Classic Sci-Fi: THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE

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Matt Donabie grabs a bucket...


If you liked the 1951 sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still, then this often overlooked British movie from a decade later will appeal to you. As well as both being great science fiction movies, they also both feature very real warnings about our own potential to destroy ourselves and our planet. They both have the power to frighten as well as entertain, and to make us think as well.

The Day The Earth Caught Fire begins with a reporter, Peter Stenning, walking through downtown London, which is turning into a desert wasteland under a blazing sun; a situation which we will later learn had been brought about by nuclear testing impossibly gone awry. Detonating their atomic bombs the USA and Russia have knocked the Earth out of its orbit and sent it heading towards the Sun.

While the idea that nuclear testing could alter the Earth's orbit may sound a somewhat silly premise for a movie in 2015, to the 1961 audience who were living under the threat of Cold War and total destruction it likely did not seem that improbable at all.


Stenning (who is played with amazing panache by Edward Judd in his first cinematic starring role), is a once great journalist who has lost his wife to another man. He has taken to drink and is just about kept from falling over by science correspondent Bill Maguire (Leo McKern). As he recounts the story of this global disaster for what may be the final edition of his newspaper, we hear of torrential rains, followed by summer-like heat, a freak heat mist and a powerful cyclone; all along the temperature rising steadily to 145 degrees, creating a severe drought worldwide.

It's a very interesting to have the story unfold via the standpoint of the media. Traditionally, many movies of this kind are presented from the view of political, scientific or military experts - who, in truth would actually tell us nothing if they could. We're reminded of that fact here when Government employee, and romantic interest, Jeannie Craig (played by Janet Munro) innocently stumbles upon the terrifying truth which the Government is trying to suppress - even though the Thames has dried up!


The challenging budget is often one of the things I enjoy most about science fiction films from this period of movie making. In the pre-CGI days there was rarely ever enough money put into these features to properly achieve the effects needed, so seeing how the production team achieve their results is always entertaining in itself. The Day The Earth Caught Fire clearly has a miniscule budget, but it is all used wisely. Climate effects are kept simple, which makes them all the more stark and harrowing, and stock newsreel footage is seamlessly grafted in to further sell the plot to the audience. Add in some costume changes, electric fans and heavy perspiring by the cast, and surprisingly it really does have the feel of believability to it.

I'm well aware that most people won't have seen this movie, it's not that well known but really does fit the title of 'Classic Sci-Fi'. I'd urge anyone to track down a copy of The Day The Earth Caught Fire and check it out. You'll find a very sharp & witty script, excellent acting, taut direction, good characterisations, and a docudrama-like realism which all keep the tension at a high level throughout.


You'll also find a young Michael Caine in an early uncredited role as a London policeman directing traffic. His unmistakeable voice is almost worth the price of the DVD itself!
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