The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

screenshot from The Day the Earth Caught Fire

Directed by: Val Guest
Screenwriter(s): Val Guest, Wolf Mankowitz
Starring: Janet Munro, Leo McKern, Edward Judd, Arthur Christiansen
Genre: Sci-Fi / Disaster
Country: UK
Running time: 1h 39m
Rating: 8 out of 10

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the build up of the Cold War and fear of the atomic bomb led to an explosion (bad pun) of films dealing with the end of the world as we know it. Most of these films were from a US perspective, but British writer-director Val Guest focuses here on the effects of the Cold War on those who are not directly involved in the Arms Race.

When Europe starts enjoying the best summer on record, everyone enjoys the good weather, but, when it leads to water rationing on a massive scale, Daily Express science correspondent, Bill Maguire (McKern, doing his usual line in cynicism) starts to become suspicious. With the help of washed-up hack Peter Stenning (Judd), they investigate the now-global climate change. Jennie Craig (Munro, Darby O’Gill and the Little People), a government telephonist and Stenning’s would-be girlfriend, discovers that the world governments have been keeping a huge secret from the people: the USSR and USA set off simultaneous nuclear tests which have knocked the world 11% off its axis. The good weather is, in fact, caused by the earth hurtling towards the sun at an alarming rate.

It’s an interesting premise and one which is given balanced consideration without allowing the message to dominate the plot. In fact, it’s an all-too realistic portrayal of how the world might have reacted to such a threat. The baser side of human nature – profiteering, greed, cowardice – is shown clearly as the situation becomes more grave. The arrogance of the politicians of the day, taking decisions which affected the lives of millions with no thought beyond protecting their own interests, is exposed, as is the question of whether man will bring his fate on himself one day.

This well-paced, uncontrived end-of-the-world movie still stands up today, despite the passing of the years. McKern, in particular, is always watchable and even the relationship between Judd and Munro, both of them weary of life in one way or another, comes across as believable. In fact, it’s surprisingly clear from the film that they have a quite robust sexual relationship.

The only notes that don’t ring true are the portrayals of the ordinary man in the street, who are either chirpy Cockneys or middle-class kids with a pechant for saying ’cat’ and ‘man’ a lot. The fact that these kids are all clad in berets and striped t-shirts gives the impression that someone threw a completely motiveless riot and only the Marcel Marceau Fanclub turned up.

Guest and Mankowitz deservedly won a BAFTA for their screenplay. Definitely worth a look.


Michael Caine appears about an hour in as a policeman trying to halt Judd’s character at a road block. You don’t see much of his face, but the voice is unmistakeable.