The Day the Earth Caught Fire
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (movie poster).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byVal Guest
Written byWolf Mankowitz
Val Guest
Produced byVal Guest
Frank Sherwin Green
StarringJanet Munro
Leo McKern
Edward Judd
CinematographyHarry Waxman
Edited byBill Lenny
Music byStanley Black
Monty Norman
Val Guest Productions
Distributed byBritish Lion Films
Release date
  • 23 November 1961 (1961-11-23) (London)
Running time
98 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget£190,000[1][2] or £213,581[3]

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a British science fiction disaster film starring Edward Judd, Leo McKern and Janet Munro.[4] It was directed by Val Guest and released in 1961, and is one of the classic apocalyptic films of its era.[5][6][7] The film opened at the Odeon Marble Arch in London on 23 November 1961.

The film, which was partly made on location in London and Brighton, used matte painting to create images of abandoned cities and desolate landscapes. The production also featured the real Daily Express, even using the paper's own headquarters, the Daily Express Building in Fleet Street and featuring Arthur Christiansen as the Express editor, a job he had held in real life.


A lone man walks through the deserted streets of a sweltering London. The film then goes back several months. Peter Stenning (Judd) had been an up-and-coming journalist with the Daily Express, but since a divorce threw his life into disarray, he has been drinking too much (one of his lines is "Alcoholics of the press, unite!") and his work has suffered.[8][9] His editor (Christiansen) has begun giving him lousy assignments. Stenning's only friend, Bill Maguire (McKern), is a veteran Fleet Street reporter who offers him encouragement and occasionally covers for him by writing his copy.

Meanwhile, after the Soviet Union and the United States simultaneously detonate nuclear bomb tests, strange meteorological events begin to affect the globe. Stenning is sent to the British Met Office to obtain temperature data, and while there he meets Jeanie (Munro), a young typist who is temporarily acting as telephonist. They "meet cute", trading insults; later, they fall in love.

Stenning then discovers that the weapons tests have had a massive effect on Earth. He asks Jeannie to help him get any relevant information. It becomes apparent that Earth's nutation[10] has been altered by 11 degrees, affecting the climatic zones and changing the pole and the equator. The increasing heat has caused water to evaporate and mists to cover Britain, and a solar eclipse occurs days ahead of schedule. Later, characters realise that the orbit of the Earth has been disrupted and the planet is spiralling in towards the Sun.

The government imposes a state of emergency and starts rationing water and supplies. People start evacuating the cities. Scientists conclude that the only way to bring Earth back into a safe orbit is to detonate a series of nuclear bombs in western Siberia. Stenning, Maguire, and Jeanie gather at a bar to listen to the radio broadcast of the event. The bombs are detonated, and the shock wave causes dust to fall from the bar's ceiling.

At the newspaper print room, two versions of the front page have been prepared: one reads "World Saved", the other "World Doomed". The film ends without revealing which one will be published, and in the words that talking Stenning where "humanity will recover after all this horror."


Arthur Christiansen, a former editor of the Daily Express, played the editor of the newspaper. Three years before Zulu, a then-unknown Michael Caine played an uncredited police officer diverting traffic.[9]



Val Guest said the film was based on a 20-page treatment.

Tthe only politics in it were to say the only war that mankind couldn't fight was God, was the elements and the only way to defeat that was if mankind got together to fight a common enemy, the elements. That was what we'd done to the elements, the [atomic] bombs. So, it was probably the first anti bomb thing. It was not anti- us bomb, it was anti- the world, it was saying mankind can do this so why doesn't mankind get together and see some sense?[11]

Gues had tried to make the film for eight years but been unable to get finance for it. "Nobody would ever let me make it," said Guest. "Everybody said no you do these other things so well... British Lion had turned it down, Minter, Rank, Columbia." The director says he was told "Nobody wants to know about the bombs. Who's going to go and see a picture about the bombs. Anyway, every time some producer said to me is there something you want to do next, I'd say "Yes, read this", and it would come back each time "Don't joke, nobody's going to want to see it"."[11]

Guest finally got the opportunity after the success of Expresso Bongo. "I went to Steven Pallos, he said alright I'll do it," said Guest. "British Lion didn't want to know at that time so they weren't going to put any money into it, so Mickey Balcon, Steven Pallos, and another guy, Max Setton started a production company called Pax." This got the money together from British sources with Guest using his profits from Expresso Bongo as collateral to persuade British Lion to invest.[1] It was a Val Guest Production for Pax – the only film ever made for the company.[11]


In the film's orange-infused opening sequence, Edward Judd walks through a devastated and deserted London.
In the film's orange-infused opening sequence, Edward Judd walks through a devastated and deserted London.

Filming took place at Shepperton Studios with location filming on Fleet Street.[11]

The film was made in black and white but in some original prints, the opening and closing sequences are tinted orange-yellow to suggest the heat of the sun. It was shot with 35 mm anamorphic lenses using the French Dyaliscope process.

Title card from The Day the Earth Caught Fire, showing a dried-up riverbed of the River Thames
Title card from The Day the Earth Caught Fire, showing a dried-up riverbed of the River Thames

Critic Doug Cummings said, about the look of the film,

Guest also manages some visual flair. The film was shot in anamorphic widescreen, and the extended frame is always perfectly balanced with groups of people, city vistas, or detailed settings, whether bustling newsrooms, congested streets, or humid apartments. Although the film's special effects aren't particularly noteworthy, matte paintings and the incorporation of real London locations work to good atmospheric advantage (heavy rains buffet the windows; thick, unexpected fog wafts through the city; a raging hurricane crashes into the British coast). Guest also cleverly incorporates stock footage to depict floods and meteorological disasters worldwide. The visual style of the film is straightforward and classical, but each scene is rendered with a great degree of realism and sense of place.[12]

Reviewer Paul A. Green wrote, "Guest and his editor Bill Lenny worked with archive footage. There's a quick shot of a fire-engine from The Quatermass Experiment – but otherwise you can't see the joins."[9]

Guest cast real life editor Arthur Christiansen in a support part and says "We had terrible trouble with him, not trouble, the poor guy could not remember a line... We finally did it almost line by line... Wen he realised what he'd bitten off [more than he could chew], then it was too late. And I couldn't really recast by that time." Guest adds that Christiansen is helped secure co operation from press baron Lord Beaverbrook to film on Fleet Street, and provided technical advice.[11]

Guest says Judd had "his first big break, so he was edgy, he wasn't the easiest of persons, but I can see why. It was a big thing to carry, and again the guy had a sense of humour."[11]

In his commentary track for the 2001 Anchor Bay DVD release, director Val Guest stated that the sound of church bells heard at the very end of the American version had been added by distributor Universal, in order to suggest that the emergency detonation had succeeded and that the Earth had been saved. Guest speculated that the bells motif had been inspired by the film The War of the Worlds (1953), which ends with the joyous ringing of church bells after the emergency (and a nuclear explosion). But Guest maintained that his intention was to always have an ambiguous ending.[11]

The film makes one medical error. When a copy boy collapses in the news room, as a result of drinking black market contaminated water, the doctor announces he has 'typhus' and everyone has to be inoculated. Typhus is not water-borne (it is insect-borne) and neither was there an inoculation for it at the time when the film was made. The script writer probably confused typhus with typhoid fever. Typhoid is water-borne and various injection treatments did exist then.


The film was rated "X" (minimum age 16 admitted) by the British Board of Film Censors on its initial release. A 2001 DVD release from Network Releasing was given a BBFC DVD/Blu-ray certificate of "15" (years and over). On the 2014 BFI release, the rating was reduced to "12".


The film was shot in London and South East England. Principal photography included Fleet Street (the Daily Express building), Battersea Park, the HM Treasury Building in Westminster and on Brighton Palace Pier.


Essayist Paul A. Green discusses many of the themes in the film in his review:[9]


Box office

The film made a profit of £22,500.[2] According to Kinematograph Weekly the film was considered a "money maker" at the British box office in 1962.[13]

Critical response

The film holds an 86% "Certified Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.[14] Critic Doug Cummings called it "an unusually literate and thematically nuanced genre film," adding,

The disaster genre is not generally known for its insights into characters or its clever dialogue, but The Day the Earth Caught Fire is an admirable exception. Its attention to the inner and outer lives of its protagonists makes its physical doom an externalized metaphor for Stenning's personal life, off-kilter and spinning out of control, both fates equally weighted between hope and despair.[12]

Reviewer Dennis Schwartz wrote,

An intelligent low-budget sci-fi doomsday pic that gives us an authentic Fleet Street look at an old-fashioned newspaper office back in the day and a suspenseful scenario of the world tinkering on destruction as seen through the eyes of the newspaper. Val Guest ... efficiently directs by making good use of the atmospheric effects such as the extreme heat and mist on Londoners, which gives this fascinating story an eerie feel. Guest and Wolf Mankowitz write a taut screenplay, with an observant look at the London scene.[15]

Paul Green, cited above, wrote in a 2005 commentary,

London is on the cusp of the sixties, where protest and youth cultures are breaking through, but social and sexual mores are still semi-formalised and girls work in typing pools ... In a contemporary context of global warming, asymmetric warfare, nuclear proliferation and dwindling resources, the film's underlying optimism seems touching.[9]

In August 2014 a restored version was screened at the British Museum's summer open air cinema.[16]


Val Guest and Wolf Mankowitz received the 1962 BAFTA for Best Film Screenplay for The Day the Earth Caught Fire.[17]

See also


  1. ^ a b Tom Weaver, "Val Guest", Double Feature Creature Attack: A Monster Merger of Two More Volumes of Classic Interviews McFarland, 2003 p. 114
  2. ^ a b Petrie, Duncan James (2017). "Bryanston Films : An Experiment in Cooperative Independent Production and Distribution" (PDF). Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television: 12. ISSN 1465-3451.
  3. ^ Chapman, J. (2022). The Money Behind the Screen: A History of British Film Finance, 1945-1985. Edinburgh University Press p 360
  4. ^ Dubeck, Leroy W.; Moshier, Suzanne E.; Boss, Judith E. (2004). Fantastic voyages: learning science through science fiction films (2nd ed.). Springer. p. 254. ISBN 0-387-00440-8.
  5. ^ Variety film review; 22 November 1961
  6. ^ Harrison's Reports review; 13 January 1962, page 2.
  7. ^ Dirks,
  8. ^ "Quotes". IMDb. Retrieved 4 July 2013.
  9. ^ a b c d e Green, Paul A. (2005). "The Day the Earth Caught Fire". Retrieved 4 July 2013.
  10. ^ "The Day the Earth Caught Fire Trailer". Archived from the original on 22 December 2021 – via YouTube.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Fowler, Roy (1988). "Interview with Val Guest". British Entertainment History Project.
  12. ^ a b Cummings, Doug (11 June 2004). "The Day the Earth Caught Fire". Archived from the original on 4 July 2013. Retrieved 4 July 2013.
  13. ^ Billings, Josh (13 December 1962). "Three British Films Head the General Releases". Kinematograph Weekly. p. 7. Retrieved 7 March 2023.
  14. ^ "The Day the Earth Caught Fire". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 4 July 2013.
  15. ^ Schwartz, Dennis (7 June 2011). "An intelligent low-budget sci-fi doomsday pic". Ozus' World. Retrieved 4 July 2013.
  16. ^ Andrew Simms (1 September 2014). "A doomed Earth of science fiction may well become a reality" (blog). The Guardian. Retrieved 5 September 2014.
  17. ^ "BAFTA Awards Search – BAFTA Awards".