On the Beach (1959)
Director: Stanley Kramer
Cast: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire
Synopsis: After a global nuclear war, the residents of Australia must come to terms with the fact that all life will be destroyed in a matter of months.
While it’s inarguable that a movie like On the Beach must at some point lose its topicality, the relevance of its core theme, encapsulated by the words spoken by drunken scientist Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire) — ‘who would ever have believed that human beings would be stupid enough to blow themselves off the face of the earth?’ — remain as undeniable today as it was back in 1959. The threat of global annihilation might appear to have receded, but the less-than-subtle shift of the source of that threat — from squabbling superpowers to seriously fanatical terrorist groups and tinpot dictatorships— means that it could still become a frightening reality in the blink of an eye.
Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach, an adaptation of the novel by Nevile Shute, takes place in the months following a devastating nuclear war that has apparently wiped out life in the Northern Hemisphere. In Australia, however, life continues — at least for as long as it takes the vast cloud of radiation that blankets the Northern Hemisphere to drift over it — an event which the country’s scientists estimate will take about five months. There’s a certain captivating poignancy about civilisation’s coda that Kramer’s film captures almost incidentally while somehow managing to mire itself in a soap opera storyline.
Commander Dwight Lionel Towers (Gregory Peck) sails into the port of Melbourne aboard a nuclear submarine to find a city that is slowly succumbing to the realities of life without supplies from beyond the country’s shores. Men in business suit traverse the City’s main streets on horses or push bikes, or are pulled along in buggies while cars without fuel stand idle at the road side. He receives orders to journey north to check on radiation levels in the hope that one scientist’s theory that the fall out they expect might not be as bad as they fear, and to investigate strange Morse code signals out of San Diego, a city whose inhabitants should have long since died from a nuclear blast or radiation sickness.
Amongst his crew is Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins), a young Australian ensign and new father whose wife, Mary (Donna Anderson), is struggling to come to terms with the impending end of the world, and flatly refuses to discuss it. Holmes invites Towers to stay with his young family over the weekend and organises a party. He also arranges for the semi-alcoholic Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner) to be present to help take the American Commander’s mind off his own family who surely must have perished in the war that consumed America. Also present at the party is Julius Osborne (Fred Astaire), a nuclear scientist who seems to be whipping boy for the entire scientific community, but who, despite conceding his role, insists that the scientists were amongst those who protested the loudest over nuclear weapons. The reason other guests at the party are so intense in their interrogation of Julius is that there appears to be nobody alive any more who knows exactly what happened to precipitate the quick and calamitous war that preceded man’s destruction. Julius himself has the horrible suspicion that the entire war might have been the consequence of human error.
The most interesting aspect of On the Beach is the way in which it depicts life under sentence of death continuing pretty much as normal under the circumstances. People just carry on with their lives because they don’t know what else to do. Underscoring this normality, though, is a strand of tacit desperation that bubbles to the surface only under stress or intoxication. Some, like Towers and Holmes, appear to fall back on the discipline instilled in them by their military background to cope with the situation, accepting what has happened while trying to make best use of the time remaining to them. For this reason they accept the arduous and time-consuming mission to America in search of anything to give them hope. Their observation of an eerily deserted San Francisco is perhaps one of the most affecting sequences of the movie, even though we’re left wondering just how and why the streets are so clean and empty, why the cars are so neatly parked, and why the buildings appear to be untouched by nuclear warfare.
While Mary refuses to listen to talk of what might lie ahead and clings to the forlorn hope of something — anything — happening to divert the inevitable, Moira wraps herself in a fuzzy cocoon of booze, determined to make light of what time remains while also regretting the things she never did when she thought the remainder of her life could be measured in decades rather than months. Julius, haunted by the guilt that perhaps he did play a tiny part in the world’s destruction and didn’t protest vociferously enough against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, finds solace in recklessness, participating in a road race in which it seems like more racers are killed than cross the finish line. Whatever their individual coping mechanisms might be, each character shares the unifying emotion of regret — both for a future that has been snatched away from them, and for a past they never really appreciated.
The movie is at its strongest when focusing on the human response to impending Armageddon, and exploits the fact that few scenarios offer their characters the opportunity to reflect upon the unavoidable destruction of humanity within a context of relative normality. In other departments it’s noticeably weak: the love affair between Towers and Moira quickly grows tiresome. It even begins to feel just a little superfluous as the story develops, and never comes near to achieving the depth for which it strives simply because it fails to adequately provide any kind of insight into, for want of a better phrase, the human condition.
Technically, the film is as polished as you’d expect, although the performances are a little variable. Is that an Australian or a British accent Astaire is trying for? I don’t think even he was sure. Gardner is probably the perfect casting for the part of a party girl who’s only just past her prime. At 37, the consequences of all those real life party nights were already taking their toll on her once flawless looks. She looks tired and a little puffy, but for once those flaws are just right for the part. Even Gregory Peck, an actor whose glacial performances I usually can’t abide, gives a good account of himself, largely no doubt because the reserve of his character corresponds so closely with his usual acting style that he can’t help but suit the role.
On the Beach ultimately lacks the profundity you sense that Kramer and his screenwriter John Paxton were no doubt aiming for, and ultimately resorts to the glaringly obvious: the final shot has a tattered banner proclaiming ‘THERE IS STILL TIME… BROTHER,’ overlooking a lifeless and deserted town square. No doubt such tactics were infinitely more powerful at the time of the film’s release, with the world seemingly on the precipice of nuclear war, but we live now in the knowledge that that war never happened and, in the face of a new and more intimidating foe, that banner seems naÃ¯ve and outdated.
(Reviewed 20th September 2013)