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Day the Earth Caught Fire, The (1961)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Day the Earth Caught Fire, The (1961)
35mm, black and white, Dyaliscope, 99 mins
Directed byVal Guest
Production CompanyMelina Productions
Produced byVal Guest
ScreenplayWolf Mankowitz
 Val Guest
PhotographyHarry Waxman

Cast: Janet Munro (Jeannie Craig); Leo McKern (Bill Maguire); Edward Judd (Peter Stenning); Michael Goodlife ('Jacko' Jackson); Bernard Braden (Davis); Reginald Beckwith (Harry)

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Nuclear tests bring the world to the brink of extinction, as observed by horrified Fleet Street journalists.

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Although The Day the Earth Caught Fire was released in 1961, the story was first conceived by director Val Guest in 1954, two years after Britain detonated its first nuclear device. He wrote an initial screenplay, which, in spite of Guest's established reputation thanks to films such as The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and The Abominable Snowman (1957), was rejected by several studios before finally being accepted by British Lion.

It is within the context of cold war paranoia that The Day the Earth Caught Fire must be appreciated. Winner of a British Academy Award for best screenplay in 1961, the film is a serious treatise not only on the political folly of nuclear stockpiling, but on the potential impact of such activities on the climate and on social structures. Despite an unlikely premise (nuclear explosions throw the planet off its orbit and send it hurtling towards the sun), the message is effectively conveyed with a mix of sharp and witty dialogue delivered in rapid-fire fashion, a solid narrative and passable special effects.

Guest, previously a freelance journalist and British editor of The Hollywood Reporter, compellingly recreates the hectic atmosphere of a newspaper office as the reporters frantically hunt for printable information. Several scenes were shot in the Daily Express's Fleet Street offices, and the paper's veteran editor Arthur Christiansen, initially a technical adviser, was persuaded to appear on camera, essentially as himself. The camera glides along the desks and corridors, picking up voices, movements and grasping for potentially interesting bits of information, at times leading the audience, like the journalists, to chase false leads.

All three main actors give solid performances, and these provide the bedrock for what is, essentially, a character-driven piece. The effects, led by Les Bowie, are effective in their sparseness and simplicity, conveying just enough to remain convincing. They are smoothly intercut with real footage of floods, fires and hurricanes, giving sections of the film a documentary feel.

The film's alarming message about climate change is, if anything, more relevant today than it was at the time and, along with the overall strong quality of the script, direction and acting, ensures that the film can continue to be appreciated by modern audiences.

Eric Mahleb

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Video Clips
1. Unseasonal weather (2:50)
2. Heat mist (3:55)
3. Charcoaled mankind (2:08)
4. A doomed planet? (2:57)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
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Guest, Val (1911-2006)
McKern, Leo (1920-2002)
Waxman, Harry (1912-1984)
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