The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Temperatures rise in this 60s British sci-fi classic

Nick Barlow

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It’s been a little hot the last couple of days, so as a bit of preparation for the coming heatwave I watched The Day The Earth Caught Fire on Sunday evening.

Poster for the film The Day The Earth Caught Fire
(Source: Wikipedia)

The side-effects of post-WW2 nuclear testing inspired a lot of media in the 50s and 60s. Godzilla was awoken by testing in the Pacific, while testing in the deserts of the US created everything from giant ants to the X-Men. Meanwhile in Britain, they inspired a story about the redemption of an alcoholic Daily Express journalist. Oh, and the Earth being sent off course and heading into the Sun.

The outline of the film’s disaster plot is quite simple to explain: the US and the USSR have simultaneously performed the two largest nuclear tests and the resultant shockwave from them affects the axis of rotation of the Earth. Extreme weather events occur across the planet as new climactic patterns form, but then a further discovery is made. The planet has been knocked out of its orbit and is now getting hotter and hotter as it inexorably heads into the Sun. Only a last-ditch mission to detonate a series of the largest nuclear weapons ever made in Siberia offer a hope of halting the Earth’s progress and saving the world.

After decades of epic disaster movies and potential ends of the Earth you can probably guess the sort of film most studios would have made from that premise. Take one square-jawed maverick nuclear scientist — likely ostracised for having warned against testing — who turns out to be the only person who can put together the world-saving mission, and does so, after overcoming a series of heat-related problems while racing against time to detonate the bombs and get away from the explosion. Add in a glamorous love interest and a companion who’ll sacrifice themselves to allow the hero to get away and it practically writes itself.

(If you want to see that film, then Film4 occasionally show Crack In The World, and many other options are available)

Which is fine if you’ve got the budget for that, but in early 60s British cinema there wasn’t the budget and, possibly, the inclination to make a film like that. Sure, The Day The Earth Caught Fire has various scenes of natural disaster and strange…

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Nick Barlow

Former academic and politician, now walking, cycling and working out what comes next. https://linktr.ee/nickbarlow