BFI Recommends: The Day the Earth Caught Fire

A heatwave spells the end of the world in this prescient apocalyptic sci-fi – the latest in our daily series of recommendations, chosen by Kevin Lyons.

26 May 2020

By Kevin Lyons

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Val Guest’s masterly vision of a world tilted off its axis by reckless nuclear testing is one of the earliest – and still one of the best – examples of science-fiction cinema tackling ecological concerns. Its depiction of a city (in this case London) sweltering under a horrific heat wave as the planet hurtles towards the sun now looks horribly prophetic.

Guest films the collapse of well-ordered British society in stark black-and-white and widescreen, almost as if he’s making a documentary, with location shooting in the offices of the Daily Express, whose reporters are doggedly trying to expose the catastrophe with plenty of overlapping, naturalistic dialogue. Add to that first-rate performances from the three leads – Leo McKern, Edward Judd and Janet Munro – and an open-ended climax that leaves you to make your own mind up as to what happens next and you’ve got one of the finest, most unsettling and certainly most prescient British films ever made.

Look out for the tiniest uncredited cameo from a very young, pre-stardom Michael Caine as a cop at a roadblock.

Kevin Lyons
Documentation Editor