"On the Beach" (1959)
In 1959, the Cold War was nearing its peak. The possibility of a nuclear war between The U.S.A. and the Soviet Union was very real. From the official governments there was far more talk of how to survive an atomic attack than of how to prevent one. (Remember those bomb shelters?). It is within this environment of fear and apprehension that 'On the Beach' a film from 1959 should be judged. It is far more than just another relic from it's time.
The film starts off conventionally enough. An officer of the Australian Navy (a pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins) is living an utterly mundane life with his young wife and new born child in a small Australian seaport town. They are doing the things any young married couple would do, feeding the baby, changing it's diapers,, etc.. As the story progresses we are made aware that despite the apparent normality of the situation, this world of the near future (1964 in terms of the movie's futurity) is in fact radically different from the world of 1959. As a result of a Nuclear Exchange between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. most of the human race has been annilated. What's worse, radioactive fallout from the conflict, heading southward towards Australia, has doomed the surviving remnant to a slow, agonizing death. The Australians are simply biding their time, trying to enjoy what life remains to them as they wait for their inevitable deaths.
This bleak scenario is responsible for the ethos of existential dread which permeates the entire film. Less of a drama than a character study, 'On The Beach' shows how people might face imminent death under extaordinary circumstances. During the course of the story each of the principal characters does this in his/her own way (warning: spoiler alert. Disregard the remainder of this paragraph if you haven't seen the movie): scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire) asphyxiates himself; Australian naval officer Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) and his wife, Mary (Donna Anderson), take their child's and their own lives via poison pills; self proclaimed party girl and drunk Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner) tries to drink her fears away, and American Submarine Commander Dwight Lionel Towers (Gregory Peck) returns with his crew to the contaminated USA.
It was highly unusual of Hollywood at the time to produce a film as unremttingly bleak as this one. This was after all the era when the Hollywood Dream machine was endlessly excreting big budget Musicals and overblown Biblical epics like 'The Robe' (1952). Television wasn't much better with its countless Family shows, such as the execrable 'Leave It To Beaver', in which the major concern was which college Wally was going to attend after graduation. These films and TV series appealed almost exclusively to the so called "average" Nuclear family for their viewership. 'On The Beach' was the first major American film to my knowledge to deal directly with the subject of what happens AFTER a Nuclear Exchange.
Much of the credit for the fact that 'On The Beach' reached the screen at all goes to Director Stanley Kramer, who had built a career on films dealing with topical social issues. It was probably his previous commercial successes with films of this type ('High Noon' - 1952, 'The Caine Mutiny' - 1954) which convinced U.A. to go ahead with the project.
Produced by Mr. Kramer as well, this "message" film was intended to have a big impact. United Artists believed it's commercial potential great enough that it debuted the film on the same day in eighteen cities on all seven continents (including Antarctica!) The premiere sites included, signifigantly, both Moscow and Washington, D.C.
When Hollywood did deal with a subject as depressing as nuclear war it was done obliquely, usually through the new, and very popular, genre of Science Fiction. In film after film of the Nineteen Fifties the Human Race was threatened with total destruction from strange alien menaces and bizarre creatures. The latter were inevitably discovered to have been created or unleashed by a Nuclear explosion. Whether it was a hibernating dinosaur brought back to life ('The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms' (1953)), a giant octopus disturbed by nuclear testing ('It Came From Beneath the Sea' - 1955) or any numer of creatures (including humans) whose size was abnormally increased or decreased ('The Amazing Collosal Man' - 1957, 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' - 1956, etc.), the cause was inevitably releated to "The Bomb". Only recently have psychologists come to the realization that these fantastic stories represented the repressed fears and anxieties of the age, most notably the fear of Nuclear weapons.
What story there is involves Commander Towers and his crew taking a trip to the Northern Hemisphere. Buoyed by Professor Jorgenson's (Peter Williams) theory that heavy rain and snowfall in the Northern Hemisphere may lessen the threat to the existing survivors, Admiral Bridie (John Tate) conscripts Towers into the Australian Navy and orders him to go north to test the theory. Before taking off on the mission, Bridie reveals to Towers that a mysterious radio signal has been detected coming from somewhere around San Diego. Could there actually be other survivors?
Meanwhile back in Australia, a bunch of the characters, believing there's no hope, commit suicide. Party girl Moira drinks to forget her troubles before realizing that she is in love with the reluctant Towers. You'll have to rent the DVD for the outcome of all this. Lets just say that it's not a happy ending.
'On The Beach' is firmly in the post-apocalyptic tradition of 'The World, The Flesh and The Devil' (also 1959); 'Panic In the Year Zero' (1963) and 'Testament'(1983). Though it occasionally goes over the top and lacks some technical credibility (I've been told that the fallout form a nuclear exchange of this size would not travel this slowly; it's effects would be felt very quickly) it is still a powerful, well-acted, and deftly photographed film. (Also, the characters are much too calm throughout the story: I simply can't believe that under these conditions there would not be chaos and rioting in the streets).
We no longer fear a large scale Nuclear War. Today it's the fear of a rogue oragnization or a lone terrorist with weapons of mass destruction at their disposals which haunts us. The possibility of total annihilation is still out there though, and for this reason 'On The Beach' still resonates with us today.
Mark E. DeSnow