With its apocalyptic ‘end of the world’ scenario looming large in the popular consciousness, particularly after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and, its portentous forewarning about man’s futility in war, Stanley Kramer’s On The Beach (1959) remains a sobering and, at times, clairvoyant future forecast about the tenuous state of mankind on this tiny planet. We are not the masters of our universe as we pretend to be, rather unwitting pawns in a grander sequence of events played out mostly in circumstances beyond our control. What makes On the Beach a cut above, terrifyingly prophetic, in fact, is the termination of our species, at least in this worst case scenario, was avoidable; the result of two politically pompous superpowers determined to annihilate the other side with their generic doom’s day devises. A miscalculation on the part of those ‘scientific minds’ brings about Armageddon; a devastating radioactive cloud, so all-encompassing in its toxicity, no one can escape it, thus rendering ‘victory’ for either side a hypocritically moot point.
Kramer’s movie was not the first – nor hardly, the last – to explore these ‘end of times’; providence no longer in question – only, how a few remaining survivors will meet the apocalypse, applying waning strengths of their own character and convictions. Based on Nevil Shute’s novel, On The Beach is riveting, at times, even exquisite in its evocation of real people coming to terms with their own mortality. Some suffer their angst in private with a breakdown. Others choose to throw caution to the wind and deny fate its cruelty by taking their own lives. Still others pretend the looming crisis hasn’t happened, living in a suspended moment of denial culled from days before their destiny was squandered for them by their governments. The subtext of institutionalized politics determining fundamental individualisms and inalienable liberties is a theme very dear to Stanley Kramer’s own socio-politically-minded conscience – not necessarily Shute’s novel – and it comes across loud and clear in the movie.
Kramer has amassed an unlikely ensemble to tell this story; Anthony Perkins – on the cusp of becoming everyone’s favorite serial killer in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), herein enjoying his last gasp as the quintessential all-American male ingénue – in uniform no less: Lt. Peter Holmes of Australia’s Royal Navy; Fred Astaire pursuing the trajectory of a successful dramatic career as Julian Osborne; one of the scientists responsible for the bomb; Gregory Peck – the quintessence of integrity - as Dwight Lionel Towers, commander of the submarine USS Sawfish; and Ava Gardner as the spirited, whisky-voiced bon vivant, Moira Davidson – a goodtime gal who must come to grips with the last hour of the parting glass. Each is undeniably an archetype, the arc of tragedy crystalized by the built-in star power of these names above the title.
Kramer populates the background of his story with an interesting assortment of character actors. John Tate as Admiral Birdie and Lola Brooks as his ever-devoted/much younger secretary, Lieutenant Hosgoode are particularly effective, especially in their penultimate farewell; he asking her if she wouldn’t mind sharing her last drink of sherry with an ‘old man’; she politely replying, “No – but I would very much like to have one with you”; the romantic inference somehow crystalizing the loss of all that might have gone on in future generations and for this one couple in particular. In all, the ensemble culled for On The Beach must face death bravely, occasionally with a ‘chin-up’ proud defiance, completely flying in the face of what would, today, likely degenerate into a panicky free-for-all of abject chaos, dismantling the last vestiges of society as well as law and order with a show of flashy self-destruction. We get no bouts of such hell fire and brimstone hysteria in On The Beach – a better film made by a nobler generation of film makers; just a quiet surrender of the human race; the unexpected buoyancy in its last hurrahs, social gatherings, cordial house parties, and even an auto race Julian partakes in before committing suicide, eventually winding down to the hour of all our absolution and reckoning.
John Paxton’s screenplay delivers an exceptional one-two knockout punch; all the more satisfying because it never delves into maudlin clichés to punctuate the incredible hopelessness of the situation. We get fear without terror and sadness minus tears; Kramer relying on a disturbingly meek capitulation amongst his ensemble cast; the director astutely zeroing in on the emotional content of his characters rather than dwelling on the cataclysmic situation they all find themselves. And Kramer is clever and a brilliant enough a filmmaker to begin - not with ominous strains presaging this spectacular implosion of life itself - but, fattening the skeletal structure of his plot with familiar vignettes dedicated to business as usual; the machinery of that daily grind gradually breaking down; the world extinguished in T.S. Eliot’s proverbial ‘whimper’ rather than the anticipated ‘bang’.
Our story begins with an almost slavish procedural aboard the USS Sawfish, Commander Dwight Lionel Towers softly issuing the orders to his crew as they prepare to surface from an undisclosed depth beneath the relatively calm waters. From here, Kramer plunges into the main titles, brought to their rising musical melancholia by Ernest Gold’s sublime orchestration of Marie Cowan’s simple and melodic, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ – Australia’s ‘unofficial’ national anthem. The tune, first published as sheet music in 1903 (although dating all the way back to 1895) is the perfect contratante to Giuseppe Rotunno’s forlorn visuals – the Sawfish backlit in a glistening interplay of sunlight upon the waves as this solitary sub lumbers into port. We cut to an even more lonely sight; the erect pillar of a lighthouse off the coast of Frankston; Rotunno’s cinematography slightly askew as the keeper radios for Navy Command. Cut again, Kramer taking us from the abstract to the concrete with a poignant scene of quaint domesticity as Lt. Peter Holmes prepares to give his newborn baby girl a bottle; his wife, Mary (Donna Anderson) languishing in bed.
The mood turns from familial to fearful, Kramer focusing on a close-up of Tony Perkin’s and those magnificently expressive orbs of his, opened wide and fixated on a calendar in the next room; the dwindling down of the days. Today, it is quite impossible to view this moment in the film without instantly recalling Perkin’s iconic performance as Norman Bates from Psycho; his frigid and piercing stare interrupted by Mary, who refuses to allow herself to follow his paralytic train of thought. From the intimate to the all-encompassing, Kramer next opens up his action on the vibrant city of Melbourne; hustling and bustling with business as usual, its streets cluttered in all manner of human traffic.
At Navy Command, Admiral Bridie details the approaching nuclear fallout to his secretary, Hosgoode from a dated and fairly unreliable weather report made in the western hemisphere long before its population was snuffed out. His noblesse oblige approach to the report is equally tinged in flirtation; offering Hosgoode the opportunity to take the afternoon off to entertain a boyfriend. She smiles sweetly, informing her superior she intends to remain with him at the office. Bridie turns his attentions to Lt. Holmes and a cryptic assignment aboard Capt. Towers’ submarine, recently docked in Williamsport. Towers knows no more than Holmes about their reconnaissance mission, engaging him in some instant camaraderie and a good scotch at the Pastoral Club. A short while later, we rejoin Peter and Mary on the beach; she reticent to entertain Towers; her selfish concern predicated on a stubborn refusal to accept the approaching catastrophe.
Peter tries to assure his wife, Dwight will be no bother. Actually, he’s decided to play a sort of cruel matchmaker’s gesture on his superior, placing him in the capable arms of local flirt, Moira Davidson. Moira meets Dwight at the rail station in atypical coy fashion. Moira’s the friendly sort, also the playful kind, with nothing more dangerous than petty larceny on her mind. Besides, Dwight is handsome and newly widowed – and she is oh so ripe for the picking. Dwight and Moira’s cute meet is handled in romantic comedy fashion, Kramer deliberately lightening the tenor of the film with some early playful badinage between these new friends fast to become so much more. Kramer once again reframes our story to a more intimate gathering; Peter and Mary giving a house party for a few of their choice friends and colleagues, Moira and Dwight enjoying the lighthearted atmosphere from the balcony.
Alas, the mood turns sour as one of the guests, Morgan (Grant Taylor) attempts to level blame against the scientific community for having built the bombs that have since sealed all of their fates; scientist Julian Osbourne denying culpability as he progressively gets drunk. “Maybe we were the blind mechanics of disaster,” he admits, “…but you don’t pin the guilt on the scientists that easily. You might as well pin it on motherhood. The scientists signed petition after petition…but nobody listened. There was a choice. Build the bombs and use them, or risk the decision that the United States, the Soviet Union and the rest of us would find a way to go on living.”
Mary intrudes upon their debate; angry, frightened and brought to tears of frustration. Later, after the others have departed or gone to bed, Dwight and Moira reflect what fate has in store for the inhabitants of this tiny isle; she having consumed far too much alcohol, relapsing into an astonishing and uncharacteristic outburst of self-pity. Dwight attempts to comfort Moira. Instead, she passes out in his arms. He puts her to bed and, ever the gentleman, retires to his own without a thought to play out her earlier seduction.
The next day, Moira is contrite and apologetic; inviting Dwight to partake in a boat race at the Canadian Bay Yacht Club. Through his binoculars, Julian quietly observing Moira’s obvious play for Dwight’s affections, glibly muttering to Peter, Mary and Dr. Fletcher (Keith Edens) “It’s like looking at a French movie!” But before this penultimate moment of screwball – made complete when Moira deliberately scuttles their chances to win the race by forcing their vessel to capsize – Dwight is alerted by Admiral Bridie of a convoluted Morris Code message being intercepted from San Francisco. Hope springs anew. Perhaps the radioactive cloud did not wipe out the entire population of the United States as first believed. Nevertheless, Peter asks Dr. Fletcher for a lethal medication he can administer to his wife and child to alleviate the suffrage they will have to endure from radiation poisoning. Fletcher flatly refuses to provide such an alternative until they know for certain the hour of this more hideous death is upon them.
Peter is successful at obtaining a poisoned capsule from his government contact at the stuffy gentleman’s club; later offering the option to Mary while he is away – just in case. In the meantime, Moira and Dwight indulge in an evening on the town, she throwing herself at his head once again; he nervously refusing her blunt offer, explaining to accept it he would have to surrender the last vestiges of a fantasy he clings to about his wife and children still alive and patiently awaiting his return home back in America. Bitter and embarrassed, Moira storms off and gets drunk, eventually winding up at Julian’s garage where he is repairing a Ferrari to race in the local Grand Prix. The Sawfish departs for Frisco with Julian and Peter on board, Dwight confirming through his periscope there are no signs of life.
One of the ship’s crew, Ralph Swain (John Meillon) disobeys captain’s orders, leaving the Sawfish to return to shore without any protective gear; his homesickness superseding his basic human need for self-preservation. After all, what’s the point? Everything and everyone he ever knew or loved is gone. At first Swain appears to suffer no ill effects, despite the fact external measures of radioactive particles in the air is shockingly high. Unable to convince Swain to return to the Sawfish, and actually not even certain he should try, Dwight bids his fellow crewman goodbye. Later, some of the other crew corner Julian in the mess to inquire who he thinks started the war. “The trouble with you,” Julian cruelly reasons, “…is you want a simple answer. 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.”
Stanley Kramer now moves us into On The Beach’s most apocalyptic vignette; Dwight assigning one of his crew, Fogarty (Jerry Ian Seals) to explore on land the location of a faint, but garbled Morris Code signal. In his protective suit, but with only an hour of oxygen at his disposal, Fogarty tails the lonely signal to an abandoned power plant; the mechanical whirl of its turbines strangely unsettling. Photographed through a gauzy haze in early morning, this sequence is perhaps the most disturbing; Fogerty’s trek through the bowels of the plant eventually leading him to a tragic discovery; the telegraph’s signal hand is caught in the loop from a window shade; a gentle breeze from the open window sporadically dragging its contact arm up and down. Fogerty disentangles the device before sending a legitimate signal back to Navy Control; their last fervent hope for life elsewhere on earth dashed to pieces.
The USS Sawfish returns to Australia, and Dwight is reunited with Moira; Julian inviting everyone to watch him race in the Grand Prix. In the resultant spectacle of automobiles colliding into roadside pylons and each other, Julian – a novice driver – manages to win the coveted trophy and plaque; his crowning achievement to a life’s dream he otherwise would have never pursued under normal circumstances. The victory celebration is joyous, the locals taking part in a pastoral fishing trip, at the end of which Moira and Dwight consummate their long-suffering affair. It’s a pivotal moment in the movie; one symbolic of Dwight’s surrender of that former life and family he has clung to for so very long. Alas, there can be no future for this couple – for anyone. The radiation has reached early stages of lethal contamination; Dwight’s crewmember, Ackerman (Joe McCormick) already fallen ill and confined to quarters. Time grows short.
Before long the inhabitants of Melbourne realize the perilous state of their circumstances. Julian informs Dwight that Mary has fallen ill with delusional fits, since attended to by Dr. Fletcher. As the city turns hopeless and desperately to the Salvation Army playing in the park, also to the local hospital to receive rationed poison pills; Julian elects not to wait for the end to come, starting his beloved Ferrari in his garage and allowing himself to be overcome by its exhaust fumes. In the front offices of Navy Command, Admiral Bridie offers Hosgoode a farewell drink she graciously accepts. These two might have never realized how close they came to falling in love were it not for this ill-timed twist of fate.
Moira, who has been attending Mary at home, receives a devastating phone call from Dwight, informing her of his crew’s decision to sail immediate for the United States. As the Sawfish’s captain, Dwight has no choice but to accompany them on this fateful final journey home. But he manages a bittersweet farewell on the banks overlooking the bay where he and Moira first met; she refusing to budge from this spot; quietly observing the Sawfish limp out of port for the very last time. Kramer cuts from the intimate to the cruelly infinite; the vast cityscape of Melbourne transformed into an embalmed and derelict wasteland; the last inhabitants on earth, presumably, all having succumbed to radiation poisoning; the final shot, an overhead of the public square where once the Salvation Army held their religious vigils, now empty with only their mimeographed pamphlets casually blowing in the wind; the banner emblazoned with the ironic words, ‘There is Still Time, Brother!’ left dangling in the breeze.
When it premiered, On the Beach was hardly a blockbuster. In fact, it lost $700,000; displeasing not only audiences, but also author, Nevil Shute, and the U.S. government, who labeled the movie as alarmist in misrepresenting the nuclear capabilities of either superpower to successfully bring about an end to the world. Shute’s displeasure was more cerebral; feeling John Paxton’s screenplay had veered too far off his original story. Certainly, there are some major discrepancies between Shute’s prose and Paxton’s re-envisioning; chiefly, that Australia is not the last bastion untouched by the threat of nuclear annihilation. In the novel, Dwight Tower is able to establish ongoing communications with points south, including Montevideo and Cape Town, South Africa; also with his counterpart submarine, the USS Swordfish, stationed somewhere in the Atlantic.
Interestingly, Kramer had Tower’s sub rechristened the Sawfish when he learned of a USS Scorpion (the novel’s name for the nuclear-powered sub) under construction at the same time as the film was preparing to go into production. As a fascinating postscript, the real USS Scorpion was lost with all hands in 1968, just eight short years after its triumphant launch – cause unknown. Shute was also displeased by some of the artistic liberties taken with his basic story elements. In the novel, Dwight remains true to the memory of his dead wife. Believing the audience would find it difficult to accept any man able to refuse Ava Gardner, Stanley Kramer insisted on a ‘love scene’ for this perfect pair. Shute was also sincerely dissatisfied with the San Franciscan sequences, showing the city in a foggy, but pristine condition. In the novel, Frisco is positively decimated by the explosion of an atom bomb, Shute describing its ravages in great detail, culminating with a vivid description of the Golden Gate Bridge torn to pieces and half sunk in the bay.
Kramer also came under fire for aging two of the novel’s key characters to accommodate the actors playing these parts. In the case of Moira Davidson, she went from a slender blonde in her mid-twenties, to Ava Gardner’s obviously more full-figured and mature late-thirties brunette. The chasm of years was even more pronounced with the casting of Fred Astaire - then sixty - to portray a character who, in the novel, is named John Osborne (not Julian Osbourne) and described as an amiable twenty-something bachelor. In the novel, Osborne and Davidson are cousins. The movie reintroduces them as ex-lovers; ironically so, since there is never any hint in the movie Moira’s affair with Dwight is cause to incur Julian’s jealousies. Finally, the characters Admiral Bridie and Lieutenant Hosgoode have no counterparts in the novel.
Shute’s last complaint about the movie was it cheated the audience out of Moira’s suicide; committed in her automobile by taking an overdose of pills while quietly observing the USS Scorpion being taken out to sea by Dwight to be scuttled. In the movie, one simply presumes Moira’s inevitable death has occurred via radiation poisoning; Kramer’s more valiant approach to the crew of the USS Sawfish, in their desire to go home, leaving a very bad taste in Shute’s mouth.
As for locations, while On The Beach reports to be taking place in the land down under, a good portion of it was actually lensed in the United States; including southern California (where the Grand Prix sequences were staged), a naval training base near Seattle and a San Diego oil refinery, subbing in for the vacant power plant. Gregory Peck agreed with Shute’s assessment of the film, although he differed his own discontentment to Stanley Kramer, who won the coin toss as On The Beach’s driving creative force. Both the U.S. Dept. of Defense and the Navy absolutely refused to cooperate with this production. Hence, the USS Sawfish was actually the HMS Andrew, a refurbished Royal Navy non-nuclear sub.
Despite all of the changes made, one can definitely see the wisdom in Stanley Kramer’s revisions, perhaps more so today than in 1959 when anything less than strict adherence to literary adaptations was more sincerely frowned upon by the chichi critics. We must not forget, and for reasons that continue to remain mysterious to those attempting adaptations from page to screen, what works in printed format does not always equate to effective cinema and vice versa. On the Beach – the movie – may not be On The Beach – the novel – but it retains enough of Shute’s spirit to rise above its excisions, concision and revisions. If nothing else, the movie was responsible for the ballad, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ enjoying a resurgence of sorts, recorded by pop stars of their day and endlessly covered on both sides of the Atlantic.
What the movie does spectacularly well is to immediately grab the audience with its vague and sincerely doomed sense of finality. We can sense the end of days permeating every frame; Giuseppe Rotunno’s unromantic cinematography and Frederic Knudtson’s almost documentarian approach to the editing, both achieving the essential foreboding. Moreover, there is a pervasive and overriding sense of human sacrifice and waste throughout this narrative; particularly in Fred Astaire’s cynically careworn scientist; knowing more and better, though nevertheless powerless to prevent such a disaster. On the Beach is poignantly depressing; a finely wrought melodrama deserved of greater consideration. In more recent years, time has been more kind to its reputation, perhaps because in our tumultuous world of today its’ message unheeded is even more timely and relevant than ever before. Highly recommended!
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray marginally improves on the old MGM DVD from 2000. At last, the image has been appropriately framed in 1.66:1 and anamorphically enhanced, improving the overall clarity and sharpness. Better still, it appears some cleanup has been performed in the interim. While age-related dirt and speckles persist, the B&W elements aren’t quite the mess they appeared as back in 2000. Close-ups are the biggest benefactor herein; with a startling amount of detail and clarity; overall, far better contrast too and a light smattering of accurately reproduced film grain. I like – and approve. We get a basic DTS stereo surround, actually quite appropriate for this primarily dialogue-driven outing with distinct improvements made to the aural characteristics of Ernest Gold’s underscore. Oh, no – no extras! A shame, indeed. Bottom line: recommended
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)