The only survivors of a nuclear war are residents of Australia and the crew of an American submarine that was submerged when the bombs went off. With only months left before the fallout arrives, those left try and deal with their inevitable deaths. Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), a pleasant alcoholic, starts a relationship with the newly widowed U.S. Commander, Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), while Lt. Commander Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) must find a way to get his wife to accept what is happening, and what it will mean to their baby. Scientist Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire) enters a dangerous race as a last fling. Out of desperation, Towers takes his sub north, with Osborne and Holmes onboard, to investigate a radio signal and test to see if maybe there might be a place in the world that is safe, but no one believes there is much chance.
Watching On the Beach now is a different experience than watching it thirty years ago (I can’t say much about what it was like when it was first released—I was…young). Back then, a nuclear war could have occurred at any moment (whereas now, I feel reasonably safe for several months). However, the big shift isn’t in political reality, but in perception. Somehow, watching this film was once a subversive act. Conservatives blasted it, and any film like it, as anti-American. For those of you too young to remember, conservatives were still claiming well into the ’80s that we could win a nuclear war. This lunacy peaked with the TV movie The Day After, when rightwing commentators and politicians demanded equal time to explain why nuclear war was an acceptable enterprise if it stopped them damn Ruskies.
Well, On the Beach came out at the end of the ’50s (when one could expect the conservative reaction to be even more extreme), and was the first anti-nuclear film that didn’t involve giant cockroaches or mutants. Time may have diminished its power, but it is still a compelling and bleak reminder of what could happen with only a touch of human stupidity, and that’s one quality we have in abundance.
The acting, directing, cinematography, and sets are all above reproach (unless you are obsessive about Australian accents). The story is slight, and even with little happening and a leisurely pace, On the Beach never drags. A feeling of dread hangs over everything so completely that fast action would be out of place.
Producer/director Stanley Kramer (Inherit the Wind-1960, Judgment at Nuremberg-1961, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner-1967) had a point to make, as he usually did, so wasn’t concerned with a realistic portrait of a post-apocalyptic world. He wanted to show the best in humanity after the results of the worst. So, the film is filled with controlled, dedicated, unselfish, saints. They have psychological problems, but nothing behavioral. There are no riots, no hording, and no complaints outside of party conversations. The sailors show up for work each day, and a race is the closest thing to “going-wild.” I think he could have conveyed the theme without everyone being quite so dignified.
But then that out-of-place dignity may be what keeps On the Beach relevant, because it makes it something other than just a warning. It is a fable, and the moral is: take joy in the things that are important in life, and do it now, because it can all be taken away in an instant.
When I first read Nevil Shute’s novel, also titled On the Beach, I considered it one of the most important books ever written. And the film struck me the same way. These many years later, neither are on my top ten list, but both are satisfying.