The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) World Doomed!
Directed by Val Guest and released in 1961 The Day The Earth Caught Fire is a movie that examines the threat of atomic weapons and the effect that their testing may have upon our planet. Russian and American atomic explosions at the North and South Poles knock the Earth out of its orbit sending it careering towards the sun. Disruption follows, as the planet looks increasingly doomed and the temperature begins to rise.
In the offices of the Daily Express newspaper, London, a group of journalists attempt to keep the population informed. The reactions of these reporters represent a microcosm of the reactions of the world's population – horror, fear and hope.
As the Earth heats up they report on the changing climate - and the attempts by each of the world's powers to avert the crisis. Ironically, it is only with the detonation of four more atomic bombs that the Earth may have been saved from certain doom.
This represents the ambiguity of the movie; atomic weapons may have won the Second World War for the Allies, but their use has become a dangerous double-edged sword. This is best demonstrated by the famous scene in which two newspaper headlines are pictured side by side, one reading 'World Doomed', and the other 'World Saved'.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire does not rely on flashy special effects, though Les Bowie’s low-budget effects and use of matte paintings are surprisingly good, shots of the River Thames evaporating in the heat are particularly memorable. The film boasts a well-crafted script by Wolf Mankowitz and director Val Guest, illustrating an increasing sense of tension and futility as the end of the world nears. It is bleak but also cautionary and of importance.
In keeping with the rest of the movie, the performances of the actors are both engrossing and noteworthy. Edward Judd stars alongside Janet Munro and Leo McKern, and in one of his first roles, Michael Caine turns up uncredited as a police officer diverting traffic. He speaks one line. The former editor of the Daily Express Arthur Christiansen plays himself.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire has been filmed in a crisp, low-key, pseudo-documentary manner, with much of the action set in the offices of the Daily Express newspaper. It was made in black and white but in some prints the opening and closing scenes are tinted orange to suggest the planet heating up as it nears the sun.
The Critics Wrote -
"A smart slice of science fiction told through the eyes of Fleet Street journalists... genuinely frightening at the time." (Halliwell)
“Its premise is... so close to prevalent and widespread fears and worries that it is not so much science fiction as it is a dramatic and imaginative extension of the news... The movie achieves its impact because it was made not merely to entertain, but out of a sense of outrage.” (Hollis Alpert, Saturday Review).
“Bless the British anyway. They have succeeded in making the first witty movie about the end of the world. They have managed, further, to do it with taste... The story is spiced with some funny secondary characters, and laced with satire on the hypocrisies of governments.” (Newsweek)
“Guest’s direction is brisk and makes good use of newsreel sequences and special effects.” (Variety)
“Always sensational and sometimes silly, but it reminds the viewer perhaps salutarily, that with a little nuclear encouragement this really could be a cock- eyed world.” (Time)