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ON THE BEACH (1959)

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"Who would ever have believed that human beings would be stupid enough to blow themselves off the face of the earth...?"
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Director: Stanley Kramer

Starring: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins, Fred Astaire, Donna Anderson, John Tate, Lola Brooks, John Meillon, Peter Williams

Screenplay: John Paxton, based upon the novel by Nevil Shute

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Synopsis: A nuclear war has devastated the Northern Hemisphere, with Australia the only country as yet untouched by radioactive fallout. A nuclear powered American submarine, the Sawfish, commanded by Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) surfaces in Port Phillip Bay. In Frankston, just outside Melbourne, Mary Holmes (Donna Anderson) questions her husband, Lieutenant Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins), about his appointment with Admiral Bridie (John Tate). When Holmes meets Bridie, he learns that he has been chosen to join the crew of the submarine on a reconnaissance mission. Worried about leaving his wife and baby, Holmes asks the admiral how long the mission will be. Bridie tells him four months, then reveals that scientists have calculated that it will only be five months before a deadly radioactive cloud will reach Australia. Holmes reports to Towers, who cannot tell him anything about their mission. Later that day, Holmes tells Mary that he has invited Towers to spend the weekend with them, suggesting that they have a party. Mary agrees, planning to invite Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), a single friend of theirs, as a date for Towers. When Towers arrives at the local railway station, Moira meets him and takes him to the party, which goes well until British scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire), who has had too much to drink, takes offence at another guest’s statement that the global catastrophe was the fault of the scientists. As Osborn rails at his adversary, Mary shrieks at him to be quiet and rushes from the room. As Holmes tries to comfort her, Mary confesses that she cannot bear to hear anyone talk about their impending doom. After the party, Towers and Moira talk. Towers tells her how he and his crew survived the devastation, being submerged at the time of the disaster. Drunk, Moira makes a play for Towers, but then passes out. Towers puts her to bed. The next day, at the headquarters of the Department of the Navy, Professor Jorgenson (Peter Williams) explains his theory that heavy rain and snowfall in the Northern Hemisphere may have grounded some of the atmospheric radioactivity, lessening the threat to the existing survivors. Admiral Bridie tells Towers that his mission will be to travel north as far as possible to test this theory. Moira visits Towers on board, becoming increasingly disturbed by his habit of speaking of his family in the present tense. Moira sees Osborn, with whom she was once involved, and learns that he is also going on the mission. Towers is called into a meeting with Bridie, who reveals an astonishing fact: that a radio signal has been detected coming from the vicinity of San Diego, where it was believed that no life still existed….

Comments: Stanley Kramer’s On The Beach is ultimately a failure, but a brave failure, none the less. Perhaps its greatest triumph is that, in the midst of the Cold War, it was made at all. It is hard to imagine anyone but Kramer having either the power or the inclination to tackle Nevil Shute’s bleak, moving novel about the consequences of full-scale nuclear war. At this stage of his career, it was Kramer’s practice to load his films with big-name stars, thus ensuring that his productions were deemed sufficiently "important" to go into general release, despite their sometimes controversial subject matter. While this approach worked well in some films, particularly Judgement At Nuremberg, in others it proved disastrous. While the casting in On The Beach never sinks the production to the level of, say, The Pride And The Passion, it ultimately negates any chance the film has of being a complete success. Casting Gregory Peck as the naval officer trying to cope with the loss of his world is fair enough, but Ava Gardner as a Melbournian party girl finding love too late is just ridiculous. The relationship that develops between these two is close to cliched; we’ve seen it in too many other films for it to have the intended impact here. Worse, Kramer chooses to focus upon this couple in preference to the film’s other characters. Consequently, the slow building of atmosphere that the film requires never occurs. Instead of developing an appropriate sense of tragedy and impending doom, the film dissipates its tension by continual cuts to the tribulations of Dwight and Moira. Another of the film’s problems is its jarring mixture of accents. Apart from Dwight Towers, the other leading characters are all meant to be either Australian or English, but in Kramer’s world are naturally all played by Americans. Anthony Perkins’ shot at an Australian accent isn’t too bad (at least, I’ve heard a lot worse – and yes, I am looking at you, Robert Downey Jr), but he abandons it about halfway through the film. Ava Gardner, probably wisely, doesn’t even attempt one. The worse vocal acting comes from Fred Astaire, whose accent – meant to be British – is quite indecipherable (the fact that his dialogue is scattered with terms like "ass" - pronounced "ahss" - doesn’t help one bit). Just to complicate things even further, a bizarre piece of equal opportunity miscasting has the American crew of the Sawfish played predominantly by Australians! (In the midst of all of this, the effective, understated performance of John Tate as Admiral Bridie – an Australian playing an Australian – is a distinct relief.) The script also suffers from a similar kind of confusion, with such things as the scrupulous pronunciation of "Melbourne" and "Brisbane" (Mel-b’n and Briz-b’n, not Mel-borrn and Bris-bayne) cheek by jowl with careless Americanisms (as when Moira tells Dwight that she had to "take algebra twice"). The final major problem is the depiction of the locals. Given that this is supposed to be a story about ordinary people confronting their own annihilation, it might have been nice if a bit more care had gone into the depiction of those people. Contrary to popular belief (or Stanley Kramer’s belief, whichever) Australians do not generally spend their leisure time sitting around in groups singing "Waltzing Matilda" for hours on end! Taken together, these production flaws continually jolt the viewer out of total involvement with the story. As a result, On The Beach never reaches the emotional heights that its story demands. The great pity of all this is that when the film concentrates upon its central thesis rather than its soap opera-ish aspects, its power is undeniable. Although On The Beach works best when it focuses upon the "ordinary people", a couple of star-heavy scenes do retain their impact. In terms of the film’s message, perhaps the most important is when Dwight Towers finally describes his feelings about the loss of his family. Here, Gregory Peck conveys successfully the utter bewilderment of the professional navy man at the outcome of this unintended war, where the casualties have been the previously untouchable: the civilians on the American mainland. Also moving is the scene in which Peter Holmes, about to leave on his mission, must finally tear off his wife’s psychological blindfold, and force her to confront the future. Nevertheless, it is not until the Sawfish leaves upon its final mission (in a nice irony, the submarine can still function because it is nuclear powered) that On The Beach really begins to build some momentum. The scenes of an utterly deserted San Francisco are quite unsettling (the decision to shoot this film in black and white was absolutely correct), while the search for the source of the radio signal, and the truth about its origin, have just the right haunting quality. It is during this sequence that perhaps the film’s most poignant scene occurs, when a native San Franciscan chooses to jump ship and die in his home town rather than prolong his life by returning to Australia. (Inevitably, the crewman is played by an Australian: a very young John Meillon.) When the Sawfish returns to Melbourne and the first case of radiation sickness is reported, the story becomes deeply disturbing in a way not even Dwight and Moira can touch. The streets of Melbourne, which earlier we had seen filled with people going about their normal business, become crowded again with two opposing camps: those turning to the Salvation Army for spiritual guidance, and those queuing for government-issued suicide pills. During this final section, the film hits closer to the mark in its depiction of the Australian character. Perfectly believable are two old club-dwelling duffers, bemoaning the fact that they will not possibly have the time to polish off the stocks of their favourite vintage before the end. Even better is the obstinacy with which sporting events (in this case, the Grand Prix on Phillip Island) continue to be staged even in the face of obliteration. But ultimately, Melbourne’s turn must come. The final scene shows her streets, like San Francisco’s, deserted for eternity. And how has this come to pass? When the crew of the Sawfish gathers around Julian Osborn begging for an explanation of their fate, it is revealed that no-one left alive knows who pushed the button, or even why. As to the deeper blame, the script of On The Beach displays a distinct uncertainty of tone. The film’s dialogue seems intended to argue the case either way, but the case of the scientist is put in the mouth of Osborn, who is such an ineffectual character that his words never carry the necessary weight. Thus, while the screenplay makes clear that the disaster was the direct result of military conflict between the Americans and the Russians, and that the ultimate tragedy was the result of an attempt to "show the Russians", the burden of guilt is nevertheless left with the scientists. When an angry party guest points the finger, Osborn justly cites the many in the community who fought against the development of the bomb, often at great personal cost. However, instead of a measured response, his reply comes off as drunken bluster, and is dismissed as such. There are other jibes at the profession throughout, and also a dated, jeering reference to "those long-haired scientists" (which, given the casting of the aged and balding Fred Astaire, is quite ludicrously inapt). In contrast, much of the story is told from the viewpoint of sympathetic naval men. This taking of sides, intentional or not, gives the film as a whole an unbalanced feeling that again detracts from its impact. Before giving a final verdict on On The Beach, however, it is worth remembering that the film was intended as a warning, not as history. It is, in fact, speculative science fiction, daringly set five years into the future during a political era when it sometimes seemed that the world would not last another month. The action is played out against events that were all too real. The escalation of tensions between the US and the Soviet Union are described here unexaggerated; but in this alternative time stream, a nightmare moment of overreaction or panic or hubris comes, and the button is pushed. It is significant, I think, that reviewers who lived through the era portrayed tend to rate On The Beach higher than those of us who come to it full of hindsight and quite ready to be wise after the event. That the fatal button was never pushed is today a matter of fact. But that there were moments when it was only a hairsbreadth away from being pushed is also a matter of fact. The worldwide nuclear threat may be diminished today, but it still simmers. The use of "safe" nuclear power has given us Three Mile Island and the tragedy of Chernobyl. While these circumstances exist, On The Beach will continue to hold a worthwhile message for those of us not entirely convinced that human beings aren’t stupid enough to blow themselves off the face of the earth.

Footnote: And lest we forget:

"That’s the place for it."

Ava Gardner’s legendary – and almost certainly apocryphal – reaction to setting a film about the end of the world in Melbourne.

Check out all the details of this movie on the IMDB

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