From the brief description that came before On the Beach (1959) I was intrigued coming from a Sci-fi fan point of view, it’s not very often that an A-list cast of this period would come together to make such a thought-provoking film. Based on a Nevil Shute’s novel of the same name that is obviously inspired during a time of intense discussion around the rise of nuclear weapons, not twenty years after the close of WWII do we see the world’s major powers arming themselves with weapons that if used could ultimately lead to the worlds destruction far quicker than the two previous wars put together. Thankfully the powers that be have been able to keep their hands off the giant button that could launch us to the end of civilisation as we know it.
The details of the event that lead to a U.S submarine surfacing in Australia are kept rather close to the characters, not wishing to discuss even amongst themselves, which adds to the sensitivity of the event (whatever that maybe). We do get an explanation of sorts later on as to what could have happened, its all seen as conjecture really, no-one knows the truth, what happened in the western world saw it fall to it’s untimely demise. Only leaving Australia left free from the effects of radiation caused by the bombs that were launched.
For a film with few special effects, not a rocket’s are launched, no mushroom clouds rise from the ground, the audience still engages with a film that ultimately can’t have a happy ending, Something that is rare for this time in American film where the happy ending is king, justice is served, the live happily ever-after. It just can’t happen for those left alive in this version of the world that had to fire up those deterrents that should have been just that.
There has been discussion on and off for a few years about the renewal of the Trident system in the U.K. do we need it, it’s too expensive. I believe we need to protect ourselves, but would we ever use it? What cost would it have to our country and the wider world? There are enemies out there that may not respond to such a show of force. It is a last resort and should only be that. Here in On the Beach those lucky enough to still be alive are dealing with that, the actions of those who pressed that button only to end up dying because of it.
With the event behind us at the beginning of the film we have only to wait for the end really, filling in that time with the final days of a submarine commander Dwight Lionel Towers, (Gregory Peck) who along with his men are in the unique position of being the last of the American race left alive, avoiding all the devastation of back home. Falling for a Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner) who has never really had a man in her life, doesn’t want to be alone, fighting to be with a man who at first cannot accept and grieve for his family. Leading a strong cast in a film that remains serious throughout, without preaching to the audience, that’s left to the direction, cinematography and soundtrack creating an empty world that will soon become far emptier very soon as the radiation takes a hold of the country.
Even looking at the final hours and days of the average man who can choice to die in pain and suffering from the radiation or take a suicide pill that can end it all, with a shrewd of dignity still in tact. It’s all pretty grim stuff really, handled sensitively. Could it be propaganda? Probably leaving us in no doubt that using nuclear weapons can only have one real outcome, the end of life on earth as we know it. Even as life carries on in Australia for a short time, they’re slowed down, returning to outdated vehicles to get about, running out of supplies.
Yet it’s the return to San Francisco on a mission following up a signal they picked up, only to find it’s a nothing. Whilst there, the images of a usually busy landscape brought to a standstill, devoid of life, as if it was the early hours of the day and people are starting to stir, not venturing out. But it’s not dawn, they’re all dead. These are the images that drive home to the American public what could happen if the bombs went off, even miles away off in the ocean, it could still be felt back home.