Tuesday, 22 June 2021

The Day That No Award Caught Fire (1963)

This blog post is the sixth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

The Hugo Awards had already been in existence for a full decade, but until the night of Sunday
A movie about human activity causing the Earth
to slowly grow warmer? Must be science fiction!
(Image via Wikipedia)

September 1, 1963, they had remained an ad-hoc affair. On that evening, in the Congressional Room of the Statler Hilton in Washington, D.C., the World Science Fiction Society constitution was born.

In that first decade of the Hugo Awards, categories varied wildly. Only Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Fanzine, Best Artist, and Best Prozine had been awarded more often than Best Dramatic Presentation. But still, the category remained the one that attracted the least interest. As far as we can tell from looking over the membership lists of the Worldcon, none of the nominees in this category attended the ceremony.

One major change in the rules that year was to make the Dramatic Presentation category format agnostic. No longer restricted to film or television, it was made explicitly clear that radio, audio recordings, or even stage productions might be eligible. Interestingly, this was an option that Hugo nominators wouldn’t make use of for another eight years.

There were four eligible Dramatic Presentations that received enough nominating votes to be considered for the Hugo in 1963, but due to an error only three of them appeared on the ballot. Night Of The Eagle (aka Burn, Witch, Burn) was omitted from the ballot by mistake.

It seems unlikely to us, though, that its inclusion on the ballot would have made a difference. Although adapted from Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, and sharing the broad strokes of the central idea about an academic who struggles with his wife’s witchcraft, screenwriter Richard Matheson took significant liberties, particularly with the ending. In our estimation, the changes were for the worse, as they seem to negate the commentary about gender roles that seem to us to be integral to the story.

The acting and directing is surprisingly good, considering that the movie was helmed by Accapulco
Director Sydney Hayers parlayed
his Hugo shortlist appearance into
a directing gig on Galactica 1980.
(Image via Wikipedia) 

H.E.A.T.
director Sydney Hayers. There’s a clever bit of continuity in which a skeptical professor has the words “I don’t believe” written on a chalkboard early in the movie, only to have the word “don’t” erased when he accidentally rubs his shoulder on the chalkboard near the end.

But there were several other — we would argue better — options on the ballot that year. Twilight Zone showed a significant return to form after an off year. Although the fourth season wouldn’t begin airing until January of 1963, the episodes that aired in 1962 went from strength to strength: To Serve Man, based on Damon Knight’s story of the same name, is deservedly one of the most well-remembered in the series, but there are many other hidden gems here. Little Girl Lost, written by Richard Matheson, is an excellent eerie little episode with a fantastic premise about falling between the cracks of the world. One of Rod Serling’s scripts The Little People is a tightly-paced story that seems almost certain to have helped inspire George R.R. Martin’s Hugo-winning The Sand Kings.

Most of the members of our discussion group would likely not have voted for the beguilingly beautiful but frustratingly befuddling Last Year At Marienbad, the French art movie whose opaque narrative structure and lack of linear storytelling have made it a classic amongst film scholars. It’s a movie that’s clearly worthy of respect and admiration, but it’s not particularly engaging for the casual viewer.

The stand-out of all the Hugo shortlisted dramatic presentations in 1963 was The Day The Earth Caught Fire, a British disaster movie that channeled the atomic fears of the day.

The story follows a journalist who slowly pieces together the fact that due to ill-considered government decisions, the world is getting hotter and soon will become uninhabitable. As he breaks the news about this global warming, various policymakers try to deny the facts even as weather patterns shift and catastrophic storms wreak havoc. Despite the implausibility of this scenario, the movie makes this “climate change” seem like a credible threat.
Director Val Guest earned his
only BATFA award for The
Day The Earth Caught Fire
.
(Image via Pintrest)

This is one of the few movies that accurately captures the energy of a newsroom, and the bleak humour shared by journalists on the job. This is in part because it was partially filmed on-location in the offices of the Daily Express in London, and the actor cast as the newspaper’s editor had previously been the editor of the Express.

Director Val Guest — best known for his work on Quatermass — turned in his career-best directorial effort here, using location and lens choices to move the narrative between almost claustrophobic personal stories, and sweeping global events. The ending (which we won’t spoil) effectively drives home the urgency of the questions raised, and underscores how the movie remains disturbingly relevant to this day, particularly in light of global warming.

Our viewing group unanimously agreed that it is a legitimate shame that the film was denied the Hugo award. The fact that The Day The Earth Caught Fire did not win is more evidence of the lack of interest Dramatic Presentations garnered among Worldcon attendees.

It is a shame that voters chose not to recognize any of these options with a Hugo Award, but it is both a reflection of the attitude that science fiction fans had towards SF cinema at the time, as well as the lack of interest that Hollywood had in the Hugos.

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