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Day the Earth Caught Fire, The (1961)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

Reporter Peter Stenning walks through the empty, blazing hot streets of London towards the offices of the Daily Express. Once inside, he begins to dictate his next piece. The topic: will mankind be saved or doomed?

90 days earlier. The offices of the Daily Express buzz with activity. Peter Stenning is a reporter whose alcohol and divorce problems have impeded his career. Often at a loss to find an interesting and relevant story, he is regularly bailed out by his friend and colleague Bill Maguire. Bill encourages Stenning to get his life together and find a new woman.

Express journalists are investigating reports of unusual sunspot activity, as well as of strange climate conditions throughout the world. Their findings lead them to the discovery that America and Russia have simultaneously detonated nuclear bombs at the North and South poles. Stenning is sent to cover a demonstration by anti-nuclear activists in Piccadilly Circus, during which an eclipse of the sun occurs, 10 days before it is due. The Prime Minister goes on air to reassure the public that there is nothing to fear from the nuclear explosions and that scientists are adamant that these are not linked to the climate changes.

Meanwhile, temperatures rise considerably in London and across the globe. While spending time at a fair with his son, Stenning notices Jeannie Craig, a young woman from the offices of the Met Center. As they become acquainted, a thick mist starts to envelop the city, making visibility difficult and bringing chaos to the streets. After dropping his son at his ex-wife’s, Stenning heads with Jeannie to her apartment where he tries to kiss her. While clearly interested, she rebukes him, preferring to make him wait.

Stenning returns to the Express, where his colleagues are frantically trying to find out the causes of the freak weather. Bill suggests that a shift in the Earth's axes could be behind the melting of the polar icecaps. Stenning pays another visit to Jeannie, now his ‘contact’ at the Met Office. Just as they start to kiss, Stenning is summoned to the office.

Weather patterns across the globe become increasingly erratic. Cyclones are reported in France, England, Italy and Greece. Floods and heavy thunderstorms wreak havoc elsewhere. Jeannie rings Stenning and asks him to meet her right away. She tells him that she overheard at the Met Office that the nuclear explosions have tilted the axis of the earth by 11 degrees. Despite promising Jeannie to keep the information quiet, Stenning passes on the scoop to his editor. The news breaks and panic spreads. Temperatures now reach 139 degrees in Rome and other cities. Rivers are evaporating. Water becomes scarce and cities start to implement emergency measures, including the rationing of water. The Prime Minister again calls for the population to remain calm and announces that the four major international powers have agreed to stop all testing and manufacturing of nuclear weapons.

From a contact in Moscow, the Express editor learns that Earth, now out of its orbit, is hurtling towards the sun and is expected to hit in just 40 days. There is global panic and despair. The governments decide to try to detonate four nuclear bombs, in the hope that it will set the planet back in its orbit. This is Earth’s last chance. Bill, Jeannie and Peter wait for the detonation in a bar where they drink a toast to its success. Peter then runs to the now empty offices of the Daily Express to write his column. He prepares two versions: one announcing that the world is saved and the other that the planet is doomed. In the distance, the bells of St Paul’s ring out.