On The Beach (1959)

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Directed Stanley Kramer

Written by John Paxton (based on the novel by Nevil Shute)

Starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins, Donna Anderson

Tagline: The Biggest Story of Our Time

Trivia: Gregory Peck was a lifelong advocate of nuclear disarmament

Companion Film: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

On the Beach is a bleak but humanistic film about the end of the world. After a nuclear war left most of the earth radioactive and unlivable,  Australia stands as the last bastion of civilization. Meanwhile, the survivors wait for the fallout to arrive.  Life goes on with a heightened sense of doom. There’s a definite sense of urgency to the film since it was made during the height of the Cold War in the late Fifties.  Anyone who watches On the Beach, if they have a beating pulse, will take stock of their own existence.

The acting and direction are first rate. Gregory Peck plays the lead, an American Submarine commander who takes refuge with his crew in Melbourne.  He meets and falls in love with a local woman Moira (Ava Gardner) knowing their romance will be short lived.  A subplot follows a young naval officer and his wife struggling find meaning in their remaining days, featuring excellent early performances from Anthony Perkins and Donna Anderson.  Fred Astaire, in a dramatic role, leaves a lasting impression as a cynical scientist.

All the characters face their situation with a mix of courage, fear, anger, even apathy.  The script never loses sight of human emotion. As the government distributes death pills that will allow people to die a peaceful death the reality of the situation starts to sink in.  What’s even more tragic for everyone is the knowledge humanity had it within their power to avoid such a pointless ending. The wonderful cinematography of the beautiful Australian countryside reinforces the theme of what would be lost in such a grim scenario.  The world will live on, just without people.

Stanley Kramer directed some of most important films of the 1950s and 1960s.  He often took on controversial subjects: The Defiant OnesTo Kill A Mockingbird, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner dealt with race, Inherit the Wind on science and religion, and his most important work Judgment At Nuremberg addressed the Holocaust. The “liberal” politics of these films may strike some as preachy, but the intentions are good and probably braver than most of what Hollywood puts on the screen these days.

On the Beach will put you in a contemplative mood. While I’m glad we no longer live in a world constantly on the brink of nuclear annihilation, the danger still remains.  A difficult film, but also a fitting reminder of the beauty and fragility of life.

 

 

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