The Day the Earth Caught Fire: 1961 film predicts 'boiling planet' (2023)

Gregory WakemanAugust 14, 2023

Gregory Wakeman writes that the acclaimed 1961 British science fiction film The Day the Earth Was On Fire contains stark warnings that resonate with today's hot planet.


Record heatwaves have hit the US, Europe and China in recent weeks, including in early JulyThe world's hottest week on record. The global temperature continues to rise despite repeated commitments by countries to mitigate the effects of climate change. It's hard to know how to answer that.

(Video) The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) Trailer | BFI DVD / Blu-ray

That's exactly how the characters felt in The Day the Earth Burned. The 1961 British science fiction film shares several unusual parallels in the global response to the current climate emergency, ending on both a deeply depressing note and a call to action.

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While the title may seem like a perfect reflection of Earth's current state, Val Geist, director of The Day Earth Caught on Fire, who co-wrote Wolf Mankowitz, actually created the story as a warning about the increasingly serious threat of nuclear war.

In the film, the US and Russian governments simultaneously detonate nuclear bombs, causing the Earth's axis to shift dramatically by 11 degrees. The result is that the planets are getting closer and closer to the sun. The world initially reacted aggressively to rising temperatures. But soon things began to wreak havoc.

Temperatures reached 63 degrees Celsius (145.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in Mexico and 60 degrees Celsius (139 degrees Fahrenheit) in Rome. Southern France, Sicily and Libya suffered ten days of torrential rain in mid-summer. With the Nile flooding the Egyptian desert and typhoons, hurricanes and typhoons ravaging other countries, the eclipse occurred ten days earlier than planned.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire: 1961 film predicts 'boiling planet' (1)

The Day the Earth was on Fire focuses on two journalists who uncover why humanity is in crisis (Credit: Alamy)

Daily Alcoholics reporter Peter Steining (Edward Judd) and veteran reporter Bill Maguire (Leo McKellen) trace the double bomb tests to the events. Along with Met Office typist Jenny (Janet Munro), they uncover the seriousness of the situation.

Soon, as water sources dry up and supplies dwindle, governments are forced to declare a state of emergency trying to figure out how to stop the earth's movement toward the sun before it's too late.

clear view

While The Day the Earth Was on Fire never garnered the loyal following of other British sci-fi films of the era, such asQuatermas-Experiment, "Day of the Three-Winged Bird" and "The Cursed Village" - Gerst and Mankowitz received1962 BAFTA Award for Best Screenplay. When the real world mimics the high temperatures in the movie, it becomes more cautious.

"The film explores the same issues that Southern Europe and North America have been facing in recent weeks," commented climate scientist, activist and author Bill McGuire, who happens to be named after one of the protagonists. "This film is a perfect metaphor for how global warming is accelerating today and the world is getting hotter."

While Maguire's character was immediately terrified by the simultaneous nuclear explosions, and that unease only grew with the erratic weather, it took the rest of the crew a while to realize just how messed up the world was. Difficulties.

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I see parallels with what is happening today because people don't accept that it is happening - Leroy Dubeck

“The humanity of these characters is very interesting. I see parallels with what is happening today because people don't accept that this is happening. They can see unprecedented events, but they are unwilling to accept that we really have a problem,” explains Leroy Dubeck, author of the 1994 book Magical Journey: Through Science Fiction Films, starring Suzanne Moshier and Judith Boss. Learning the Science explores the science behind The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Spoiler alert: even if two nuclear bombs went off at the same time, the force wouldn't be enough to push the earth toward the sun.

Geist and Mankowitz almost certainly knew the science behind the film was also implausible - but they wanted to use the egregious situation to spark a debate about Russia's and America's handling of the bomb. Her narrative and depiction of a world in turmoil was so poignant that, more than 60 years later, The Day the Earth Illuminated resonates with excitement for very different reasons.

"The nuclear explosion part is irrelevant now," McGuire said. “But it was properly designed to combat global warming and it had an impact. Obviously it happened at a much faster rate, but the social and economic impact is a big warning."

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The Day the Earth Caught Fire: 1961 film predicts 'boiling planet' (2)

The film received critical acclaim and its co-writer received a BAFTA Award (Credit: Alamy).

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One of the wisest creative decisions Geist and Mankowitz made when writing The Day the Earth Caught Fire was to present the film entirely from the perspective of a journalist, rather than a politician trying to solve a problem to be solved. The result is that Peter, Bill and Jenny are completely powerless in the face of impending doom.

"I think the best fiction about climate change is how it affects people in small communities," said McGuire, who has written several books and short stories on the subject. "Personal stories are the best way to give people a sense of how bad things are going to be."

The film does not even mention the British Prime Minister, the US President or the UN Secretary General by name and makes it clear how powerless they are in the fight against nature.

The day the earth caught fire also shows that governments are trying to downplay and hide the seriousness of what happened. In a radio address to the nation, the prime minister said the only effect of the earth's shift was that "some seasons could be disrupted and vary in intensity" before making a joke about Britain's weather. Within weeks, water distribution began and the Thames completely evaporated.

But the ending of The Day the Earth Catches Fire reinforces the power of its message and story (spoiler alert). Governments around the world have decided to detonate a large number of nuclear bombs in western Siberia in an attempt to put Earth back into a safe orbit. However, even the prime minister admitted that he did not know if they would succeed.

The day the earth is detonated does not reveal whether the earth was saved or destroyed, it just indicates that the next day's paper will have two versions. One celebrated with the title "World Saved" while the other mourned "World Destroyed". With such an ending, the film illustrates the passive problem in the face of crisis. Stanning asked after the Prime Minister finally revealed that the planet and all the people on it could die soon, “I thought they were going to do something? You have to do something!”

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The Day the Earth Caught Fire: 1961 film predicts 'boiling planet'? ›

The end of The Day the Earth Caught Fire sees the bombs being set off and Stenning heading to his office to bring us back to the start. “So. Where is the horror?” I hear you ask. The horror, dear reader, is in the atmosphere of The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

What is the movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire about? ›

How does the day the earth caught fire end? ›

The end of The Day the Earth Caught Fire sees the bombs being set off and Stenning heading to his office to bring us back to the start. “So. Where is the horror?” I hear you ask. The horror, dear reader, is in the atmosphere of The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

Where was the day the earth caught fire filmed? ›

Filming took place at Shepperton Studios with location filming on Fleet Street. The film was made in black and white but in some original prints, the opening and closing sequences are tinted orange-yellow to suggest the heat of the sun. It was shot with 35 mm anamorphic lenses using the French Dyaliscope process.


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