The Day the Earth Caught Fire  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a British science fiction disaster film starring Edward Judd, Leo McKern and Janet Munro. It was directed by Val Guest and released in 1961.

The movie, which was filmed on location in London and Brighton, also used matte painting to create images of abandoned cities and desolate landscapes. it's also notable for its 'docu-style' dialogue, particularly in the newspaper office sequences. The production featured the Daily Express newspaper, using the paper's real headquarters, the Daily Express Building, in Fleet Street, London.



The film opens at the end with the bulk of the story told in flashback. A lone man walks through the sweltering streets of a deserted London. The film then goes back several months. Peter Stenning (Judd) was an up-and-coming journalist with the Daily Express but a messy divorce has thrown his professional and private life into disarray. His Editor (Christiansen) no longer has time for him and has begun to give him lousy jobs. Stenning's only friend, Bill Maguire (McKern), is a veteran Fleet Street reporter, who offers him encouragement and has occasionally covered for him by writing his copy.

Meanwhile, after the Soviet Union and USA detonated nearly-simultaneous nuclear bomb tests, strange meteorological events begin to affect the globe. Due to his unpopularity in the newsroom, Stenning is sent to the British Met Office to get some facts and figures on mean temperatures. While there he meets Jeanie (Munro), a young telephonist whom he chats up.

Stenning then discovers that the Atomic Weapons tests have had grave consequences for the Earth. He asks Jeannie to obtain any information that could help him. It soon becomes clear that the earth has been shifted from its orbit and is moving closer to the sun; increasing heat has caused water to evaporate and mists to cover Britain.

The government implements martial law, evacuates the cities and starts rationing supplies. Scientists conclude that the only one way to bring the Earth back into a safer orbit is to detonate a series of nuclear bombs in the west of Siberia. Stenning, Maguire and Jeanie gather at a bar near the newspaper building and await the outcome. As the countdown reaches zero, the bombs are detonated thousands of miles away; about 30 seconds later, dust can be seen falling from the roof of the bar as the shock wave travels round the world, an indication of the film-makers attention to detail. Two versions of the front page of the Daily Express are prepared for the presses: one reads "World Saved", the other "World Doomed". The staff of the paper anxiously waits to see which headline will be correct.

Stenning, who through his investigative journalism broke the story, has been given the job of writing the front pages. The film then ends as it began, with Stenning walking through the deserted London streets.

Production notes

The film was made in Black and White but in some original prints, the opening and closing sequences are tinted orange-yellow to suggest the heat of the sun. The film's pacing follows the 'newspaper investigative' genre. The 'delayed disaster' elements of the plot would be echoed in later landmark Doomsday films such as The China Syndrome and The Day After.

In his commentary track for the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD release, director Val Guest stated that the sound of church bells heard at the very end of the American version had been added by distributor American International Pictures, in order to suggest that the emergency detonation had succeeded and that the Earth had been saved.

Guest went on to speculate that this audio motif had been inspired by the 1953 film version of The War of the Worlds, which also ends with the joyous ringing of church bells after the emergency (and a nuclear explosion). However, Guest made it clear that his intention was to have an ambiguous ending to the film.

Monte Norman is given credit for "Beatnik Music" heard in the scenes where Stenning comes up against an army of beatniks who have taken to the streets for a pre-Armageddon party. Norman would become more noted for his "James Bond" theme, which would be heard one year later in the series' first entry, Dr. No.


Arthur Christiansen, a former editor of the Daily Express, played himself as the editor of the newspaper. Noted model Pamela Green has a small part, as does Michael Caine, who plays a police officer diverting traffic. He speaks one line. Three years later Caine was to take a starring role in the film Zulu.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Day the Earth Caught Fire" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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