On the Beach (1959)

Directed by Stanley Kramer

I recall years ago, many years ago, I read the book On The Beach and liked it so much I went off and read just about everything else I could find by British-born Australian novelist Nevil Shute. (The others I remember are A Town Like Alice and No Highway.)

I discovered On the Beach because I was hugely into science fiction at the time and, while Shute was not an author of science fiction, On the Beach sort of fell into that category because of its story: the end of the world by nuclear calamity.

Given the time the film of the book was made (circa 1959) and the prevailing political climate (the Cold War), fear of nuclear weapons was high and so the theme of the book was apt.

So they made a movie called On the Beach based on the book. Apparently, author Nevil Shute detested it.

My feelings, seeing it almost 45 years later, are not the same, and not nearly so strong. I like the movie but I don’t think it’s great. It’s simply a good movie.

What I like best about the film, and the original story, is its restrained approach. Nuclear war is the sort of thing Hollywood generally likes to turn into a huge spectacle – take, for instance, the recent The Sum of All Fears with its spectacle of a single nuclear device going off.

On the Beach is quiet because its concern is not with the spectacle but the fallout (no pun intended). By fallout I mean the consequences. It shows us a world after the catastrophe when most of humanity is dead and only a small number remain, all in the southern hemisphere, in this case Australia.

But these people aren’t the hope of humanity. They are not about to build the world anew. No, these people are waiting for the nuclear fallout, the radiation, to be carried inevitably by the worlds air currents to where they live.

They are waiting to die.

In the story, there is also an American submarine, commanded by Captain Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck). They were and remained submerged during and after the devastation. They are cruising the world’s oceans looking for a place to surface, a place that is safe.

They finally get to Australia where they can finally come up. In the town where they have docked, they meet a number of people and form relationships. For the Captain, it is with Ava Gardner who is a lonely and loveless alcoholic woman.

The film follows the stories of all the characters as they try to live in the face of approaching death. There is some irony, especially in the case of the Peck-Gardner relationship, as they find love only to know it will end shortly.

The movie is quiet with a brooding sense of impending doom informing almost every scene. It’s a kind of eulogy to what is lost due to human stupidity. Generally, it isn’t as heavy-handed as it might have been (and I think this is due to the source material from Shute).

A bit over long, the movie on the whole is engaging, thoughtful and thought provoking. In fact, the only really bad note it strikes is its final shot where, for some reason, the director lost his mind and for the first time insists on stating the painfully obvious. It’s a didactic moment that in some ways dispels everything the movie has accomplished. (It’s the shot of the sign at the now-deserted Christian revival gathering.)

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