Film Review: 'On the Beach' (1959): End of the World with a Dignified Whimper
Known as a "message director", Stanley Kramer (Inherit the Wind) delivers an unforgettable, powerful and eerie warning about nuclear weapons in On the Beach.
On the Beach (1959), Directed by Stanley Kramer; based on the novel by Nevil Shute; starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins and Donna Anderson.
On the Beach is based on a 1957 Australian novel of the same name, which was a smash mid-century bestseller. AFAIK, it was the first best-selling book that dealt realistically with the aftermath of a nuclear war. The film used to be very famous also, although I’m not sure if it’s as well-known today. (I read the book when I was about 12, skipping through the “boring” parts, and didn’t really get a sense of the story, except for the memorable end.)
On the Beach opens on an early weekday morning in Melbourne, Australia. A young couple, Peter and Mary Holmes, are waking up to attend to their baby, Jennifer. Peter, a lieutenant in the Australian Navy, is played by Anthony Perkins, and Mary, a housewife, is played by ingenue Donna Anderson, in her first screen role.
Peter is excited because he’s received an assignment after months on furlough. An American naval submarine, the nuclear-powered USS Sawfish, has docked at Melbourne and Peter’s been chosen to show its commander around. It all seems mundane enough, but there are hints dropped here and there that things are not normal in Melbourne. Peter worries about what to do when “they stop delivering the baby’s milk.” And there are casual references to a big, recent war, even though the date is December, 1964, and World War Two is almost twenty years in the past.
Later on, we learn the awful truth. Some months in the past, there was a nuclear exchange in the Northern Hemisphere that obliterated every country in the world except Australia and a few isolated Southern Hemisphere outposts. Those who were not incinerated died from radiation sickness. A huge nuclear cloud is slowly making its way to Australia, and the government has calculated that it will arrive in five months and kill everyone in Australia, too. However, the arrival of American Naval Commander Dwight Lionel Towers (Gregory Peck) and his sub have given the Australians hope that a solution may be found to their predicament.
As part of his duties, Peter gives Commander Towers a welcoming cocktail party in his honor. At the party, Towers meets Moira (Ava Gardner), a stunning bombshell of a woman who lives on a sheep ranch. He also meets Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire), a British nuclear scientist who once had a relationship with Moira. Towers is immediately attracted to Moira because she resembles his presumably dead wife, whom he left at home in Connecticut when he set sail in the sub.
At the party, Julian gets drunk and begins to pontificate about the war and its disastrous after-effects. No one even knows how the war started; Julian says it was probably an accident. His comments upset Mary, and she breaks down, insisting that there’s always hope that they will survive.
Later, Towers begins a courtship with Moira and they fall deeply in love, although Towers still grieves for his wife and kids. Meanwhile, Peter worries as Mary becomes increasingly unglued about their impending fate. Julian, for his part, spends most of his time restoring a battered old Formula One race car, which he plans to race in the Australian Grand Prix (which apparently is open to anyone, since it’s presumably the last one.)
Hope increases for the Melbourners when Australian radar picks up a Morse code signal from San Diego, California. In addition, Julian and other scientists have come up with a theory that the fall-out cloud dissipates as it reaches the polar regions. To test their theory, the Australian and American naval personnel decide to send the Sawfish to the U.S. naval base at Point Barrow, Alaska, to take radiation samples. The Sawfish will also investigate the signal from San Diego on the way back. Peter and Julian plan to ride along on the trip, with Towers at the helm.
As Peter says goodbye to Mary before leaving on the Sawfish, we are shown the most chilling scene in the film. He hands her their government-issued suicide pills and tells her that, if he doesn’t come back, she must use them on herself and Jennifer “when the time comes.” Mary’s reaction as it dawns on her that she may have to kill her own child is harrowing. When the Sawfish does make it back, there’s no good news from either Alaska or San Diego. The film then explores how the major and minor characters accept their inevitable fate.
The people of Melbourne go on about their lives in resolute form. They have barbecues at the beach, cocktail parties, boat races; they still go to their jobs. They remain whimsically Anglo-Saxon in their devotion to rule-following and duty; to “keep calm and carry on.”
A portrait of Queen Elizabeth still hangs in all government offices, even though everyone knows that she and the rest of Mother England are dead. An elderly waiter at a swank gentleman’s club still shows up for work every day. The fish and game authorities formally announce that the opening date for trout season has been moved up. Most touching of all, the Melbourners form quiet, orderly queues to receive their suicide pills from a uniformed nurse, while an official checks off their names from a list.
Another director (hello, Stanley Kubrick!) may have played these scenes for satirical effect, but Kramer has too much sympathy for his characters to mock them in that way. He’s rewarded for his kindness with terrific performances from his actors. Peck has so much screen presence that his usual low-key acting style is needed to counteract it; if he did Pacino-style emoting, he’d blow everyone else off the screen. Gardner gives Moira a tragic gallantry. Old Twinkletoes Astaire essays his first-ever dramatic role at 61, and he’s terrific as the cynical, haunted Julian. Perkins struggles with his Aussie accent but he’s compelling as the earnest Peter, and Anderson as fragile Mary plays a difficult role well. Aussie actor John Tate is very enjoyable as Admirable Birdie, the ranking Australian naval chief, a stickler who barks and blusters like Colonel Blimp, but who is revealed to have a heart in his final moments.
The b/w cinematography provided by Italian master Giuseppe Rotunno (All That Jazz) gives off strong original Twilight Zone vibes, especially toward the end. Skewed camera angles, shadowy lighting, and surreal touches abound. Wrapping it all up is a Golden Globe-winning score by Ernest Gold that makes great use of the haunting Australian folk anthem, Waltzing Matilda.
Garnering only a paltry 7.2 audience rating on IMdB, On the Beach is hugely underrated. I’d give it an 8/10 at least, probably an 8.5. It’s a very powerful film, and a strong recommend. There are several excellent hi-def prints posted on YouTube for free.