ON THE BEACH. Science fiction movie challenging to grasp, but flawless in its message
The specter of a nuclear holocaust has been present in cinema for a long time – it appeared even before the dropping of the American bombs on Japan or reports of nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll. Of course, the greatest influx of films on this theme took place during the Cold War, specifically in its most heated moments: during the Cuban Missile Crisis and a bit later, in the early 1980s. One of the most notable and earliest representatives of this genre remains “On the Beach”, Stanley Kramer’s work from 1959, depicting the effect of our self-destruction in a remarkably different but highly expressive and unequivocal manner.
Created based on Nevil Shute’s novel, the plot transports us to the year 1964, several months after the third world war. Its result is the permanent contamination of the entire northern hemisphere of our planet, where life has practically extinguished. The remnants of humanity are concentrated in the south, and the last major bastion of civilization is the untouched Australia, the titular “On the Beach.” There, the only surviving submarine of the U.S. Navy, commanded by Commander Towers (played by the always stoic Gregory Peck, who privately was a staunch opponent of nuclear weapons), heads towards. The machine remains the last hope for saving the human race from the slowly approaching effects of radioactivity, even reaching the Antipodes. An incomprehensible radio telegraph signal from the United States is unexpectedly intercepted, and only Towers and his crew can reach there.
Certainly, it was not an easy film to produce, and it is not easy to watch either. While the production is far from perfection and can be criticized – which was willingly done shortly after its premiere – it defends itself quite well overall. One aspect is its ability to convey so many emotions using economical means of expression. Another aspect is that, despite the minimalism reflected in the safe sterility of the presented world (the views of a contaminated San Francisco seem barren but completely untouched and devoid of any bodies), it can horrify with the consequences of atomic armageddon and, thus, provoke thought. Yes, several later films portrayed the degradation of humanity and the physical impact of doom on individuals much better, often with a kind of gore. However, it is this emptiness emanating from “On the Beach,” deepening with each passing minute, that seems to carry a more poignant message.
Of course, this does not excuse several evident mistakes – or rather, poor choices – made by the film’s director and screenwriter, John Paxton. They clearly diluted Shute’s book, who was willing to assist in the adaptation but stepped back when all his advice and ideas were discarded. As a result, several significant differences between the motion picture and the novel, most of which unfortunately work against the film, emerged. The over two-hour drama about the end of the world is sometimes transformed by filmmakers too easily into a teary melodrama or even a cheap romance – for example, between Towers and Moira (the always tempting Ava Gardner), who has an alcohol problem. This romance has little in common with the original story. It is a deliberate move, only emphasizing the imminent arrival of the inevitable, which many of the last survivors try to push away, even if only for a moment. This does not change the fact that such grasping at a few straws sometimes kills the drama, diluting the clear plot.
Should it then be surprising that Shute was openly upset with the finished product? Moreover, some claim that this turn of events directly led him to the grave, as the writer died shortly after the film’s release, at less than sixty years old (one wonders what he would think of a more faithful, three-hour TV adaptation in 2000 by Russell Mulcahy, starring Armand Assante, Rachel Ward, and Bryan Brown). The film also faced unfavorable reviews. And the viewers, despite bold advertising slogans claiming that if any movie were to be the last in their lives, it should be this one, reluctantly left their money at the box office. “On the Beach” thus brought significant losses to United Artists. Although, for such a modest production, albeit supported by the Australian government and military (some streets there still bear the names of the film crew members), it cost quite a lot – almost three million dollars, considering the times it was made in.
Certainly, a significant part of that money went to the main, strong cast, which included a young Anthony Perkins as one of Towers’ subordinates and an aging Fred Astaire. For Astaire, the role of scientist Julian Osborn (with no connection to the comic book Norman) was one of the few performances in front of the camera without singing or dancing. They, along with the atmospheric cinematography of Giuseppe Rotunno and the Oscar-nominated editing by Frederic Knudtson, as well as the melancholic and uplifting music by Ernest Gold, evoke emotions. Although the characters seem to wander from corner to corner, uttering more or less profound wisdom that inspired them in those final moments of screen life, they are still able to smoothly sell us the greatest banalities, save the weakest scenes, or finally make us care about their fate.
The rest is done by the well-dosed atmosphere, in which a permanent sense of hopelessness is felt from the very beginning – even overlooking the mentioned lengths and less engaging sequences that do not push the action forward. Of course, the characters want to believe until the very end, often deceiving themselves, but all the facts are against their desires, beliefs, or efforts to change their tragic fate. The creators give them chances to sustain the spirit of optimism, not to kill that legendary Australian freedom – joyfully celebrated, among other things, in car races or on the beach – but at the same time, they do not leave any illusions. Fantasy eventually gives way to reality, and the end can only be grim because there is simply no other alternative in this case. Only death remains – more or less dignified but unyielding.
The anti-war, or rather, anti-nuclear message of the film may not be overtly apparent in the general context, but it is clear enough. It’s worth noting that its premiere took place simultaneously in twenty cities worldwide, including Moscow, where Peck and his wife personally attended. It was, therefore, the first American film shown on Soviet soil during the Cold War, a theoretical conflict prelude to nuclear self-destruction. Fortunately, this theory did not translate into practice, and six decades later, we can still function normally. So, has “On the Beach” lost its relevance over time? Not at all – that’s why it works. It’s an imperfect but flawless film in its message. Not free from distortions, but honest. Sad and yet beautiful. Hopefully, it won’t be the last one you see.