Disaster, Drama, Page To Screen

On The Beach (1959)

What would you do if you knew that the world was coming to an end? How would you react to such news? How would you cope with having this new fact in your life?Stanley Kramer’s 1959 film, On The Beach, tackles all these questions and many more as well. It is a powerful, moving and very unsettling film experience. You will also never be able to hear the tune Waltzing Matilda without remembering moments from this film once you’ve seen this. That tune is used as the theme of the film. 

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The submarine departs after leaving a crewman ashore in America, so that he can die at home in familiar surroundings. Screenshot by me.

The film is filled with haunting scenes that are hard to shake off once you’ve finished watching the film. Scenes such as Peter and Mary having a conversation about suicide pills. The sailor leaving the submarine and going ashore to the radiation filled mainland of America, so that he can die at home in surroundings he knows and loves. That same crewman’s description of finding his parents dead. Chilling stuff for sure.

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Dwight and Moira comfort one another. Screenshot by me.

On The Beach is an adaptation of the 1957 novel of the same name, which was written by Nevil Shute. At the time of the films release there was great public fear of Atomic and Nuclear weapons. I’m sure this film chilled many viewers to the bone at the time, particularly due to its unflinching look at the aftermath of one of these weapons being used. The film is scary and thought provoking. Almost sixty years later and this film still remains a frightening and powerful film experience. Sadly the film still remains relevant as mankind is still intent on having these weapons around.

I like how the film captures how many different reactions various people have to the news of the end of mankind. Some can’t handle it and escape into a bottle of booze, some go to extremes to feel and experience life while it still exists, and some simply refuse to accept that there is no hope of survival whatsoever. It always makes me think how I would react in such a situation.

The film is set in Australia. The entire population(apart from people in Australia)have died due to radiation sickness following a Nuclear war. The radiation is being spread on the winds, and it is estimated to arrive in Australia in around five months time. The citizens there are trying to come to terms with the war, and with the fact of their own impending fate.

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The Sawfish surfaces. Screenshot by me.

An American submarine, the U.S.S. Sawfish, surfaces in Australia. It was submerged when the war began and therefore the crew haven’t been exposed to the radiation. The submarine has been travelling around the globe and surfacing at various countries, only to find no sign of life. Captain Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck)and his crew dock in Australia and come ashore. Despite Dwight’s wife and children having been killed in the war, he just cannot accept that painful fact and still acts as though they are living. 

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A happy moment for Dwight and Moira. Screenshot by me.

While the crew are ashore, Dwight befriends the guilt ridden scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire) and the outgoing and boozy Moira (Ava Gardner). Dwight and Moira slowly fall in love with one another. Dwight however cannot permit himself to act on his feelings though because he still considers himself married.

Dwight and his crew are joined by Julian and Lt. Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins)after a Morse signal is picked up coming from America. The crew must travel there and try and find out if anyone has somehow managed to survive. While all this is going on, the countdown to human extinction has begun and the clock is ticking fast.

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Peter and Mary have a difficult discussion about the suicide pills. Screenshot by me.

This is an extremely bleak film and I don’t find it to be an easy watch at all. The performances of the cast make it a must see though. I find it to be extremely moving and I think that it captures so well the horror and tragedy such an event would bring about in reality. I find the human stories to be the main reason to return to this one again and again. It’s both fascinating and moving watching the different characters and how they react to their approaching deaths.

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Gregory Peck as Dwight. Screenshot by me.

Gregory Peck is completely heartbreaking as a man trying to appear to be in control of his emotions. Inside though Dwight is anything but in control of his emotions. Dwight is consumed with a grief that he cannot display publically. Gregory shows us his tough façade cracking a few times though.

Thanks to Gregory’s superb performance we see Dwight really struggling to stay in control and we also see him wrestling with his conscience in regards to his developing and undeniable feelings for Moira. 

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Fred Astaire as Julian. Screenshot by me.

Fred Astaire is best remembered today for his incredible dancing skills, but he was also a very fine dramatic actor. His performance here as Julian Osborn is one of the best he ever gave in my opinion. Julian was a Nuclear scientist and he feels tremendous guilt that something he helped to build is now ending up destroying humanity.  

Fred steals every scene he is in with just a look. In many scenes he is in the background but you keep your focus on him to see how he is reacting at certain moments. I also like the look on his face in scenes where Julian watches Dwight and Moira, he seems to know before they do that they are falling in love. I think Julian knows that their time together will be very bittersweet and he pities them because of that. I think that Fred is especially excellent in the scene where the Sawfish crew ask Julian to try and explain how the war started in the first place. 

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Ava Gardner as Moira. Screenshot by me.

Ava Gardner touches my heart as Moira. She conveys the sadness and fear that Moira is struggling with perfectly. Moira is such a tragic figure because she has so much love to give, and she wants to spend her final days being happy with Dwight.

Ava perfectly conveys this woman’s inner turmoil, as she struggles to blot out the pain of the present by consuming booze and how at the same time she finds in Dwight a reason to stay alive and sober to savour every moment they have left. I think Ava delivers one of her most underrated performances in this film. She makes you want to hug Moira because she is so vulnerable and loveable. 

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Anthony Perkins as Peter. Screenshot by me.

Anthony Perkins is excellent as the young Lt. Peter Holmes. I’ve never been much of a fan of Perkins, but I really do like him in this film. Peter and his wife have recently had a baby, and his wife is really struggling to accept the truth of what is about to happen to everyone. Anthony perfectly captures the emotional and moral distress Peter is in.

When Peter has to decide if he and his young family will take the government issued suicide pills or not, Anthony really lets you see how much of a difficult decision that is for Peter. It is the kind of decision that nobody should ever have to make, but the film forces you to think what you would do in his place. Would you accept the slow, painful and deeply unpleasant death caused by radiation? Or would you have one last beautiful day surrounded by those you love, still being healthy and in control of your life, and then take the pill and peacefully slip away? 

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Donna Anderson as Mary. Screenshot by me.

Donna Anderson breaks my heart every time I watch this. Donna plays Peter’s wife, Mary. This woman is terrified of the truth about the end of the world but she won’t accept it or even talk about it. She too must decide how to meet her end. I think many people would react like Mary, still holding out for hope even when faced with the opposite reality. Donna portrays Mary’s hysteria and terror very well indeed. 

 

John Tate is Admiral Bridie. John only appears in a few scenes but he is excellent when he does show up. I really like how he subtly conveys his love for his much younger secretary, Lt. Hosgood (Lola Brooks). Those feelings are there in the way he looks at her. The way Hosgood looks back at the Admiral also gives me the impression that they both felt the same way. Watch them carefully in their scenes together.

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Bridie and Hosgood share a drink. Screenshot by me.

I especially love their final scene together where they share a drink. That scene moves me each time I watch it. The scene is beautifully played by both actors. I also love the weight of what is inferred between them but how it is never said, it makes for a very powerful and touching moment.

If you are among the few people on the planet who actually believe we should have Nuclear weapons; then I would seriously hope that this film (particularly the final ten minutes, and the famous final shot)would make you change your opinion. I would also recommend you watch the film Fail-Safe and the TV miniseries Threads and The Day After

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Dwight scans the surface for signs of life. Screenshot by me.

Just having one of these terrible weapons in the world is one too many. These films and series show what will happen to us if we ever use them. It annoys me so much that some members of our species are intent on creating ways of bringing about our destruction. We should learn to love each other, because at the end of the day we are all the same, we are all human and will all die one day. Why can’t our time on earth be filled with happiness instead of war and hate?

As bleak as this film is, it also does have some happy moments and it also focuses on the many good points about humanity. We see characters give and receive love. We see compassion, friendship and kindness. It makes you think that you should really value your life because you could lose it at any time. I also like that the film ends on a plea that could be seen as being directed straight at us in the audience. That plea is “There is still time… Brother”. Nuclear destruction is not Science Fiction, it is a terrifying real life possibility, but we do have it within our power to stop it from becoming an horrific reality.

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The plea aimed directly at us. Don’t let our world end like this. Screenshot by me.

I’m sure that audiences back in 1959 cannot have found the final shot of the plea to make for comfortable viewing. After all this final shot would have reminded them that the horror they’ve just seen wasn’t fiction. At the height of the cold war this film cannot have been an easy one to watch. Given the state of our world right now, I’m afraid that this  film sadly remains very relevant and chilling for us to watch today. Will we ever come to our senses and get rid of these weapons and our hate? I hope we will get rid of them.

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An emotional moment between Moira and Julian. Screenshot by me.

My favourite scenes are the following. Julian and Peter’s conversation on the submarine. Dwight trying to explain to Moira at the train station how he feels about his dead family. The young sailor leaving the submarine and going ashore in San Francisco, he chooses to die there (his home city)but he will do so alone. Julian trying to explain how the Nuclear war started. Bridie and Hosgood sharing a drink and an important conversation. The scene during the boat race between Dwight and Moira. Moira watching the submarine submerge. Moira and Julian’s conversation in his garage. The final scene.

This is a powerful film and is one with an equally powerful message to deliver. Strong performances from all the cast and a beautiful score to enjoy . Be sure to see this one on Blu-ray to see it looking its best. I highly recommend the novel too. It goes into more detail about how the war started. It also graphically describes the symptoms of radiation sickness, while the film only hints at those horrors.
Any other fans of this one? Please leave your thoughts below.

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