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The Day the Earth Caught Fire

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

A British production from 1961, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a relatively unknown film, directed by Val Guest and starring Edward Judd as an alcoholic, has-been reporter caught up in what is literally the story of a lifetime. Strange weather patterns are being recorded around the world and there is speculation the cause can be attributed to recent nuclear tests. Told in almost documentary fashion, most of the action takes place in and around the offices of The Daily Express newspaper. Leo McKern costars as the paper's science editor and Arthur Christiansen, a former editor of that publication, appears as himself. Janet Munro portrays a secretary from the Air Ministry's office who is fired from that position for leaking sensitive information to Judd, with whom she later becomes romantically involved.

This film is one of the best examples of the fact that good science fiction on the screen is not dependent on a large budget and elaborate special effects. All that is required is a good story seriously dealt with, and competent acting. Unlike the majority of the SF disaster films of the '50s and early '60s, the issue of nuclear testing is handled in a realistic manner, speculating on factors that could conceivably occur rather than on sensationalistic radiation-enhanced species that ravage mankind. Not that the events in the story could actually happen, but at least they are presented in a seriously speculative way. It turns out that simultaneous explosions - by the U.S. in Antarctica and by the Soviet Union in Siberia - have shifted the tilt of the Earth's axis, and the perturbations resulting from this shift causes our orbit to degrade. Slowly but steadily the Earth is getting closer to the Sun. An attempt is made to offset this change by another series of explosions. The film concludes with humanity still not certain if this effort was successful. On the DVD commentary, director Val Guest said that Universal added church bells ringing at the end of the American release, possibly as an indication the Earth has been saved, but his intention was to leave the ending ambiguous.

The personal stories of the principals involved is also handled with sensitivity and pathos. We learn that Judd's alcoholism and job-neglect stems from his estrangement from his wife and young son. Even the threat of humanity's annihilation is not enough to alter his depression until his involvement with Munro. She is able to pierce his outer shell and in reaction he comes to grips both with his family situation and his career. His last story, dictated over the phone, is obviously an echo of his former talent as a writer. This moving monologue is balanced with a shot of the press room, where two separate headlines have been prepared, dependant on the outcome of the counter-explosions. Other haunting images of the havoc this cataclysmic event has wrought include stock footage of storms and floods throughout the world, along with a very effective fx shot of the Thames River vaporizing from the heat.

Apparently the DVD sales were not that great since it is no longer being produced, but you might find a used one through or on Ebay. Netflix doesn't have it either. I did rent it on VHS from Hastings in Waco, Texas shortly before writing this review (in 2000). Also, I taped it off the Sci-Fi Channel a few years back, although I am sure some scenes had been edited out. I recommend you try to find this film where and how you can. Not that it is a truly classic film, but it is a very good example of how a serious science fiction subject can be presented effectively on a very low budget. I rate it ***1/2 stars out of five.


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Val Guest

Wolf Mankowitz
Val Guest

1961 (UK)
May 1962 (US)

Janet Munro
Leo McKern
Edward Judd

Full Credits at IMDb

DVD is "out of print"
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