The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) | There’s panic on the streets of London in the British doomsday drama
Watching director Val Guest‘s riveting 1961 end of the world drama, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, its amazing how many of its themes are still relevant five decades on – especially with regards to global warming, domestic unrest (as witnessed in the 2011 London riots), the fear of another Cold War with Russia, and our love/hate relationship with news.
Set in a frantic London Fleet Street newsroom during an unseasonal heatwave, this restrained British disaster follows a group of journos as they investigate the world’s increasingly bizarre weather conditions, only to discover that atomic testing by the US and the USSR has knocked the Earth off its axis causing it to hurtle towards the Sun. As the world waits for its likely end, the city’s teenagers enjoy jazz-fuelled riots in the streets and when more bombs are exploded to try to reverse the damage, two newspaper headlines are prepared: World Saved and World Doomed.
There’s more talk than action, but Guest’s documentary styled script and direction is intelligent and sincere, providing a vivid depiction of the world of newspaper journalism (before it went to the dogs), while the excellent cast breathe authentic life into their well-rounded characters. Leo McKern (TV’s Rumpole of the Bailey) plays the science editor (and gives a stand-out performance), Edward Judd (Island of Terror) is the fed-up alcoholic reporter who discovers his inner-hero as the crisis unfolds, and Janet Munro (The Trollenburg Terror) is the sparky, no-nonsense secretary who spills the beans on the testing. The film’s other big plus are London’s streets as Guest, who also co-wrote and produced the film, makes extensive use of shooting on location around Fleet Street, including the real-life Daily Express building and nearby St Bride’s Avenue, Battersea Park, Trafalgar Square, and the Board of Trade building (now housing the Ministry of Defence) in Horse Guards Avenue.
Alongside When Worlds Collide, Crack in the World and Dr Strangelove, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a true classic of its kind and well worth seeking out.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire is available on DVD in the UK, and also screens as part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season on 28 August in the forecourt of the British Museum