On the Beach (1959) – Stanley Kramer

The next recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book following my screening of Dr. Strangelove is this film,On the Beach, based on the novel by Nevil Shute.

The above the title cast is impressive, Gregory Peck, Anthony Perkins, Ava Gardener and Fred Astaire. I’m just not sure I care for the way the subject matter is handled. Every one seems pretty laid back, and in fact, a lot of people in Australia (where the bulk of the film is set) seem less than bothered and are going about their daily life like nothing has changed.

But everything has.

The planet has wiped itself out, the nukes have been launched, and Australia is months away from a radioactive cloud reaching them and wiping them out with the rest of humanity.

Despite that, despite the horror that has been unleashed on the world, everyone we encounter in the film seems to be living their life with little to no change. There’s no mass panic on the street, no hoarding, no violence, it all seems pretty restrained, and you wouldn’t know anything was wrong if the plot didn’t tell you so.

The bulk of the story follows the crew of a U.S. submarine commanded by Dwight Lionel Towers (Peck), with his new lieutenant, Peter Holmes (Perkins with a touch of an Aussie accent), and the scientist who is accompanying them on their survey mission to points north of Australia, Julian Osborne (Astaire).

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The first half of the film we are in Australia. Life goes on. There is some discussion of plans for when the radiation hits, but nothing seems dire, or even apocalyptic – everyone is going to work, and carrying on with the day to day.

That’s where Towers meets Moira Davidson (Gardener) and while a romance is hinted at, Towers can’t let go of thoughts of his wife and children who died in the attack.

It’s never revealed who fired the first missile, only that it happened, and it wiped out most of the planet… though when the submarine visits the west coast of America, all the buildings are still standing and despite the mention of bodies everywhere, you don’t see anything, It’s like they all disappeared.

It’s an interesting story idea, but the fact that none of the characters are contemplating much more than their duty (Holmes seems to be the only one that suggests an early out for his wife and child).  That is until the last quarter of the film as people begin preparing for the end, and even then it’s all restrained and proper. No panic, no railing against the dark night, simple acceptance.

It seems out of place with all the post-apocalyptic films that followed it. It’s too restrained, clinging to the concept of the nobility of humanity as we face our extinction. And while I’m sure some people would, I don’t think the rest of the world would be as contained and well-behaved as these characters are.

I’m sure for the time, the film was solid, entertaining, even a little frightening and no doubt generating conversations, but today, with the things we know, with how things like this have been portrayed since, it was hard to get into this one.

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