The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) from CK Roach and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

CK Roach's comments in white:

Cerebral science fiction plain and simple.

The day the Earth Caught Fire is an example of a great movie that doesn't rely on action, bug eyed aliens or computer generated spaceships. This film's great feature is its ability to focus your mind on something possible.

The premise of the movie is that atmospheric tests of powerful nuclear weapons have changed both the tilt and the orbit of the earth. Planet earth is now orbiting closer to the sun. This is causing "wrath of God" scale climatic changes.

This movie follows from the point of view of a British newspaper that stumbles on the explanation for the bizarre changes in the weather - like massive fog from the Thames, cyclones, and torrid unseasonable heat.

The newspaper is a central theme throughout. The paper is where the main characters work. The paper gets wind of and publishes the horrific facts that the government wants concealed from the public. The paper reports the play-by-play as the world's scientists work to save the world in a last ditch plan. The paper gives us two possible endings (which I won't reveal) to the story.


Janet Munro shows a little skin while washing her hair. This was a racy for the era in which it was filmed. The movie starts with a slide from the Board of Censors saying it's approved for children under 16 with their parents along. There are better pictures of her (more skin) on the DVD's extra features.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Commentary by director Val Guest and journalist Ted Newsom

  • TV and radio spots

  • still gallery

  • full-screen and widescreen anamorphic formats

The movie lacks modern special effects. The ones it does have are somewhat plain even for the time when was filmed. It does manage to leave a person watching it feeling hot. The characters, being in the pre-air conditioning era, are always soaked in sweat. Massive fog was created during the filming, using conventional fog generators. The director's commentary tells us that somehow the London police didn't have their act together when they issued the permit to film. This is because the movie fog rolled into a public event with Queen Elizabeth. The film crew held off the police long enough to finish the scene.

For someone interested in the history of modern science fiction, this movie is a great addition to the collection. It is available in DVD for a very reasonable price.

Scoop's thoughts in yellow:

At one time, the characters in "Cheers" discussed the "sweatiest movie ever". They hit on some of the best ones like "Cool Hand Luke", but nobody mentioned The Day the Earth Caught Fire. This could have been the winner.

This is a remarkably good film in many ways. Although it takes on the completely serious topic of Armageddon, the dialogue reminds me of the quick-quipping patter from the best American films of the 30's and 40's. The characters exchange snappy badinage with the glib ease of Bogart-Bacall, Tracy-Hepburn, and Gable-Lombard. Director and co-author Val Guest was a writer back in those days, when he wrote some classic British comedies. He never lost the knack for sharp repartee and a well-turned phrase.

In this movie, the lovers weren't the best with the rapid-fire patter. They did OK, but the fastest gun in the cast was Leo McKern, who played the newspaper's science editor. Unless you are from the UK or a Beatles fanatic, you may not have heard of McKern, although he was a distinguished classical actor and one of the great character actors in filmdom for some fifty years. (He died only about a year ago.)  I'm guessing that Brits think of him as Rumpole of the Bailey, but I will always remember him as my favorite Number Two on The Prisoner. Despite his talent and a commanding voice, he never became a household name because he rarely strayed outside English productions, and he was not the type of actor who gets leads. He was an exceptionally rumpled man with a glass eye. He probably could be considered the lead in this film, in the sense that he seemed to have the most lines and the best ones. He really made the most of his one chance to outshine the pretty boys. One of my favorite lines in this film involves McKern asking his research runner to bring him all their files on melting points. Although they are in a hurry, the dim-witted lad wants to know why before running for the files, so the exasperated McKern jokes that he wants to know the temperature at which his glass eye will start to melt.

As CK Roach noted, the film is lacking in special effects. The changes in the world's climate are portrayed either by painted scenes or by stock footage of fires and storms. The stock footage of people putting out fires went on too long, but I didn't find the painted shots to be distracting at all. Since the film had kind of an unreal quality to it, with the constant fog and ubiquitous sweating, the ethereal look of the painted shots of London didn't seem out of place. They seemed to add an artistic exclamation point to the film's statement about the end of mankind, creating a sense of "all this, which we have built over centuries, with its unique beauty and the efforts of millions of men, all deserted now, maybe lost forever". There is one shot which is truly memorable - a solitary, sweaty reporter walking down a completely deserted London street toward St. Paul's.

As CK points out, the best thing about the film is that it stays true to its premise - to try to imagine how daily life would change, and which elements of life would go on as usual, if the orbit of the earth started to decay slowly but steadily toward the sun. It shows real people reacting to the crisis in different but always believable ways.

The career of the director, Val Guest, can be summed up in one word: "eclectic". I think this list should give you the idea: Expresso Bongo, The Au Pair Girls, Casino Royale, Carry on Admiral.

Cool movie. I had never seen it before today, and I'm glad I got the chance.

The Critics Vote

  • BBC 4/5.

The People Vote ...


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. An amazingly good effort for what was essentially a mainstream 1961 genre offering - witty dialogue, thoughtful look at Armageddon, interesting visuals, even some nudity (rare for the era).

Return to the Movie House home page