Friday, June 03, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: On the Beach (1959)

"Who would ever have believed that human beings would be stupid enough to blow themselves off the face of the Earth?"

- On the Beach

Stanley Kramer's On the Beach (1959) is a film about humankind learning to accept, with some measure of grace, the end of everything. 

In this grim adaptation of Nevil Shute's 1957 novel about nuclear war and aftermath, radioactive dust is systematically ending all human life on Earth.  There are no places to hide, no higher forces to appeal to, and no do-overs.  This is a world without hope, but in the final analysis, one not without some measure of dignity. 

That's cold comfort, however, given what mankind stands to lose.

And that's really what On the Beach proves such a wonderful reminder of: all those wondrous things about living on this beautiful green planet. Like being a father and a husband.  Like falling in love.  Choosing to live how you wish to live, and with whom.  Getting drunk, even.  All these human activities shall disappear forever, as the last survivors of humankind succumb to an atmosphere that he himself has poisoned. 

As we see at point-blank range, and frequently in intense, emotional close-ups, the survivors wish for more time.  They wish for a future.  They desire a happy ending.  They just want hope. But the movie's most effective and impressive point -- pushed quietly if deftly -- is that all those wishes died when the bombs fell.  The time for good wishes would have been before man set about to annihilate his brothers. 

One difficult-to-accept aspect of this, for the survivors, is that they didn't launch the war.  They didn't press the red button.  But they will die -- the human race itself, will die -- because someone else did.  In a way, On the Beach concerns the ultimate form of tyranny: the recognition of the fact that a few old men, in seats of power around the world, could kill billions in an instant because of a simple difference in ideological beliefs.   Individual liberty is nothing but a convenient illusion so long as nuclear weapons exist, because such weapons can destroy not just those deemed responsible for crimes, but whole populations; innocent and guilty alike.

Produced more than fifty years ago, On the Beach remains incredibly haunting today, almost paralyzing even, in its unblinking intensity.  It's a serious, artfully-crafted piece of work, and it suggests something very important, as New York Times critic Bosley Crowther observed: "life is a beautiful treasure and man should do all he can to save it from annihilation, while there is still time." 

Or, as the stirring, tragic final image of the film reminds those of us, explicitly, in the audience: "there is still time, brother."  Time enough for man to avoid the mistakes we see played out so dramatically in this impressive and deeply sad post-apocalyptic effort. 

We've successfully heeded that message for half-a-century since On the Beach, and for all our sakes, I hope we continue to do so.  But On the Beach should be required viewing for every politician who takes an oath of office, the globe around, just to be certain.

There isn't time. No time to love... nothing to remember... nothing worth remembering.

Set in the year 1964, some time after a worldwide nuclear war, On the Beach tells the tale of the U.S. submarine Sawfish (Scorpion in the novel), as it arrives in Melbourne, Australia. 

Captained by Dwight Lionel Towers (Gregory Peck), the Sawfish and her crew have escaped the radioactive dust in the atmosphere, but are aware that deadly fall-out will strike Australia in a matter of months if not weeks, killing all the people left alive.

A young Australian lieutenant, Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) is assigned to the Sawfish as a liaison officer, along with a guilt-ridden scientist, Julian Fletcher (Fred Astaire).  They join Captain Towers as he prepares for a new mission.  Specifically, he is to travel north to determine if "the Jorgensen Effect" is fact or merely (hopeful...) theory. 

The scientific hypothesis proposes that the terminal levels of radiation may be dissipating because of wintry weather patterns...a fact which could provide a sliver hope for the humans still alive in the southern hemisphere and counting down to death. 

Another mystery is also to be solved. A cryptic message in Morse Code is originating in San Diego (Seattle in the book) and the Australian authorities want to solve the mystery.  How could someone have survived in the mainland U.S.A. after the war?

Before the Sawfish sets sail on its mission of last hope, On the Beach focuses a great deal on the personal lives of the dramatis personae.  Peter is a new father, and married to an impressionable young woman, Mary (Donna Anderson).  When Peter learns that he could be away -- at sea -- when the fall-out hits Australia, he solicits suicide pills for his wife and infant daughter, Jenny, a fact which greatly disturbs Mary.

Meanwhile, Captain Towers, who has lost a wife and two children in the war, begins to feel increasingly attracted to Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), a single woman and an alcoholic. 

As much as Towers appreciates Moira's companionship, he can't let go of the family he lost in America, and always speaks of it in the present and future tense.  At one point, he mistakenly calls Moira "Sharon," after his wife. Oddly, Moira is not bothered by this slip-of-the-tongue.  To be treated like a "wife," she suggests, is better than how she has often treated herself, before the war.

In time, Sawfish's mission proves a double failure.  Julian determines that radiation readings are strong and growing stronger, meaning that the fall-out will still strike Australia in weeks.  And the cryptic message from San Diego is a cruel joke: a window-shade tugging on a fallen coke bottle, over the telegraph equipment. The sad truth is that no one is left alive in the United States.  Still, one desperate officer jumps ship to die in his home-town.

As On the Beach reaches its solemn, inescapable conclusion, all the film's main characters must determine how they wish to face their imminent demise.  Peter, Mary and Jenny remain a family to the end, before taking the suicide pills.  Though increasingly in love with Moira, Dwight decides to return to America with his ship and they can die at home.  And old Julian, who has re-fitted a Ferrari and won the Grand Prix, chooses his own way of leaving this Earth as well: carbon monoxide poisoning. 

The final shots of the film provide us glimpses of an eerily empty Melbourne -- rendered eternally silent and lonely -- by the end of all human life on the planet.

We're all doomed, you know. The whole, silly, drunken, pathetic lot of us. Doomed by the air we're about to breathe.

The most obvious quality to admire in On the Beach is its resolute lack of Hollywood happy ending bullshit.  

The audience is told at the beginning of the film that poisonous radiation will kill everyone in Australia in a matter of weeks...and that's precisely what happens.

There's no third act miracle here, no sign from the Divine that man is blessed and forgiven for his trespasses.  The movie holds out hope for the characters (in the form of the Morse Code message from America, and the possibility of the Jorgensen Effect) but then methodically squashes those hopes.  

Kramer diagrams this disappointment -- this death of hope -- largely by showcasing shattered human faces.  There's one stunning sequence set on the submarine, in which Captain Towers surveys the dead west coast of America by periscope.  He doesn't say a word after countenancing the emptiness of San Francisco, he just steps down from the periscope, moved beyond words.  Another officer follows.  Then another.  Their expressions speak volumes about what they've seen...and how it makes them feel.

In exploring this world without hope, On the Beach asks the viewer to contemplate what it means to live when there is no such thing as a long term future.  It's a world in which your young children won't get the chance to grow up.  A world in which you won't still be alive for the trout season in a few months.  A world in which romantic relationships have no time to mature or develop.  What becomes of human interaction in such a world?  What, finally, becomes important when there is no time left?

On the Beach has been criticized, from time to time, because all the characters in the film evidence such remarkable restraint and dignity in facing the end of Life As We Know It.  But it's important to remember that this isn't an out-of-control zombie apocalypse.  Here, the infrastructure of Melbourne is intact and operating.  There are shortages of gas, but no shortages of food, or even alcohol, as the movie points out.  The people here aren't overtly endangered by an "enemy" in their midst, nor by a break down of all civilization.  They are simply and horribly faced with the specter of imminent death, blowing in the wind, towards them.  In this environment, they can steal food, rob banks, and kill each other, but those activities wouldn't change a lick the inevitability of their dilemma.  They are going to die now no matter what.  Survival is literally not an option, even if they fight tooth and nail (and break the law) for it. 

Accordingly, the film depicts human beings as nobly grappling with the inevitable.  The characters must each answer the question: what is important to you, today?  If you are to take your last breath in just hours, where do you want to draw that breath, and with whom?  Julian decides to race in the Grand Prix, a fiery race that brings death just a few weeks earlier to some of the less fortunate racers.  Peter and Mary cuddle in bed, before the end, discussing the time they first met "on the beach," and what they felt as they fell in love.  Dwight decides that he belongs at home, with his men, if he can make it back to U.S. waters.  And on and on it goes, right down the line, as each human being makes a final decision. 

How these men and women decide to die is as important, to quote The Wrath of Khan, as how they decided to live.

As you may surmise, On the Beach is not a happy film.  But it is a worthwhile one, and one beautifully-visualized, thanks to Stanley Kramer's direction. 

Early scenes in the film visually reflect Towers' uncertainty about his new social situation and status in Melbourne (a widower? single?), with askew, cockeyed angles, for example.  And Kramer's insistence on dramatic, extreme close-ups renders the story far more intimate than many cinematic "end of the world" offerings.  This film features characters who, while not necessarily flamboyant or colorful, you won't ever forget. They aren't heroes or villains, or larger-than-life in any way.  They are, quite appropriately, surrogates for us.  Just people who, more than anything, would like to live. We see ourselves in their faces, in their tears.

In particular, Gregory Peck delivers an absolutely heart-breaking monologue mid-way through the film, about the death of his family (and also about the death of the future).  He speaks the affecting words in a halting, uncertain, but driving fashion, as if Dwight is forcing himself to get through it.  It rings abundantly true: an admission both of weakness and strength, of a love that can't just go away, even in the face of death. 

Perkins and Anderson are deeply affecting throughout as well, but especially in their final moments of life, described above.  I can't imagine the horror that Peter faces here: knowing that he must administer suicide pills to his child and wife, and then -- finally -- join them.   Talk about a decision you can't imagine making...
If On the Beach boasts any weaknesses, they are mostly a result of the inability to create convincing post-nuclear vistas.  In the novel, for instance, the Golden Gate Bridge had collapsed, if memory serves.  In the film, the bridge is still standing, and San Francisco -- though empty -- looks whole. 

In reality, the city should be destroyed, and there should be some sign of corpses in the streets.  In the film, one character states that people separate from other people, from groups, when they go to die.  The observation may be accurate, but in the event of a catastrophic and sudden attack like this, it's likely that some people wouldn't make it to sanctuary, or would die in public places, I submit.  On the Beach makes it seem as if all our architecture would remain standing in the event of all-out global war, and it's simply not very believable.  Effective, yes, in the sense that we can reflect upon how desolate our cities look like without their human builders, but not necessarily believable.

There have been some critics who also complain that On the Beach is over-long and talky, but don't you heed them.  This is a literate, complicated film about a handful of likable, "average" people facing an end they can't prevent or stop.  It's not about bombs dropping, or battles being waged.  It's about grappling -- on a personal level -- with the knowledge that your own kind has destroyed the world and that you have very little time left to set your affairs straight.

Is it wishful thinking that mankind -- after blowing the planet up -- would behave with dignity on his deathbed? 

Perhaps, but to quote Fred Astaire in this film, "I'm not against wishful thinking. Not now."


  1. I saw that film in college (the class was called "Visions of the Apocalypse in the Media") and loved it!

    Great review.

  2. Jane Considine10:22 AM

    I just saw this film for the first time about a year ago, after many friends had been bugging me to see it for forever. It's great, for all of the reasons you mention. Excellent performances all around.

  3. I saw the 2000 version and I found it... not very convincing, even though it has it's strong moments.

    I had no idea it was a remake. I'll give it a try, even though my attention span is very short, these days :).


  4. Anonymous3:48 PM

    I love your writing, John, but I have to say that I'm burnt out on the post-apocalyptic/nuclear war topic here. I'd love to see you tackle a few items in the near future that step away from those sorts of films.

  5. Hi everyone,

    Mich: Thank you for the compliment. I would have loved to have sat in on that class about post-apocalyptic cinema. Sounds very intriguing.

    Jane: I agree with you about On the Beach, a great and deeply affecting film; in large part due to the great performances. Right on.

    Claudiu: I never saw the year 2000 made-for-TV version, but I imagine it's not nearly so good as the 1959 film. This movie is very long, however, over 2 hours and fifteen minutes, I believe, so it isn't really ideal for a quick watch.

    Anonymous: Well, fair enough! I always appreciate reader feedback, even if it isn't positive. I am just about winding down my concentration on dystopia/ post-apocalyptic films, so maybe that's a good thing. In the future, leave a name, though, all right? Feedback like yours always carries more weight when there's a name attached.

    best to all, and great comments!


  6. John

    I really have to admit I'm clearly missing out on this film. Your examination of the film makes it sound like a fairly strong must see and I really think I would enjoy it based on your thoughtful remarks here.

    Obviously it tackles some big human questions. I must admit I'm not sure there are many political leaders who woould heed your advice. Not to mention there may be a few out there who might find it a nice template for their own designs sadly.

    Maybe I will check it out one of these fine days. Excellent as always my good friend! sff

  7. Thanks for the review. I'm not embarrassed to say I lose it at the end every time I watch it. The shot of Gregory Peck looking at the sky before taking the sub down for the last time always gets me. "How the End Begins", by Ron Rosenbaum demonstrates how close we've come in recent history to nuclear war. It's a fascinating book.

  8. Hello, my friends.

    SFF: I do recommend the film, highly. It's sad and grim, but enitrely worth your energy and attention, and beautifully-produced. Nuclear weapons remain a serious problem...I think the world would be a better place without them, but you're right...some would see such a void as an opportunity, no doubt. Still, it's crazy to think that one lunatic could press a button and destroy everything we've built in a span of minutes. Gruesome.

    jdigriz: Nothing to be ashamed of in being moved by this film. I must admit, I also got emotional during the final scene between Peter and Mary, and during Gregory Peck's monologue about his wife and children. Very heavy stuff...beautifully rendered and explored.

    I have heard of the book you mentioned, but not yet read it. I'm afraid it would absolutely terrify me...


  9. I agree with your comments in the entry and those above. This is my all-time favorite end-of-the-world film. I have read the book once and seen the film twice. Even though I had seen the film and read the book, it still haunted me on the second viewing in a way no end-of-the-world film ever has. The only other end-of-the-world film that gave me any serious emotional response (other than enjoying the effects, of course) was Armageddon. Every time I have seen it, I've bawled at the end. Must be five times now... But it lacks the haunting qualities of this masterpiece, with an incredible cast that should have won major awards.

    Gordon Long

  10. You did the film justice, John. It's a great one and certainly reflects its era. Commenter jdigriz and I feel the same about its ending. Yes, it is talky. But, it's talky in the way FAIL SAFE (1964) was, and no less as powerful. I'll undertake Kramer and Lumet's ventures on this subject any day of the week. Thanks for this.

  11. PDXWiz: I agree with you about this film's power, even fifty years later. It's a haunting masterpiece, and it works, I think, becaue the characters are realistic, not typical movie heroes. It's easy to put yourself in their situation.

    Le0pard13: Thank you, my friend. I agree that the film is talky, but I love the talkiness. It seems true, it seems real. When you're with these characters, you want to know what they're feeling and thinking, and the talkiness provides a lot of good context and commentary.

    Thank you, both


  12. An excellent review. I have to admit though, I do prefer the made-for-TV remake that aired back in 2000 (available on video, now). Both are well worth a couple of hours of your time if you haven't seen them already (or even if you have).

    Towards Yesterday

  13. Marley Barrett11:00 PM

    I was 8 years old in 1959 and my parents took us all to watch this film. They believed it was important we understood the nature of nuclear war. I have NEVER forgotten this movie--it touched me at a cellular level and I'm sure shaped my Antiwar stance I took on so vehemently in the sixties. As I child I remember conversations with my parents in the car ride on the way home-it was my first understanding of life and death, mankind and war. They answered all our questions (there were six kids!) I'm an old woman now and my life has been overrun with loss and grief. Pain and suffering and still I find myself grateful for the dance. Always open to each moment that changes how I move through each day.

    1. Marley, that was a beautiful comment. Thank you.

  14. I just watched this film for the first time last night (Good Friday) and came upon your blog as I was preparing to write about watching it on Good Friday... I think the film has a meaning for the day. I appreciate your review, thanks for posting it. I have read the book twice, once in high school and again in the early 80s, right after college. I remembered enough that I was thinking that morse code transmitter was in Seattle not San Diego. Thanks for your insights on the differences!

  15. Anonymous12:37 PM

    Film never gets old


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