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As Hollywood's first large-scale attempt to deal with the implications of nuclear warfare, On the Beach (1959) closed out the atomic "duck and cover" decade of the 1950s on a particularly somber note and marked a controversial move for "social issues" director Stanley Kramer, still a relatively green filmmaker after the success of The Defiant Ones (1958). Here he sought to create a star-studded epic drama with more on its mind than romance and action scenes.
Based on a controversial novel by Nevil Shute (inspired by the Australian writer's bemused notion that his adopted homeland would be the only refuge after a nuclear attack), the story follows a group of survivors of an international nuclear attack which has annihilated all of the major nations. Commander Towers (Gregory Peck) and his crew survive on a submarine and seek refuge in Australia, where he becomes a companion to the high-living Moira (Ava Gardner) despite coping with the loss of his family. Meanwhile American physicist and racing aficionado Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire) and Australian naval officer Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) find their own dreams thwarted with the realization that the incoming winds may eventually bring radioactive doom to the remaining survivors.
Before On the Beach, depictions of nuclear terror had largely remained the domain of low-budget horror and science fiction films as well as the occasional under-the-radar independent feature with strange propaganda slants such as Arch Oboler's Five (1951) or Invasion USA (1952). What sets this film apart, aside from the obvious pedigree of the talent involved, is its refusal to play the political game by trying to sway the audience to one side or the other. In fact, it was the first American film to hold a premiere in the Soviet Union, where it received a positive reception in the Soviet Union despite never being officially released wide in that country.
The decision to shoot On the Beach on location in Melbourne proved to be both a wise decision in establishing a sense of genuine atmosphere and locale for the project and a source of frustration for many of the cast and crew. No real Australian film studios existed, so facilities had to be built from scratch, often in punishing heat. Gardner, an urbanite, had the most difficulty coping thanks to a particularly dogged entertainment press and her desire to skip off to Sydney for a taste of its night life. Of the shooting location she famously remarked, "I'm here to make a picture about the end of the world, and this sure is the place for it!"
In his first non-musical role, Astaire (who was approached directly by Kramer for the part at the suggestion of his wife) developed an intense characterization and committed fully to his role, even downing bourbon flown in from America before shooting his big intoxication scene. Unlike Gardner, he had no trouble passing incognito among the Australian public and enjoyed browsing through local thrift and novelty stores as well as attending the dog races with Peck.
Apart from removing any specific national involvement in the holocaust, On the Beach remains admirably faithful to the original source novel, particularly retaining its author's ambivalent relationship with technology which occupied so much of his writing as well as his largely covert military career with Great Britain. The story "envisions a world destroyed by gadgets, but this world still loves the gadgets which have destroyed and will outlast their makers," notes Julian Smith in his biography, Nevil Shute. "But Shute is not mocking man; he is only explaining how things are. In fact, he bought a brand new Jaguar XK 140 when he started writing On the Beach and raced it himself."
Though the more conservative factions of the American press and government were quick to dismiss On the Beach as speculative science fiction and needlessly depressing, the film struck a chord with the public and for decades remained the definitive dramatic portrayal of the aftermath of a nuclear attack until a new resurgence of harrowing Reagan-era nuclear studies such as The Day After (1983), When the Wind Blows (1986) and Testament (1983). As Donald Spoto observes in Stanley Kramer: Film Maker, the film is not a morbid analysis of slow death but a humane look at mankind's attributes as well as "a powerful and a moving and a thought-provoking film... For some viewers, of course, any movie is depressing that does not reveal its significance without reflection or reviewing...It's really about the horror of wasting life and about the vain pursuit of power and expediency. It affirms that our worst fear should be that we'll not have time to develop further our own humanity. And having proposed that, the film finally gives back our hope: there is still time."
The basic formula for On the Beach proved successful enough for Kramer to repeat it again for two more acclaimed films, Inherit the Wind (1960) and Judgment at Nuremberg 91961), using a cast of stars to deliver a message many viewers weren't quite prepared to accept. It also generated worldwide awareness and popularity for its theme song, "Waltzing Matilda," an Australian standard adapted by composer Ernest Gold to increasingly chilling effect until its final haunting refrain in the unforgettable, desolate final scene.
Producer: Stanley Kramer
Director: Stanley Kramer
Screenplay: John Paxton, James Lee Barrett (uncredited), Nevil Shute (novel)
Cinematography: Daniel Fapp
Art Direction: Fernando Carrere
Music: Ernest Gold
Film Editing: Frederic Knudtson
Cast: Gregory Peck (Cmdr. Dwight Lionel Towers), Ava Gardner (Moira Davidson), Fred Astaire (Julian Osborne), Anthony Perkins (Lt. Cmdr. Peter Holmes), Donna Anderson (Mary Holmes).
by Nathaniel Thompson