The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) is a much underrated Sci-Fi classic, and it is probably due to it being released by British Lion rather than Hammer films that many fans of the genre have yet to actually discover it. It’s a movie that I think has to looked at and judged by the many films that went before it in the 1950’s such as the iconic movie The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) as it would be pointless comparing it to the massive budget special effects brimming productions which appeared in later years. Such as Knowing ,The Day After Tomorrow,  and 2012,

The fascination that mankind has had with the end of the world as we know it, is quite scary, why would one want to destroy the thing that supports life and this I think is probably a rather unhealthy obsession, but it makes great subject matter for books and of course movies, the ultimate end of the planet being by natural disasters, man-made Armageddon, or even alien invasion, has always fascinated and in most cases produced top class cinema and literature. Even films such as Planet of the Apes (1968) and the more recent The Road, (2009) both set in post-apocalyptic times did not fail to entice audiences, with the former spawning many sequels and a remake plus an entire new series.  

The idea for the film was something that came to director Val Guest during the early days of the Cold War in the mid 1950’s and, it is the style of movie making from this decade that Guest seemed to enter into when helming The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Two years previous we had seen On The Beach, which was a story set after a nuclear war had taken place between the major powers in the northern hemisphere and the global effects it had, with the people of Australia awaiting their ultimate fate as the fallout of the war began to approach them.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire opens with a tinted effect screen, a lone figure walks through a deserted city which we later find out is London, the tinted effect depicts perfectly a searing and unbearable heat, and straight away intrigues and draws in any watching audience. The lone figure is that of a cynical journalist Peter Stenning played by Edward Judd. He makes to his desk at the daily express, but because of the heat is unable to type anything the rubber platen on his typewriter melted by the intense heat. He then picks up the phone which is answered by a young girl Jennie Craig (Janet Munro) on the switchboard, who puts him through to another journalist who begins to take down Stenning’s dictation. The film them moves from present day to a flashback of the events that have led to the moment and the print then is altered to black and white.

On watching the movie again recently on Talking Pictures I was surprised how impressive the movie remained, not at all effected by the many contemporary productions are their gimmicky effects and over the top budgets. This is good old fashion sci-fi entertainment, (if there is such a thing) which I think is made even more effective and eerie because of the black and white photography. In many ways the film was shot in a semi documentary fashion, and although there are very few re-enacted disaster scenes and it relies upon footage of real catastrophes, the tension is handled effectively in the newspaper’s office where most of the action takes place, with its overlapping and loud dialogue and the constant flow of new information on the developing situation also there is the development of the romantic story in the midst of violence and terror in the streets with stock footage of unrest around the world being utilized to great effect.

Granted some of the performances Judd’s included do tend to be a bit hammy, but with actors such as Leo McKern on hand things do balance out. But there is a realism an authenticity about the story and the way in which it is conveyed that just makes the film alluring. There is even an appearance of a very young Michael Caine for a millisecond in a crowd scene as a policeman (before the heady days of Zulu, and The Ipcress File). The film had no original score, instead library tracks were used with the music credit going to Stanley Black, and another credit being given to Monty Norman for the Beat-Nik music (which I thought was amusing) considering that Norman would be credited for one of the most iconic film themes just months later in the form of The James Bond Theme from the first James Bond adventure Dr. No.(1962). Although the movie is probably not as highly regarded as other sci-fi films from around the same time outside of the UK, it is still an entertaining watch and I think if it had been released by Hammer films instead of British lion maybe the interest would have been even greater, also when released in America it was billed as a B movie by Universal pictures. Despite this the film still garnered an award in the UK for its screenplay. The director Val Guest wanted to highlight the actions of power crazed governments in Moscow and Washington at the time who seemed hell bent on either dominating or destroying each other. Which is something that is sadly still relevant today, and I think always will be.

The story is about two nuclear explosions one by Russia the other by the USA, the result is that the earth is tilted off its axis and is sent towards the sun. Despite an obvious lack of budget, Val Guest (creator of other genre milestones such as The Quatermass Experiment and The Abominable Snowman for Hammer) did everything possible to make this film look like a fascinating and paranoiac drama. The images of a wilting London, engulfed in fog and seared by heat are more than atmospheric they are brilliant.

Plus, Guest brings into the equation well thought out extra elements, such as new epidemics because of water shortness. Overall, a film that is entertaining but also thought provoking.