The World Ends in Fire and Flood in Val Guest’s Cracking Disaster Flick.

Directed by Val Guest / 1961
Blu-Ray Release Date July 7, 2020
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

The Day the Earth Caught Fire posits an utter fantastic scenario. The polar ice caps melt, weather patterns change, severe weather effects occur much more frequently, drought conditions affect our water and food supply, and global temperatures keep rising and rising. Boy, it’s great that something like that could never happen for real, right?

The environmental damage wrought on the Earth in The Day the Earth Caught Fire is also caused by humanity’s actions. In this case, America and Russia both detonate large nuclear bombs at the same time. The resulting shock shifts the Earth out of its orbit, and the planet is now plunging down towards the sun! Within a few months, the Earth will be consumed by fire. Though the authorities attempt to keep this news a secret, jaded (and drunk) reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) catches wind of the coverup and works to break the story alongside his new girlfriend, Jeannie (Janet Munro,  and his colleague at the paper, Bill Maguire (Leo McKern).

Meanwhile, all three are trying to survive in a rapidly-changing world. As the temperatures keep rising, severe weather effects increase. Choking fog, floods and cyclones ravage London. Eventually the water begins to dry up. Shortages lead to rationing. People riot and act like it’s the end of the world. If somebody can’t come up with a plan to halt the Earth’s descent, it will be and soon.

Guest’s approach to this material is one of verisimilitude. He focuses his story not on the men making the decisions, but on those whose job it is to report on the consequences. Guest had a background as a journalist, and that shows here, with an almost documentary approach to the nuts and bolts details of getting a newspaper out- even as the end of the world approaches. This “you are there” manner is further solidified by casting Arthur Christiansen as the paper’s editor- a bit of typecasting since Christiansen was not an actor, but a newspaper editor himself. 

Likewise the movie makes good use of its stock footage. A movie about the end times should have compelling images of disaster and devastation, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire is no exception. While its special effects (achieved primarily through matte paintings) aren’t on the level of even its contemporaries, the editing artfully blends in old footage of floods, rioting, snowstorms, and the aftermath of war to show us the effects this catastrophe has around the world.

The efforts at verisimilitude stop at the characterizations of the journalists themselves. The dialogue throughout is sharp and witty, owing more to the likes of The Front Page or His Girl Friday than the way any real reporter would talk. This adds zip and zing to every scene, even when it’s nominally composed mostly of men sitting in a room and talking about the weather, and not doing anything about it. The whole film crackles with this energy.

When it comes to delivering the exposition, McKern, playing the science reporter Maguire, has to do most of the heavy lifting here. There isn’t anyone more suited to playing such a role. McKern’s large presence and growly voice give him the immediate air of authority. Everyone in the movie recognizes this too, as he is the one everyone turns to for context whenever a new fact is revealed. “What am I, Nostrodamus?” he grouses.

I made a joke about it in the first paragraph, but you don’t have to be a prophet to see that the Earth is experiencing a similar sequence of events today, albeit in slow-motion compared to the film.  At the time the film was made, the science behind global warming and its effect on the climate was still far from well-understood, but it was clear even then that there would be an effect if greener, more renewable sources of energy weren’t developed. The sixty years since have seen much greater awareness of the issue, but though progress has been made we’re approaching a point of no return without even a consensus that a problem exists, much less what to do about it. Here’s hoping that we wise up, before our Earth really does catch fire.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray release of The Day the Earth Caught Fire is top-notch. It’s a 4K remaster from the original negative, and it looks fantastic. It comes with two feature-length audio commentaries. One features writer/director Val Guest, recorded in 2001 for an Anchor Bay release (Guest died in 2006). The other is by film historian Richard Harland Smith. There’s the theatrical trailer, and it also comes with additional TV and radio ads for the movie.