Doomsday Marathon: On The Beach
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.