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Film / The Day the Earth Caught Fire

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"It is exactly thirty minutes since the corrective bombs were detonated. Within the next few hours, the world will know whether this is the end or another beginning. The rebirth of man or his final obituary. For the last time, man pursued his brother with a sword, and so the final fire was kindled. The Earth, that was to live forever, was blasted by a great wind towards oblivion. It is strange to think that barely ninety days ago..."
Peter Stenning

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a BAFTA-winning 1961 British science fiction film directed by Val Guest, starring Edward Judd, Leo McKern, and Janet Munro. Co-written by Guest with Wolf Mankowitz, it's regarded as one of the best apocalyptic films to come out of the '60s and a classic in the genre.

The story, told in flashback, is set in the aftermath of an atomic bomb disaster: it seems the United States and the Soviet Union conducted near-simultaneous bomb tests on opposite sides of the globe, knocking Earth off its axis. Peter Stenning (Judd), an alcoholic reporter for the Daily Express in London, is stressing through a messy divorce and is struggling to find a newsworthy story to be taken seriously, although that's down to the sabotaging work of his editors, who are annoyed with his deteriorating attitude. However, Peter manages to get his friend and colleague Bill Maguire (McKern) to ghostwrite for him.

News soon hits that the USA and the Soviet Union have activated atomic bombs and Earth begins to drastically change. The Earth's axis shifts, global warming begins to make water evaporate, and governments begin to evacuate cities. Peter is sent to the British Meteorological Office to find out how much the temperature has changed, and he meets typist Jeannie (Munro). The two of them fall in love and help each other look for more information, but it's soon revealed by scientists that Earth's orbit has been altered so severely that it's now moving inexorably toward the Sun...

Tropes appearing in this film:

  • Affectionate Nickname: Peter habitually addresses Bill as "Dad", with a seeming mixture of snark and fondness.
  • After the End: The entire film is set in the south of England after the USA and the Soviet Union activated their nuclear weapons. The beginning of the film is of a man walking through a scorching, deserted London to a newspaper office, possibly one the only people left in London that is trying to survive the aftermath.
  • The Alcoholic: Peter. A memorable line from him was, "Alcoholics of the world, unite!"
    Jeannie: It's in the Met Centre "Facts of Life" file. Dogs bark, cats meow and Stenning drinks.
  • Ambiguous Ending: The Earth is hurtling towards the Sun, but a series of massive nuclear detonations in Siberia may avert the catastrophe. The last scene shows the journalists waiting in the print room with two next editions ready for printing, one bearing the headline WORLD SAVED and the other WORLD DOOMED. The American version of the film ends with church bells ringing, implying the world has been saved.
  • Amusement Park: The Battersea Park Funfair appears in a couple of scenes.
  • And Starring: Edward Judd gets an "and introducing" credit for this, his first starring feature role.
  • Apocalypse Anarchy: Water rationing is imposed as the Earth hurtles toward the Sun. At one point, Peter has to fight his way through a street full of teenaged beatniks high on drugs, breaking shop windows and having a water fight. He eventually makes his way to Jeannie's apartment, where—after ejecting a few more of the young rioters—they spend a more quiet time together.
  • Apocalypse How: The main theme of the movie.
  • Artistic License Physics: Mulitple:
    • Even the entire Cold War nuclear arsenal wouldn't be able to make an appreciable difference to the Earth's orbit.
    • At one point, Bill mentions a crackpot scientist who claims to have created a device to extract water from the atmosphere. Such devices of course already exist and are very simple to engineer.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: The first time they speak, Peter offhandedly tells Jeannie to go drown herself. When Jeannie meets him in person, she slaps him in the face. She gradually warms to him over the course of the film.
  • Black Market: One is set up when water becomes scarce, but then typhoid begins to contaminate it.
  • Book Ends: The boiling hot, empty streets of London begin and end the movie.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: A variation. After America and the Soviet Union have used their atomic bombs, parts of the globe begin to suffer from after effects. Peter is sent to the Met Office for research, where he has a Meet Cute with Jeannie.
  • Color Wash: While the film is black and white, the beginning and ending scenes have an orange tint to suggest London scorching under the sun's heat.
  • Da Editor: Jeff Jefferson, played by real-life Daily Express editor Arthur Christiansen.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Multiple:
    • Peter has many dry quips throughout the film.
    • As does Bill, including this epic one:
      Peter: I'm not up on my sci-fi. So, we're orbiting towards the sun, but how many billion light-years...
      Bill: If that's true ... I'd say there's about ... four months.
      Dick: Before what?
      Bill: Before there's a delightful smell in the universe of charcoaled mankind.
    • Jeannie as well.
  • Disneyland Dad: Peter takes his son to the funfair at Battersea Park at every opportunity, even though he's poorer than the stepfather.
  • The End Is Nigh: At one point a street preacher is shown exhorting the crowd to repent.
  • End of the World as We Know It: What the characters are led to believe throughout the film, even after a last resort plan is developed by scientists and the government, it's unclear whether it will work or not.
  • Framing Device: A man's phone call, explaining what happened months before.
  • From Bad to Worse: One bad thing after another in this film.
  • Gaia's Lament: An Unbuilt Trope at the time, the film sees the Earth's climate wrecked within a matter of months.
  • Going for the Big Scoop: Naturally the entire paper ends up doing this.
  • Gone Horribly Wrong: The activation of the atomic bombs. Although already proven in history to be disastrous, the world definitely wasn't expecting what would happen next.
  • Government Conspiracy: The British government, starting with the Met Office, know what's happened but repeatedly try and keep aspects of the story under wraps. It's the Soviets that publicise the extent of the damage to the world.
  • Green Aesop: The movie is about the possible dangers of a nuclear war, despite it being more of an intentional accident.
  • Hidden Depths: Peter is implied to be a fan of science-fiction, although he was probably joking in the circumstance.
  • How We Got Here: A man walks through an empty London street to a newspaper office to have a phone call, explaining to the person on the other end what had happened.
  • I'm Standing Right Here: During Jeannie and Peter's first tense meeting, this moment occurs:
    Peter: [under his breath to Bill] This girl's a bigger threat than radiation!
    Jeannie: I heard that remark.
  • Innocent Bystander: The entire film is centred on this perspective; none of the main cast have anything to do with causing (or attempting to rectify) the disaster, they are merely people caught up in it all.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Peter, although it's justified because he's trying to get better work/save his job.
  • Irony: Due to being the reporter to break the news story, down-on-his-luck Peter finally gets promoted, but since all are unsure whether the Siberian bombs worked, he might not get the chance to be respectable for long...
  • Just Before the End: At the start of the flashback, London is just having an unusually damp summer. That's nothing to worry about... right?
  • Matte Shot: Lots of these are used throughout the film to give a realistically apocalyptic backdrop.
  • Meet Cute: Peter and Jeannie don't like each other when they first meet, but they soon fall in love.
  • Motor Mouth: Much of the dialogue is driven at breakneck speed; Truth in Television given that the majority of the cast are journalists.
  • My Local: Harry's Bar, which mainly serves a clientèle of reporters, patterned after the real-life Fleet Street bar El Vino.
  • Nightmare Sequence: The entire movie. The freak storms, the temperature rising until giant pools of water are evaporating, the axis stopping the world from changing, and finally the Earth heading straight for the sun.
  • Nipple and Dimed: There's a short view of one of Jeannie's nipples (in a mirror) as she is drying off after a shower early in the movie.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: A Rewatch Bonus when it comes to the beginning of the movie. A man that we don't know is seen walking through a deserted London, and continues carrying the tension on his phone call to an unknown, explaining what has been going on in the last few months.
  • A Nuclear Error: Accidental simultaneous testing of two of the biggest nuclear bombs yet created knocks the Earth off it's axis and sends it spiralling towards the sun.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • After Jeannie confides to Peter with some of what she's overheard at the Met Office, he shares it with Bill:
      Peter: I heard a funny story on my way to the park this morning.
      Bill: How funny?
      Peter: What's the nutation of the Earth?
      Bill: Nutation? Well, it's a slight oscillation on the Earth's axis. It's caused by the pull of the sun and the moon on the Equator.
      Peter: It's changed.
      Bill: You see, there's a slight bulge on the— [freezes in his tracks and stares at Peter]
      Peter: There's also an item here about axis rotation. There's been an eleven-degree variation, whatever that may be.
      Bill: Where'd this come from?
      Peter: Never mind where it came from. Translate it.
      Bill: It means I was right.
      Peter: Well, congratulations.
      Bill: They've shifted the tilt of the Earth. The stupid, crazy, irresponsible bastards. They've finally done it.
    • Later, Jefferson summons the paper's editorial staff to his office after hearing from his Moscow correspondent, and they listen as he makes a phone call to the publisher:
      Jefferson: Good evening, sir. Well, the Russians have just about topped everything. MacReady got through from Moscow. They held an international press conference, had their top scientists present. They say that those two bangs did more than alter the tilt. They made an eleven-degree shift in our orbit...
      [cut to a series of reaction shots from the other characters]
  • Patrick Stewart Speech: Peter gives one into his telephone.
    Peter: So Man has sown the wind - and reaped the whirlwind. Perhaps in the next few hours, there will be no remembrance of the past, and no hope for the future that might have been. All the works of Man will be consumed in the great fire out of which he was created. But perhaps at the heart of the burning light into which he has thrust his world, there is a heart that cares more for him, than he has ever cared for himself. And if there is a future for Man - insensitive as he is, proud and defiant in his pursuit of power - let him resolve to live it lovingly; for he knows well how to do so. Then he may say once more: Truly the light is sweet; and what a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to see the Sun.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Both Stenning and the Earth are drying out.
  • Same Content, Different Rating: When the film was first released, the UK censors gave it X (which meant that children under sixteen weren't allowed to be sold the movie or watch it in the cinema). When it was re-released, the censors gave it a 12 rating.
  • Set the World on Fire: It's right there in the title, though we don't get to see if it really happens.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Snark-to-Snark Combat: Whilst most of the cast show signs of this, it's near-ubiquitous between Peter, Bill and Jeannie.
  • Spoiler Title: A variation. The movie doesn't end with the Earth catching fire, however, the Earth's temperature has risen and it's believed that it's being pulled into the Sun by the Sun's gravitational pull, so there is a danger that it will happen at some point.
  • Toplessness from the Back: Jeannie, when she is washing her hair in the shower.note 
  • Total Eclipse of the Plot: The first sign that the Earth's axis has been knocked askew is when an unscheduled solar eclipse occurs in London.
  • TV Telephone Etiquette: Much of the lack of politeness is explained by the professions and stresses of the protagonists, but there are also plenty of phone conversations that happen unnaturally quickly.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Pete and Bill continually trade barbs with one another, but care for each other greatly.
  • While Rome Burns: A lot of characters' attitudes are this throughout the movie.
  • World War III: Although two powerful nations on opposite sides of the Cold War have fired off H-bombs, it wasn't done with malicious intent, and the world tries desperately to help them correct their mistakes.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Teenage nihilists have a large water party and presumably broke into Jeannie's apartment to steal her water or try and encourage her to join them. Although they haven't attacked her personally, Peter immediately punches two boys — one of them falls down a lift shaft to their death, implied by a teen's horrified scream when the group goes to check — and locks the rest of the kids out by shoving a chest of drawers in front of the door.