Sunday, March 30, 2008

ON THE BEACH (Stanley Kramer 1959) MGM Home Video

Socially conscious director Stanley Kramer is at his best with On The Beach (1959) a sobering reflection on the last days of human civilization as we know it. Based on Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic novel about the impending doom of a nuclear holocaust, the screenplay by John Paxton and James Lee Barrett pulls no punches in delivering a stark, unsympathetic mirror of the perils facing mankind.

The film stars Gregory Peck as Dwight Lionel Towers, Commander of the submarine, USS Sawfish. Towers and his crew have sailed to Queensland Australia, the last bastion of civilization untouched by fallout after a nuclear holocaust between the two super powers has contaminated the rest of the world. The journey, however, is hardly an escape. Predictions from local scientists are that terminal radiation will reach Queensland’s shores before the week is out, killing off the last survivors and ending mankind's supremacy on the earth.

The inhabitance of Queensland already knows this – though the mood and temperament on the island has yet to degenerate into mass hysteria. On the contrary, life goes on as though nothing has happened. After all, what else is there to do?

Upon his arrival at the local military base in Queensland, Towers is greeted by free spirit Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner) who invites him to her home for a party where Lt. Cmdr. Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) and scientist, Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire) have gathered to discuss options before the inevitable end.

As word comes over the airwaves that the cloud of radioactivity is fast approaching Queensland with the prevailing winds, Julian becomes more morose. Of all the party goers, as a scientist Julian understands his own part in the development of the bomb. His is a deep-seeded irony and self-pity that science – arguably once perceived as man’s technological salvation - has, in fact, become mankind’s undoing.

The screenplay asks the potent question of ‘if you only had a few hours to live how would you spend that time?’ Moira – never much for relationships decides to take a chance on Dwight – himself a widower since the explosions abroad killed his family back in the United States.

Julian decides to live out a life long dream and becomes a race car driver. He competes in a local competition, cheered loudly by Dwight and Moira, before asphyxiating himself in a closed garage with his engine running.

Only Mary Holmes (Donna Anderson), Peter’s young wife is reticent about what lies ahead. Her inability to conceive of killing her baby with an overdose of pills, in order to suffocate his pain before radiation poisoning, is a moment fraught with disturbing, heartrending and tragic overtones - none easily forgotten after the houselights come up.

Director Kramer grabs his audience from the beginning with a doomed vague sense of finality that does not allow us to either relax from the uncertainty of these characters or forget the pending ramifications. The film forces us to face our own mortality; perhaps with grace, honor, dignity and ultimate resolve, but look squarely into the abyss nevertheless. There is a pervasive and overriding sense of grand waste that infects every moment of the story. Poignant – if depressing – On the Beach is a finely wrought melodrama that deserves our renewed consideration, respect and understanding if, for no other reason, that its message is more timely and relevant than ever before. Highly recommended!

MGM DVD delivers a rather smooth DVD presentation in its original 1:66:1 aspect ratio. The gray scale is refined with solid blacks and very clean whites. Age related artifacts are present throughout and, at times, rather distracting. Edge enhancement, pixelization, and shimmering of fine details persist, but do not distract. The audio is mono but well represented. Regrettably, there are NO extras!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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