully placed, though Steele falls to his death in the volcano’s magma chamber, and Rampion is almost barbecued alive. Believing him to be dead, Maggie Sorenson is distraught. Still unaware how seriously ill her husband is, her affections are drifting back to Rampion. However, the latter is only unconscious and rapidly recovers. The bomb goes off and the earthquakes appear to cease.

Relief is short-lived. Soon reports come in that suggest that the crack has simply switched direction, and appears to be doubling back on itself. To make matters worse, it is now moving twice as fast. As Rampion speaks to Sorenson by R/T, the latter collapses - it is finally apparent that he seriously ill. The group returns to the Project, where Maggie learns her husband has just days to live. Despite her renewed feelings for Rampion, she is grief-stricken. However she accompanies Rampion in a jeep on a trip to investigate a second crack that has appeared near the Project complex [where exactly this is located is never revealed]. Meanwhile, Sorenson determines that the two cracks will meet at the original borehole, and that a portion of the Earth will be blasted away into space to form a new moon.

On the surface, Rampion and Maggie Sorenson desperately try to stop a train that is heading straight towards the crack, but the jeep goes into a ditch. The train fails to stop and a bridge it is travelling over collapses. There are no survivors.

After freeing the jeep, the pair return to the Project, which is being evacuated. There is a dramatic shot of two converging cracks. Nobody has seen Sorenson, so Rampion and Maggie take the elevator down into the by-now quake-torn complex to look for him. They find him preparing to record the birth of Earth’s new moon. He points out that the Project is located outside the area that will be blasted into space, locks himself in and refuses to leave. Rampion and Maggie Sorenson head back to the surface, but the elevator becomes jammed by a quake. They manage to climb to the surface and reach safety just as the two cracks meet. A colossal explosion blasts the new moon into space, at the same time acting as a safety valve to prevent any further earthquakes. Calm returns and the old Moon and its new sibling are seen in the sky together for the first time.

The science in Crack in the World is well thought out, but became dated soon after the film’s release as the theory of plate tectonics became widely accepted. There are in fact many “cracks in the world”, corresponding to the tectonic plates that slide over each other to cause continental drift.

The theory that the Moon was spun off from the Earth was first put forward by Sir George Darwin (son of Charles) in the 19th Century and was strongly supported by the American astronomer William Pickering, who suggested that the Atlantic basin had been formed as a result. However the angular momentum of a system so formed would not correspond to that of the actual Earth-Moon system, so the theory had to be abandoned.

Dated though the science is, it is certainly on another level to the ludicrous Core (2003).

For some reason, Crack in the World has never been released on DVD. It is strongly to be hoped that this omission will be rectified in the near future.

In recent years, there has been a trend for remaking classic movies of the 1950s and 1960s, such as the 2005 version of The War of the Worlds. The Day the Earth Caught Fire and Crack in the World would both be excellent candidates for a remake. Although both films are rooted in ‘Sixties fears about the Bomb, they additionally tap into two highly-topical themes – climate change and emission-free energy.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Monday, 25 August 2008

Canals of Birmingham

The Second City boasts a large network of canals, now extensively regenerated. These photographs were taken on a foggy morning in November 2005.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Art Deco car park, Bloomsbury

Now used by an advertising agency, this fine Art Deco building was once a car park - proof that such structures don't have to be entirely devoid of architectural merit, as invariably seems to have been the case in recent decades.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Saturday, 16 August 2008

The Blue Max (1966)

The Blue Max (1966) is a motion picture following the career of German fighter pilot Leutenant Bruno Stachel during the closing stages of World War I. The screenplay was by David Pursall, Jack Seddon and Gerald Hanley, based on a novel of the same name by Jack Hunter. It was directed by John Guillermin and starred George Peppard, James Mason, Ursula Andress, Jeremy Kemp, Karl Michael Voger, Anton Diffring and Darren Nesbitt. Music was by Jerry Goldsmith.

In the spring of 1918, the war is going very badly for Germany. Bruno Stachel (Peppard), after two years service on the Western Front, leaves the fighting in the trenches to become a fighter pilot with the Imperial German Army Air Service. The son of a hotelier, Stachel is greeted cordially by his new CO, Hauptmann Otto Heidemann (Vogler) and his adjutant Holbach (Diffring), but faces appalling snobbery from his aristocratic squadron-mates on account of his humble background. He determines to prove himself where it matters – in the air (and, later on, in the bedroom) and resolves to win the coveted Pour le Merite - the eponymous Blue Max – “the only medal worth having – people respect it”. The Blue Max is awarded to fighter pilots for downing twenty enemy aircraft (in actuality the number required was gradually increased during the course of the war from eight to thirty). One of the squadron’s pilots, Willi von Klugermann (Kemp) only needs another two kills.

On his first sortie, Stachel shoots down a British SE5, but the “kill” is unconfirmed because nobody saw the aircraft go down. He spends hours searching the countryside in the pouring rain for the wreckage, to the annoyance of his fellow flyers, who think he is more concerned about his unconfirmed kill than he is about his wingman Fabian (Nesbitt), who failed to return. Willi, however, has gained the two remaining kills he needs for his Blue Max.

On his next sortie, accompanied by Willi, Stachel attacks a British two-man reconnaissance plane, putting the observer out of action. Rather than shoot down a helpless enemy, he signals the pilot to surrender and fly to his base. The pilot complies, but while approaching the airfield the observer, who has only been stunned, revives and – unaware of the situation – reaches for his gun, giving Stachel no choice but to shoot the aircraft down. Both the crew are killed.

Back on the ground, Stachel is accused of cold-bloodedly shooting the plane down over the airfield to ensure that the kill is witnessed. After the fuss he kicked up over the unconfirmed kill, Heidemann refuses to believe that Stachel simply acted in self-defence. Only Willi supports Stachel’s version of events. But when the two British airmen are buried with full military honours, Stachel further annoys his fellow officers by branding them as hypocrites.

However things begin to look up for Stachel when Willi’s uncle, General Count von Klugermann (Mason), accompanied by his much younger and somewhat over-sexed wife Kaeti (Andress), visits the base to see his nephew awarded the Blue Max. Von Klugermann is intrigued by the incident with the reconnaissance plane and feels Stachel might be exploited for propaganda purposes – a “working class hero” who will appeal to the masses.

Von Klugermann isn’t the only one to take an interest in Stachel. His wife the Countess –who is having an affair with Willi - mistakenly enters Stachel’s room en route to Willi’s bedroom. Both appear to have their interest piqued!

Back in action, Stachel goes to the aid of the Baron von Richthofen and shoots down a British aircraft that has got on the tail of the legendary fighter ace, but he gets shot down himself in the process. He escapes with only minor injuries and a grateful von Richthofen offers him a place in his squadron. Stachel is flattered by the offer, but declines.

While recovering from his injuries, Stachel is ordered to Berlin by Count von Klugermann as part of the latter’s propaganda project - a photo-shoot in a hospital ward alongside Heidemann’s wife, who works as a nurse at the hospital. While in Berlin, Stachel is invited to dinner by the Countess. The inevitable happens. Willi is none too happy!

Returning to duty, Stachel joins Willi on a mission to escort a reconnaissance aircraft. They are attacked by British aircraft, but early in the engagement Stachel’s guns jam. However Willi puts the enemy planes to flight, shooting down three of them. On the way back to base, Willi challenges Stachel, flying under the centre span of a bridge. Stachel outdoes him by flying under one of the narrower side spans. Willi successfully follows suit, but then clips the top of a near-by tower. He crashes and is killed.

Back at base, Stachel reports Willi’s death, but is furious when Heidemann assumes that two confirmed kills are Willi’s and not his. He falsely claims the kills for himself, but becomes trapped by his lie when Holbach points out that he only fired 40 rounds before his guns jammed. Heidemann refuses to confirm the kills, but von Klugermann overrules him.

Stachel, resuming his liaison with the Countess, is overcome with guilt and rather unwisely confesses to “stealing” Willi’s kills.

With Germany now on the brink of defeat, the squadron is ordered to cover the army’s retreat and strafe British forces on the ground, with explicit instructions to avoid air combat. But Stachel disobeys and engages a group of British aircraft. The squadron follows him into action. They bring down seven aircraft, but suffer heavy losses in the process. Three of the kills are Stachels, giving him twenty-two – enough for the Blue Max even without Willi’s kills.

Heidemann has Stachel arrested and intends to have him court-martialed for disobeying orders. Both are ordered to Berlin, but once again von Klugermann overrules Heidemann and informs him that Stachel is to be presented with the Blue Max by Kronprinz Wilhelm, after which he is to test fly a new experimental monoplane. Heidemann resigns his command in disgust.

The Countess, meanwhile, wants Stachel to flee Germany with her to Switzerland. But Stachel refuses to be one of her “lapdogs” and she storms out in a rage. She then informs von Klugermann’s superior, the Field Marshal, about the two false kills. Hell hath no fury...

The next day, Stachel is invested with the Blue Max, but during the ceremony von Klugermann receives a telephone call from the Field Marshal, who is insisting on an enquiry into the two false kills. Von Klugermann berates his wife, whose anger is going to result in the whole German officer corps being brought into disrepute.

But then Heidemann, who has taken the new monoplane up for a preliminary flight, returns and reports that the aircraft is a death trap and that its load-bearing struts are far too weak. Seeing a way out, von Klugermann telephones Stachel and orders him take the monoplane up himself and show the crowd some fancy flying.

Surrounded by a cheering crowd, with the Blue Max around his neck, Stachel makes his way to the monoplane and takes to the air. Heidemann is utterly horrified when he sees the plane take off and realises that von Klugermann is deliberately sending Stachel to his death. Stachel proceeds to put the aircraft through its paces, but it breaks up, plummets to the ground and explodes. At the moment of impact, von Klugermann stamps and signs Stachel's personnel file. He orders it to be sent to the Field Marshal as the personnel file of a German officer and a hero.

The story is presented as a clash between the honourable values of Otto Heidemann versus those of the ruthless Stachel and the cynical scheming Count von Klugermann. The Prussian aristocracy had traditional notions of chivalry which – no matter how commendable – had little or no place in the brutal reality of Twentieth Century warfare. Unfortunately there was in actuality a far more ruthless “working class hero” than Bruno Stachel serving as a corporal on the Western Front during World War I – Adolf Hitler.


The Blue Max was filmed in County Wicklow with the consequence that the memorable flying scenes are set against the verdant Irish countryside rather than the sea of mud that was the Western Front by 1918. Another blooper is that the Irish Dail can clearly be seen in one of the “Berlin” scenes, which were filmed in Dublin.

It should however be remembered that people were less obsessed with absolute authenticity in the 1950s and 1960s: for example in The Battle of the River Plate, the panzerschiff Admiral Graff Spee is “played” by the heavy cruiser USS Salem. The inconvenient extra pair of main gun turrets was explained away as “camouflage”. The story certainly didn’t suffer as a result and is far better remembered for its sympathetic portrayal of the Graf Spee’s skipper, Hans Langsdorff, played by Peter Finch.

Modern CGI can achieve a degree of realism way beyond anything that could be achieved back then. Or can it? The flying scenes in the Blue Max used real aeroplanes flown by real pilots, including Peppard, who obtained a PPL especially for the purpose, though for the bridge scene he was rather wisely substituted for a stunt pilot!

Jack Seddon [my father] and his long-standing business partner David Pursall both served as airmen in World War II; my father flew with the RAF and David with the Royal Fleet Air Arm.

Beginning in the 1950s, David and my father formed a prolific screenwriting partnership which endured for almost three decades.

Much of their oeuvre was comedy but probably their best-known film other than the Blue Max was also a war movie: The Longest Day (1962) - an all-star dramatization of the Allied invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944. This was notable for its use of subtitles in scenes involving French and Germans and for being made in black and white at a time when nearly all motion pictures were being made in colour. Both were at the insistence of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who wanted to give the film a “newsreel” quality. The Longest Day was thus one of the earliest examples of both subtitles and b/w being used for dramatic effect.

The film was based on a book by the Irish-American author Cornelius Ryan, who also wrote a screenplay for the movie version. The screenplay was substantially revised by Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall and my father. But Ryan allegedly insisted that he alone be credited for the screenplay and although all five were credited in early cinematic releases of the Longest Day, later copies credited only Ryan. This did not come to light until the 1990s, over thirty years after the film’s appearance, by which time my father was the only one of the five still living. He got into a lengthy wrangle with the US screenwriters guild, but the matter was still unresolved at the time of his death in 2001. Happily a compromise now appears to have been reached, with Cornelius Ryan credited as writer of the original screenplay and the other four including my father with “additional work”. It should be pointed out that Halliwell’s Film Guide has always attributed the screenplay to all five writers.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Sunday, 3 August 2008

St Mary and St Joseph RC Church, Poplar E14

Constructed between 1951 and 1954, the St Mary and St Joseph Roman Catholic Church was part of the postwar Lansbury Estate development in Poplar. The original church was bombed during the war, and the site compulsorarily purchased by the LCC for the first phase of the Lansbury project. In return, the LCC provided a site for a new church. The building was designed by Adrian Gilbert Scott. Though less well known than his brother Giles, Adrian was a notable architect in his own right who specialised in work for the Catholic Church.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

William Booth Memorial Training College, Camberwell

Towering over the local landscape, the Salvation Army's William Booth Memorial Training College in Camberwell, London SE5 can be seen for miles around. Completed in 1932, it was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in his trademark monumental style, although it suffered from budget cuts during its construction and is considerably pared back from its original proposed Gothic grandieur.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Cave Art, by Dr Jean Clottes

The jet-set image of the contemporary art scene has now become so powerful that there is a real need to look beyond it and realise that art is not just about money and glamour.

Art is a fundamental part of the human condition. The capacity for art arises from what anthropologists refer to as symbolic thought: the representation of the real world through symbols such as words, drawings and objects. Just how and when these and other modern behavioural attributes arose is still hotly debated, but the oldest work of art so far discovered is a haematite stone decorated with abstract designs, found in the Blombos Cave near Capetown and believed to be 75,000 years old.

Though not the oldest prehistoric art, that of Upper Palaeolithic Europe is undoubtedly the best known. The earliest-known cave paintings, those at Chauvet Cave in southern France, are 32,000 years old. From that time up until the end of the last Ice Age roughly 11,000 years ago, Cro-Magnon cave artists consistently achieved a standard best summed up by Picasso who, on visiting the Lascaux Caves in the Dordogne, is said to have remarked “We have invented nothing”. Not without good reason have these caves, now thought to have been painted 18-19,000 years ago, been described as “The Sistine Chapel of prehistory”.

Born in the French Pyrenees in 1933, Dr. Jean Clottes is one of France’s most eminent prehistorians. Although now formally retired he remains active in the field. In the 1990s he played a leading role in the study of the newly-discovered Chauvet Cave and also the 27,000 year old Cosquer cave near Marseille.

Clottes is however best known for his controversial but highly-plausible theory that prehistoric cave art was associated with shamanic practices, whereby shamans can move between the living and spirit worlds with the aid of spirit helpers and act as mediators between the living and spirit worlds, obtaining supernatural assistance in such matters as healing, hunting and weather.

According to Clottes Cro-Magnon people regarded caves as access points to the spirit world. While the cave art would have reflected mythologies that would almost certainly have shown regional and temporal variation, Clottes’ view is that the overall belief system persisted with little change for over twenty millennia, ending only when the Ice Age finally drew to a close.

CAVE ART is an accessible and well-organised introduction to prehistoric art, featuring over 300 items. Clottes describes his book as “a kind of museum, a collection of prehistoric imagery” and admits that in common with all museums, it cannot exhibit everything. Accordingly the focus is on the cave art of Ice Age Europe, with less emphasis on figurines, engraved bones and other portable works of art. Some will feel that these, and post-Ice Age cave art from other parts of the world, might have been better covered, but Clottes admits that his “museum” is personal.

In keeping with the book’s concept, explanatory texts take second place to the “exhibits” themselves. They are styled after the texts one might find in an actual museum, with each work accompanied by a caption header providing key facts followed by a brief but generally very informative text, often including Clottes’ personal views and interpretations.

This book will be welcomed by anybody with an interest in either art or prehistory, or indeed anybody who wants to know more about the people of Ice Age Europe, whose society endured five times longer than the whole of our recorded history.

(A slightly different version of this book review appeared in Art World Magazine Issue 6 August/September 2008 and is my first published work as a professional writer.)

© Christopher Seddon 2008