ON THE BEACH —-the missiles stopped, the Northern Hemisphere is finished, but the radiation-poisoned atmosphere wages quiet war on unscathed Australia. Suicide pills are readied, last-minute denials, affairs and thrills occupy the poignant human countdown. American submariner ‘Dwight Towers’ (Gregory Peck) takes his crew on a cross-Pacific goose-chase to mysterious radio signals from California, and finds solace in the company of defiantly partying ‘Moira’ (Ava Gardner). Resigned scientist ‘Julian’ (Fred Astaire) preps for the finish line by racing cars (danger? wrecks? what does it matter?), while a young Australian naval officer (Anthony Perkins) battles with the reality of euthanasia for his family.
“The trouble with you is you want a simple answer. There isn’t any. The war started when people accepted the idiotic principle that peace could be maintained – – by arranging to defend themselves with weapons they couldn’t possibly use – – without committing suicide. Everybody had an atomic bomb, and counter-bombs, and counter-counter bombs. The devices outgrew us; we couldn’t control them.”
A few technical flaws relating to scientific specificity aside, this Doomsday classic retains its remorseless creeping eeriness and deep cosmic sadness six decades after its 1959 release date. Director Stanley Kramer and screenwriter John Paxton moved the timing of nuclear Armageddon set by Nevil Shute in his 1957 bestseller up a year to 1964, such was the heightened worry at the time, with the atomic arsenals of Eisenhower and Khrushchev waiting silently for launch codes. Numerous close calls have been survived since, but even as we pray, less steady hands than those of Ike & Nikita are at the helm, bragging about button-size, as if H-bombs were muskets. Inevitability is a poor ally.
Peck, Gardner and Astaire are quite good, Perkins okay (though twitchy as ever). Peck’s restrained captain is a Yank, but the others are supposed to be from Oz and England, and little attempt is made for accents (Perkins gives it a mild go, Ava and Fred don’t bother). That carp to the side, it’s one of Gardner’s best performances from the era, and Astaire drew applause for his first-ever dramatic part. Kramer saw to it they all received plenty of vivid close-ups in Giuseppe Rotunno’s sharp black & white camerawork. Ernest Gold’s score frames it with several haunting versions of “Waltzing Matilda”, which took on renewed life when done by numerous artists as a single. The juxtaposition of the song with Peck & Gardner’s realization-love scene in the cabin is heartbreaking.
Author Shute was displeased with the screenwriting liberties taken with his novel. He had a fatal stroke a month after the premier. Also in the cast: Donna Anderson, John Tate, Lola Brooks, Guy Doleman and John Meillon. Production cost came to $2,900,000, easily erased when the film, which was feared non-commercial due to the dire subject matter, grossed $13,600,000 in the States alone, 17th place for the year. Two Oscar nominations came about; Gold’s score and the Film Editing. Filming was done in Melbourne, with a Royal Navy sub (non-nuclear) playing the part of the fictional USS Sawfish. The Pentagon, unsurprisingly, refused co-operation. 134 minutes. *
* According to Kramer, a Pentagon mouthpiece scolded him “Your story says an atomic war would wipe out the world, and that isn’t so. Only about five hundred million people would be killed.” On The Beach wasn’t the first atomic apocalypse film: that may have been the intriguing Five, from 1951. Mild competition in ’59 came from The World, the Flesh and the Devil (tagging 110th place). 1960s The Time Machine suggested that 1966 would be Game Over, then 1962 unleashed Panic In Year Zero! Post-JFK paranoia brought Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe and The Bedford Incident. Reagan’s jellybean bellicosity gave added urgency to the stunning TV event from 1983, The Day After, which reigns with this sober adult oldie as the one that scared the most people. Also rattling is that while movies like this touch nerves in the sensible, they don’t do a lot (as in, nothing) to change the insane mind-set behind the evil planners and moronic cheerleaders for what seems more certain than ever to be the hit switch that finally fuses us all. “Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong/ “You’ll never catch me alive!” said he/And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong/”You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”