Most post-apocalyptic movies explore how life goes on after it is all but destroyed. Perhaps we devolve, while the apes get smarter and take over. Could they do worse? Maybe the bonds between a boy and his dog will still be the greatest love of all? Or between a father and a son? We might be dining on each other or living in silos, but at least a few of us will be alive.
In these films, there’s always an after, even if it’s so bleak you’d rather not live to see it. On The Beach is different. The premise simple: A nuclear war started, possibly by accident, has led to worldwide radioactive fallout destroying life on the planet, except for Australia where the radioactive winds haven’t reached yet – but they’re coming in about five months or so and when they do – lights out for all. Meantime, life seems strangely normal. There are horse-drawn carts on the streets of Melbourne, but also cars, and the trains still run. Perhaps, humanity is in denial, or maybe this is a more likely scenario than the mayhem we see in most end-of-the-world is coming films. After all, most humans when given a terminal diagnosis go on pretty much as they were.
Lt. Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) of the Royal Australian Navy, still makes sure the bottle is warm when he feeds his infant daughter, and still follows orders. His wife, Mary, would rather not even speak about what’s to come, though in this she doesn’t seem different than most. Peter is assigned to be a liaison officer on a mission being carried out by a US submarine that was at sea when the blast hit. Under the command of Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), the USS Sawfish will head north and check on air and water samples to see if just maybe the radiation might be dissipating, and life could go on (at least in Australia). There is also a some nonsensical morse code being sent out from San Diego, where life couldn’t possibly exist, but just in case, the sub will check on that as well. Towers still talks about his wife and children as though they are alive. He meets Moira Davidson, played by the lovely Ava Gardner, a woman who is spending her last months drinking and sleeping around. Fred Astaire is also on board as Julian Barnes, a scientist who spends his final days fulfilling his dream of being a race car driver. He wins the race, a relatively easy feat, given that several other drivers seem to purposely crash their cars, going out in a literal blaze of glory.
The film was directed by Stanley Kramer, known for his many “message” movies. As cringe-worthy or silly as The Defiant Ones or Guess Whose Coming to Dinner may seem, these were films that ended with hope. But there’s none of this in On The Beach. The radiation readings taken from the submarine show that the fallout will be even worse than they thought. The radio signal is coming from an unmanned power station where a coke bottle is being bumped by a window shade fluttering in the breeze. The sailor sent out in a hazard suit to explore the power station, turns off the power on his way out. Another, escapes from the boat and heads to a desolate San Francisco. No one is left alive, but home is home.
In the end, everyone dies though we never see a body. After the Sawfish returns and people start getting sick, Peter poisons his child before he and his wife settle into bed together to take the “sleeping pills” given to all who seek a quick death. Julian with the plaque of his racing victory attached to his car, closes up his garage and turns on the engine. Dwight, ever the dutiful officer, leaves once again for the United States with his remaining crew who have decided they want to go home to die. He leaves Moira, alone, on the beach.
Religion doesn’t seem to be a comfort for any of the main characters. We are treated to the scene of a crowd in front of a Salvation Army type band, with a large banner reading, “There is still time … brother.” We return to the image later and the crowd has thinned out, considerably. Then finally the street is empty, but for that damn banner hitting us over the head.
The movie of course lost money, because who wants to see that? There was a “controversy” with military types claiming it offered way too bleak a picture of nuclear war. This was a time after all, known for “shelter” drills at schools and films showing children how to “duck and cover” in the event of an A-bomb.
It’s pretty explicit in its explicitly stated message, spoken by Julian, that it was madness for both sides to create weapons so awful that the continuation of humanity depended on their never being used. I’m not sure how much this film changed the direction the world was headed or even the conversation. Certainly, the weapons have continued to pile up, cults of survivalists still exist, and we go on ignoring what’s in front of us whether it pertains to our own mortality or that of the planet.
Still, good job, Stanley Kramer.
On The Beach is not available for streaming, but the DVD can be found most places including Netflix. It’s in beautiful black and white.