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Day the Earth Caught Fire, The

Entry updated 24 February 2017. Tagged: Film.

Film (1961). British Lion/Pax/Universal. Produced and directed by Val Guest. Cast includes Arthur Christiansen, Edward Judd, Leo McKern and Janet Munro. Written by Wolf Mankowitz, Guest. 99 minutes, cut to 90 minutes (US). Black and white.

Val Guest, who had made The Quatermass Xperiment (1956) and other sf/horror films for Hammer in the 1950s, excelled himself with this intelligent Disaster movie. After a framing scene, in which reporter Peter Stenning (Judd) walks through the deserted streets of London (see Last Man) without knowing if he is witnessing the End of the World, the action moves back a month or so to a time just after the USA and the USSR have engaged in simultaneous H-bomb tests, after which the weather begins to change ominously. The film is made in a crisp, low-key, pseudo-documentary manner, with much of the action set in the offices of the London Daily Express newspaper as Stenning, aided by his new lover Jeannie Craig (Munro), who is with the Meteorological Centre, begin to work out what has happened while the temperature continues to rise inexorably (former editor Christiansen plays himself, thinly disguised as the hard-headed reliable Jeff Jefferson). It soon becomes clear that, dislocated by the tests, Earth is drifting closer to the Sun. Only more properly timed nuclear explosions in Siberia can save the planet from becoming inhabitable. These take place, but the film ends with the reporters not yet knowing which of two headlines – "World Saved" or "World Doomed" – they will be using. Les Bowie's low-budget special effects are surprisingly good, including shots of the Thames completely evaporating in the heat. On the last page of Barry Wells's novelization, The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), the rains come and the Earth is saved. [JB/JC/PN]


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