The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) (blu-ray film review).

November 21, 2014 | By | Reply More

‘The Day The Earth Caught Fire’ was originally released in 1961 at the height of the cold war, when we all expected to be obliterated at any moment by an exchange of hydrogen bonds. Directed by Val Guest, it relates the cataclysmic consequences of nuclear testing by the Russians and Americans in the shifting of Earth’s orbit closer to the sun. The movie just gets hotter and hotter, likewise the people of London!


It’s an atomic release from the BFI because not only do you get the movie, re-mastered for the first time in Blu-ray, you also get lots of extra material about the nuclear age, a time just after the Second World War which was full of international tension. Some of this material has not been seen on TV, at least for a generation, and it gives you a chilling insight into the world that was only a few minutes from destruction.

Action is centred on The Daily Express newspaper. Stalwart of early sixties Science Fiction, Edward Judd plays newspaper reporter Pete Stenning, a little burnt-out on failed relationships and alcohol but still able to follow a good story. His girlfriend, Jeannie Craig, played by the attractive Janet Munro (who died in tragic circumstances at the age of 38), works at the government metrological office and is able to pass on information about the serious climatic changes taking place.

We also have one of the many notable actors of the day, Leo McKern, probably familiar to many as ‘Rumpole Of The Bailey’, playing the part of news editor Bill Maguire but, by far, the most commanding performance was given by someone who wasn’t really an actor. Arthur Christiansen played the part of ‘The Daily Express’ editor ‘Jeff’ Jefferson and, if anything, the movie is worth watching for this alone. In fact, Christiansen, a former editor of the same newspaper, was responsible for doubling its circulation to 4,000,000. These were the glory days of newspapers! Having retired shortly before the movie was made, this was his one and only role. Sadly, he died not long after from a heart attack but if ever you need to know what a real newspaper editor looked like, then he is your man.

The story unfolds as temperatures increase. Over the summer, pleasant weather of sandy beaches and amusement parks turn into the trauma of suffocating fogs, hurricanes, drought and public panic. The tempo increases steadily! Throughout the movie the acting, if slightly stereotypical on occasions, is dramatic and riveting. The frenetic action is focused on the newspaper where you will be treated to an accurate representation of what used to happen in their offices. Made years before the thought of climate change came about, here we have a preview of what could happen if mankind made a mess of the environment.

Stenning finds out that the government has been keeping back information about the impending doom of the entire planet. When this information is eventually released to the public it’s a riotous party which engulfs most of the population when they realise all hope seems to be lost. However, a last ditch attempt takes place when the Russians and Americans detonate more nuclear bombs in an attempt to shift our planet back into its proper orbit.

As mentioned, the movie occurs during the cold war and ban the bomb demonstrations were common. Nonetheless, the fact remains that in the midst of many hydrogen bomb tests by America, the Soviet Union, France and Britain, we didn’t really know the effects on the planet and the environment. During the 1950s, when the first hydrogen bombs were exploded (basically an atomic bomb within a large tank of dry cleaning fluid) nobody knew what the true results would be. The scientists were largely young whiz kids in their twenties, the equivalent of boy racers today but, despite being brilliant academically, they had no real idea of what life was about. Nobody knew whether or not a chain reaction would take place which would engulf the entire planet.

Of course, the fact that we are here means it didn’t happen. Despite this, the message delivered by movie is still relevant and instead of hydrogen bombs we’ve got mismanagement of the climate. ‘The Day The Earth Caught Fire’ could still happen. Most of the people watching the movie when it was released in 1961 will have remembered the Second World War during which Big Ben, the clock beside Parliament in London, remained silent. When the war finished, its chimes rang out once again. Many today would not understand the significance of this event but it will play a part at the end of the movie.

As you would expect from a BFI Blu-ray, there are megatons of extras. Here they are:

Three separate features from the nuclear age, undoubtedly the best additions to the Blu-ray:-

‘Operation Hurricane’ (1952), 33 minutes. An account of the construction and detonation of Britain’s first atomic bomb. After the Second World War, Britain had to go it alone in the creation of its own nuclear weapon. This tells the story and shows the detonation off the coast of Australia. Materials and even foodstuffs were tested, showing that the likelihood of nuclear war was not unexpected.

‘The H-bomb’ (1956), 22 minutes. This is a chilling account of what would happen if a 10 megaton bomb was dropped over London. It’s a cold and calculated account of the expected damage. Basically, anything within 20 miles was going to get damaged and anything closer than 13 miles, well, just forget it. The strange aspect to the movie was that we would carry on regardless, but with what? After an attack by 10 megaton bombs, it would be the end of everything!

‘The Hole In The Ground (1962), 30 minutes. All about preparing the population for nuclear war. The Royal Observer Corps, now-defunct, is the subject of this interesting documentary. A simulated attack takes place and fallout is plotted over the landscape. One imagines that the real thing would be 100 times worse than what is depicted here.

These three little films bring the reality of nuclear war to the viewer. There would be no escape for anybody. Doomsday, basically, and you are left wondering how we managed to escape? Also, is the reality of nuclear war still with us?

A 34 minute recently created documentary called ‘Hot Off The Press’, plus a commentary by Val Guest and Ted Newson, an interview with Leo McKern, a 63 minute Guardian lecture from 1998 with director Val Guest, the original trailer, lots of still pictures, audio material and a magnificent booklet with illustrations and essays.

The most interesting aspects of the extra material probably centred on the nuclear bomb features. Maybe we think these days are gone but the bombs are still here and we are nonetheless potentially on the edge of destruction. If the bombs drop, we will be no better prepared than we were 50 years ago.

It’s a movie that has defied time and, remaining relevant 53 years later, in the Blu-ray version with all that extra material on offer it can definitely be recommended

Rod MacDonald

November 2014

(region 2 DVD: British Film Institute. 1 DVD 96 minute black and white film with extras. ISBN: BFIB1198. Price: £19.99 (UK))

Subtitles: English

cast: Edward Judd, Janet Munro, Leo McKern, Michael Goodliffe and Bernard Braden

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Category: Films, Scifi

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