The Day the Earth Caught Fire
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
Distributed byBritish Lion Films (UK)
Universal International Pictures (USA)
Release date
  • 23 November 1963 (1963-11-23) (Denmark)
Running time
98 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a British science fiction disaster film starring Edward Judd, Leo McKern and Janet Munro.[1] It was directed by Val Guest and released in 1961, and is one of the classic apocalyptic films of its era.[2][3][4]

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, London.


Title card from The Day the Earth Caught Fire, showing a London devastated by overheating.

A lone man walks through the sweltering streets of a deserted London. The film then goes back several months. Peter Stenning (Judd) was an up-and-coming journalist with the Daily Express but a messy divorce has thrown his life into disarray. His Editor (Christiansen) has begun giving him lousy assignments. He begins drinking too much. (One of his lines is, "Alcoholics of the press, unite!"[5][6]) 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 US detonate simultaneous nuclear bomb tests, strange meteorological events begin to affect the globe. Stenning is sent to the British Met Office to get data mean temperatures. While there he meets Jeanie (Munro), a young telephonist. They "meet cute", trading insults; later, they fall in love.

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

Stenning then discovers that the weapons tests had a massive effect on the Earth. He asks Jeannie to help him get any relevant information. It becomes clear that the Earth has been knocked out of orbit and is moving closer to the sun. The increasing heat has caused water to evaporate and mists to cover Britain.

The government imposes martial law, evacuates the cities and starts rationing supplies. Scientists conclude that the only way to bring the Earth back into a safer orbit is to detonate a series of nuclear bombs in western Siberia. Stenning, Maguire and Jeanie gather at a bar to await the outcome. As the countdown reaches zero the bombs are detonated; 30 seconds later the shock wave travels round the world, causing dust to fall from the bar's ceiling. Two versions of the newspaper's front page have been prepared: one reads "World Saved", the other "World Doomed". Stenning, because he broke the story, dictates the day’s editorial, still without any indication of whether the nuclear blasts have been successful or not. In the meantime, a few remaining printers wait by the presses for the word of which headline will be used.

The film concludes ambiguously with the sound of pealing church bells. The audience is left to decide whether this heralds a new beginning for mankind or its doom.



Arthur Christiansen, a former editor of the Daily Express, played himself as the editor of the newspaper. Three years before Zulu, a then-unknown Michael Caine played an uncredited police officer diverting traffic.[6]


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.

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."[7]

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."[6]

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 1953 film The War of the Worlds, 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.

Monte Norman, who was credited with writing "Beatnik Music" in a couple of scenes, would become well known one year later when his "James Bond theme" was used in the title sequence of Dr. No.


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


Essayist Paul A. Green discusses many of the themes in the film in his review[6]:


Critical response

The film holds an 86% "Certified Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.[8] 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."[7]

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."[9]

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."[6]

See also


  1. ^ 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.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ Variety film review; 22 November 1961
  3. ^ Harrison's Reports review; 13 January 1962, page 2.
  4. ^ Dirks,
  5. ^ "Quotes". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 4 July 2013.
  6. ^ a b c d e Green, Paul A. (2005). "The Day the Earth Caught Fire". Retrieved 4 July 2013.
  7. ^ a b Cummings, Doug (11 June 2004). "The Day the Earth Caught Fire". Retrieved 4 July 2013.
  8. ^ "The Day the Earth Caught Fire". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 4 July 2013.
  9. ^ Schwartz, Dennis (7 June 2011). ""An intelligent low-budget sci-fi doomsday pic."". Ozus' World. Retrieved 4 July 2013.