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On the Beach (1959)

by on March 22, 2010
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Subtle as a sledgehammer, “On the Beach” is a movie about people waiting to die. Anyone who watches it will know exactly how they feel.

The 1959 film is set in the post-nuclear apocalypse. The entire world population has been erased except for Australia, and they’ll soon be gone when the weather brings radiation poisoning to the holdouts in five months or so. Gregory Peck is captain of a U.S. submarine that escaped the bombs, and is sent out by the remaining joint Australian/American leadership to survey the spread.

(Even in 1959, scientists knew it wouldn’t take five months for radiation to spread. But audiences probably didn’t.).

Directed by Stanley Kramer, “On the Beach” was written by John Paxton from the novel by Nevil Shute. It’s really heavy-handed stuff as the characters try to put a brave face on their impending doom, and take a break now and then to wail about how mankind could have been so stupid as to play around with nuclear weapons.

The story is set in 1964 — the near-distant future. Peck plays Dwight Towers, the sub commander who still speaks about his wife and two children as if they’re alive. He’s not bonkers, or at least not more so than any of the other people trying desperately to maintain an even keel.

Anthony Perkins plays a young Australian naval officer assigned to Towers as a liaison, and Donna Anderson plays his nervous wife. Ava Gardner stars as Moira, a friend of theirs who soon gets caught up in romance with Towers. Gardner gives a vibrant, fetching performance as a woman with a big personality and an excess of passion, but there’s a layer of self-hatred underneath.

Fred Astaire plays Julian, an English scientist who bears a guilty conscience, since he was one of those who helped build the bomb.

The most interesting thing about the movie is its depiction of how society adapts after the bombs have fallen. The short version is, not very much. They still have electricity, telephones and plenty of booze — which all the characters help themselves to generously. About the only major change is that everyone gets around by bicycle or horse, since there’s little gasoline for cars.

Although Julian does own the last functioning Ferrari in the world, which he intends to race in the upcoming (and last) Australian Grand Prix, despite being a bit long in the tooth for this sort of thing, not to mention a total novice as a race car driver.

The movie is quite dull and repetitive. There’s lots of scenes of men and women sharing drinks and trying not to talk about the radiation that’s coming to kill them.

Eventually, Towers and his crew do set out on their mission. It includes a side trip to San Diego to track down a mysterious Morse Code signal they’ve been receiving.

I don’t mind a movie that’s depressing, but “On the Beach” is simply a great bore. The anti-war and anti-nukes message is delivered so stridently, it feels more like a lecture than a forbidding cautionary tale.

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