April 8, 2015

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?” – Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire)

Director: Stanley Kramer

Writers: Nevil Shute (novel), John Paxton (screenplay)

Producer: Stanley Kramer

Studio: United Artists (later bought by MGM)

Major Stars: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins, Fred Astaire

When I re-watched On the Beach, I was struck by the similarity in theme with another movie on this list: Children of Men. Both, through different disasters, deal in part with how humanity would face a slow, inevitable end. Children of Men used the concept of global infertility while On the Beach used approaching lethal radiation from a nuclear war. But while Children ended with a guarded up-beat ending, On the Beach gives the viewer no such comfort.

The story, adapted from Nevil Shute’s novel of the same name, is a simple one. Nuclear war has irradiated the Northern Hemisphere and killed everyone there. As the radiation moves south, the only pockets of humanity left are in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the southern extreme of South America. In the film, though, only Australia is mentioned as still having a human population.

An American sub, the USS Sawfish is stationed in Melbourne under the command of Captain Dwight Towers (Peck). When a mysterious Morse code is detected coming from America, Towers is ordered to determine who is sending the signal. That story is the spine of a larger tale; how a society handles its inevitable end.

It’s probably the most civilized “end-of-civilization” movie ever made. With few exceptions, people face their end with dignity, lining up to receive their suicide pills (also a shared idea with Children of Men) rather than face a painful death from radiation. The pills tie into the most poignant tale in the movie, that of Peter Holmes (Perkins). He’s an Australian naval officer with a young daughter and wife. When he leaves with the American crew to determine the source of the signal, he has to teach his wife how to kill the baby and herself if the radiation comes while he is gone. It’s heartbreaking to watch as his wife recoils at the idea. Ever more heartbreaking is near the film’s end when they accept the inevitable.

When you consider that this film was made in 1959, at the height of the Cold War, it took a lot of guts to make a film like On the Beach. It is unflinching in its condemnation of nuclear weapons and the testing of them. That is what society was debating at the time; the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Put into that context the film takes on even more weight.

Stanley Kramer did a masterful job in shooting this film. He worked in little moments that make the whole film so much more poignant. One such moment is when Perkins is presented with his new daughter. He is overjoyed but then looks away with anguish all over his face. Only much later in the movie do we discover that there was a calendar on the wall he turned to look at, destroying any happiness he had at that moment.

The whole film is understated and all the better for it. The material could have easily been turned into a tearjerker and played over the top like a melodrama. Instead it is restrained, which makes the moments of pure emotion so much more powerful.

This was the second in a string of good films from Kramer. Before this was The Defiant Ones. Following it was Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Ship of Fools and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. That’s a pretty impressive string of films no matter how you cut it. But On the Beach is still my personal favorite out of all of Kramer’s films.

So where to put it on the list? I actually debated whether it should be classified as a war film rather than a sci-fi film for a while. But I think the near-future post-apocalypse setting trumps the military aspects of the film. If the only criterion was poignancy, it’d be top of the list. But I think it slots in nicely right behind Aliens. It’s a masterful film, but it didn’t redefine the genre or push beyond the limits of previous films.

Nonetheless, On the Beach is a must-own, must-see movie. Even though Shute wasn’t fond of the film (think Alan Moore and the adaptations of his works), I can’t recommend it enough.


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