Monday, September 18, 2023



It's fun to be blindsided by a film you've never seen. With a title like THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, I was expecting another sci-fi extravaganza with lots of cool special effects and enough people screaming that I would be forced to turn down the volume to preserve my hearing. Instead, I got a serious, well-balanced mixture of human drama, fast-paced newspaper office action, and environmental disaster. The film was directed by the prolific Val Guest (THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955), CASINO ROYALE (1967), who co-wrote the screenplay with Wolf Mankowitz.

After simultaneous nuclear bomb tests are carried out by The United States and The Soviet Union, unusual weather events begin occurring. In London, the Daily Express sends writer/reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) to the British Meteorological Office to get information about what's happening. Stenning is an accomplished writer who has fallen on hard times after a divorce and is spending most of his time drinking and exhibiting a cynical attitude. At the British Met Office, he becomes acquainted with Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro), who works there. An attraction grows between them as Peter asks Jeannie to help get him information for the story.

The bomb tests have changed the earth's axis by eleven degrees. This is causing the Earth to leave its orbit and move steadily closer to the sun. As more dramatic weather begins to happen, scientists determine that still more nuclear bombs must be detonated in Western Siberia to try and move the Earth back into its proper orbit. In largely evacuated London, the Daily Express has prepared two headline pages, depending on the results of the bombings. One headline reads "Earth Saved!" The other reads "Earth doomed!"

Edward Judd and Janet Munro

The film succeeds admirably in making its point about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and continued hostility between world superpowers. But it's as much a study of the two lead characters, Peter Stenning and Jeannie Craig, as it is a disaster movie. Judd and Muro are wonderful as two people who very quickly fall in love. Since this is 1961, there's no graphic lovemaking, but more than enough suggestions of obvious physical chemistry. Both characters are well-written. Stenning's' struggles are dealt with in a very sensitive way. We see this hardened, cynical man interacting lovingly with his little boy whom he rarely gets to see. His interaction with his best friend, fellow journalist Bill McGuire (Leo McKern), is believable and touching. In fact, all of the human interaction and dialogue are incredibly true to life. The outspoken, intelligent Jeannie Craig is a harbinger of change in the establishment of female characters in the mostly male world of science fiction.

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE is definitely a continuation of the atomic disaster flicks of the 1950's. But it is in no way typical. It contains no monsters rising from the sea and the special effects are minimal. Still, I think it's a film that genre fans will love. There are some well-done scenes of mist rising off of the Thames that covers London with more fog than it's probably ever seen. There are scenes of high winds causing serious damage to people and property. Stock footage of floods, etc., is used. The film is in Black & White, but there is an orange tinting of many scenes to indicate the scorching heat.

The ambiguous ending is fascinating and will stay in the viewer's mind long after it's over. The narration at the end conveys an important, haunting message to mankind that is even more relevant in 2023 than it was in 1961:

So, man has sown the wind-and reaped the whirlwind. Perhaps in the next few hours, there will be no remembrance of the past, and no hope for the future that might have been. All the works of Man will be consumed in the great fire out of which he was created. But perhaps at the heart of the burning light into which he has thrust his world, there is a heart that cares more for him, than he has ever cared for himself. And if there is a future for Man-insensitive as he is, proud and defiant in his pursuit of power-let him resolve to live it lovingly; for he knows well how to do so. Then he may say once more: Truly the light is sweet; and what a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to see the Sun.


  1. This is a great science fiction film that is a true definition of the genre. It makes one think about the situation and it's as relevant today as it was when it was made.

  2. I agree completely. This one really surprised me. I can't believe I never saw it before now. Quite possibly, I did see it on TV, but can't remember it.