Doomsday Marathon: On The Beach

Doomsday Movie Marathon

On The Beach

Year: 1959
Director: Stanley Kramer
Written by: John Paxton based on a novel by Nevil Shute
Starring: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins
Duration: 129 min

On The Beach is a film that I randomly purchased as part of a cheap 10-film boxset, and to be honest I half expected never to watch it. There were better films in the set (Twelve Angry Men and The Apartment, two of my personal favourites), it looked like it would be very melodramatic and I’ve got far too many more interesting films in my collection that I’ve not got round to watching. However, when I was invited by the fine people at Row Three to contribute towards the site and was looking through the Doomsday Marathon listings for inspiration, it dawned on me. I had just the right DVD to review gathering dust in my overcrowded boxset section.

On The Beach, in content terms at least, is the ultimate doomsday film. It is, purely and simply, about the end of human life on Earth. The film is set in Australia, the last uncontaminated place on the planet after a global nuclear war. The plot basically follows a number of survivors gradually coming to terms with the fact that they will die within a matter of months. There is never any happy ending on the horizon, no last minute solution to the problem and no secret bunker or space-flight to safety. It may sound like I’m ruining the film, but you’d be a fool to expect anything else once you’ve got through the first half an hour or so.

As you’ve probably gathered, this is a pretty bleak film with a clear message. On The Beach was released in 1959 when the world was terrified of nuclear war and it’s horrific consequences. Dozens of films at the time tackled the issues of the Cold War and the atomic threat through thinly veiled metaphorical sci-fi plots such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day The Earth Stood Still, but On The Beach went straight for the jugular and showed us what was going to happen if the worst came to the worst. It was surprisingly successful at the time, given the sombre tone, but then again it was a big budget film with an all star cast. It’s relatively forgotten these days though, I knew very little about it before I bought it, so the question is how does it hold up today?

Well, it holds up pretty well. The story cannily shies away from patriotism or finger wagging by keeping the details of the war itself unknown and focusing on the more human aspects of the situation. Shot by Guiseppe Rotunno in stark black and white, it’s also a great looking film and the lack of colour obviously adds to the bleak nature of proceedings. There are also a few interesting uses of Dutch angles and some very effective dolly shots that impress from a technical and aesthetic perspective.

Away from the plot and visuals though, the film is quite uneven in several of it’s aspects. Tonally the film is generally quite cold (and effectively so), but there are a number of moments where it breaks out into melodrama and the film loses it’s edge. This is mirrored in the performances too which on the whole are very impressive for the era, Gregory Peck and Anthony Perkins especially create some controlled and complex characters, but others occasionally crumble under the pressure. Some of the accents are pretty suspect, especially that of Fred Astaire, although on the whole he was much better than I expected in an usual role for him. The final aspect that I found hit and miss was the music. I loved the Waltzing Matilda motif, but every now and then some by-the-numbers heart-yanker will blare out and cheapen things. The final sequence is the worst example of this, where a poignant final rendition of Matilda is rudely interrupted by some crashing orchestra hits to hit home Kramer’s final message (which isn’t so subtle either). That said, most of these stumbles were in the first two thirds of the film and I was largely impressed by how well the final reel was handled.

Although I wouldn’t expect otherwise from the era, I found that everyone’s reaction to the inevitable was a bit too dignified too. There is no mention of looting or any other criminal or carnal acts, which are to be expected given the circumstances. The issue of sex is actually hinted at a number of times, but subtly so, which does fit the film’s tone. The main focus of course is love and companionship, which the film handles gracefully (aside from the lapses mentioned previously). I did want to see some different approaches to the situation though. Fred Astaire’s Ferrari sequences interested me in that aspect, although I was kind of hoping the race sequence would take a much darker tone. I was expecting him to end his story there and then after getting the impression that him and the other drivers were wanting to go down in a literal blaze of glory. The eventual tying up of Astaire’s strand was quite touching though, if a little predictable.

There are a number of other memorable scenes too, the conversation featuring Peck speaking through a submarine’s loudspeaker to one of it’s crew member’s who is out in a contaminated zone has a surreal humour to it’s choice of shots (the film is fleetingly humorous on occasion), yet it is still quite moving. A desperately passionate scene between Peck and Gardner set during a stormy night also etched itself in my memory due to it’s clever use of sound and music, a great dolly shot and two standout performances.

On The Beach is a powerful, but flawed film. When it works, it works very successfully, but it’s flaws stop it from being a wholly satisfying experience, and as mentioned before I felt a little more could have been made of such an extreme premise. Ultimately though, the film did have me frequently watching the clock and not because I was bored, but because I desperately wanted to know how long these characters had left to live. It’s this sense of dread that sticks and hauntingly reminds you that it’s not a totally unrealistic premise.





6 comments

  1. red2blues

    An especially timely review, as it is the 50th anniversary of the film and there are commemorations in Australia regarding the film. On the whole I agree with your views about the film. However, I felt that the most riveting performance on the film is by Astaire. His is the only one that does not seem to be by someone acting the character, rather he seems to BE the character. His economic, unsetimental and not melodramatic delivery brought some weight to the somewhat overblown histrionics by some of the other actors that threatened at times to blow up this film. He and Peck (primarily) kept it in check.

  2. Kurt Halfyard

    Welcome aboard David!

    The strange casting, odd setting and early widescreen cinematography have me intrigued enough, I'll be tracking this one down for sure.

  3. I dug this original film and the book as well.. classy post apocalyptic-ness.

  4. As much as I'd like to say I posted the review to coincide with the 50th anniversary it was a total fluke I have to say, I was just looking through my collection for a film that fit the Doomsday bill. Fred Astaire was very good I agree, perhaps I should have given him more credit. Maybe Peck and Perkins stood out a bit more for me because their characters were given a little more to work with. Also, being British, I found Astaire's accent a little wobbly, which detracted me at times from the other strengths of his performance.

  5. "Although I wouldn’t expect otherwise from the era, I found that everyone’s reaction to the inevitable was a bit too dignified too"

    This is what bothers me about a lot of the doomsday films I am seeing, how matter-of-fact the event becomes for purposes of moving plot forward, or I guess in this case, a stiff upper lip mentality of the time period. I suppose the best satirical attack on this would be the Canadian entry, Last Night, which makes it so as if the end of the world is just another thing about to happen, not worthy of much concern.

    I don't expect realism from something like 2012, but I am looking for a film that unequivocally addresses the existential threat of a doomsday scenario with the reverence it deserves. For me this marathon is less about seeing shit blow up as about seeing people cope under pressure.

    thanks for the contribution David, I will add a proper capsule on the Doomsday page shortly.

  6. jwoff

    Fair movie for its time, but Ava Gardner seems to be trying to play an ingenue, 1930′s-style. Gregory Peck’s acting is stilted and often forced and an incredibly handsome Tony Perkins’ is melodramatic. I agree with what people above are saying about Fred Astaire’s performance.

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  1. Film on TV: March 1-7 | Jandy's Meanderings - [...] destroyed; a small outpost in Australia survives, but not for long. See David’s longer take here;. 1959 USA. Director: …

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