Pros: Ava Gardner, Cinematography, Score, Supporting Cast
Cons: Gregory Peck, Direction, Soap Opera Plot Meanderings
On the Beach (1959)
"This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper." TS Eliot, The Hollow Men
Well filmed, black and white adaptation of Neville Shute's novel about the aftermath of World War Three, On the Beach is a slow moving, majestic view of the lives of survivors in the land down under.
Stanley Kramer, a "message" director, did a good, albeit heavy handed job with his depiction of the bleak tale, however, his work here does not equal his best, which was Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg, which, while also quite heavy-handed, moved along better.
The movie, released at the height of the Cold War, has not aged well; its final shot of the revival meeting style banner, "There's Still Time, Brother," appearing trite, heavy-handed, and even silly in it's indictment of man's basic human nature and the story teller's denial of same. Despite the handwringing, the film has some very effective acting, especially from the supporting characters.
Gregory Peck The Gunfighter, Only the Valiant, Pork Chop Hill who did his best work early in his career and later was disappointing, is woefully miscast as the lead, "Commander Dwight Towers," commander of the USS Sawfish, a nuclear powered attack sub that steams into Australia to open the film. His wooden characterization does as much to weaken the film's impact as Kramer's harping on his "message." Peck is not terrible, mind you, but seems to be more interested in his paycheck than putting down a memorable performance. Ava Gardner (55 Days at Peking) does some of her best work as the alcoholic "Moira Davidson," Peck's love interest. While Fred Astaire and Anthony "Psycho" Perkins do great work with their supporting roles as a retired nuclear scientist and naval officer, respectively. For a film that compared and contrasted Americans and Australians, the accents were botched as nobody had a distinctive manner of speaking.
We learn that a nuclear war has occurred and the dreaded nuclear winter has descended upon the northern hemisphere. All communications have stopped. The scientists say the poisonous nuclear cloud is spreading and it will only be a matter of time before it affects Australia, too. Then, all human life will cease to exist. The various characters find their various ways to cope with the devastating news. Tony Perkins gets some suicide pills for his wife and child. Fred Astaire builds a racing car. Ava Gardner drinks. Gregory Peck takes his sub to San Francisco, to see if it's as bad as they think.
When they get to San Francisco, it is eeriely deserted. They look through the periscope. Not a dog or a cat, let alone a person or automobile is moving. In fact, there is not a single person visible - surely there would be dead bodies, abandoned automobiles, and things left askew? Not according to Kramers' vision... They send a radiation suit clad man ashore at San Diego to determine the source of an erratic radio signal that is being transmitted, but it turns out to be a fluke... While the film focuses on these devastating discoveries, it works well, however, Kramer chose to zero in on the budding romance between Peck and the saftig Gardner, which spoils the suspense and strands what could be a compelling drama in soap opera territory. The Ernest Gold score is spare and befits the somber subject matter and works extremely well, except for the times when "Waltzing Mathilda" is played, which is much too often during the 134 minute running time. Another example of the heavy handedness of the filmmakers' approach.
The MGM DVD is presented in 1.66:1 theatrical format. The well preserved black and white imagery works well for such a forbidding subject. As in most MGM DVDs, there are only minimal extras, including French and Spanish subtitles and a collectible 4-page booklet.
Additional Cold War films that I enjoyed include:
The Bedford Incident
Seven Days in May
Enjoy a good film tonight. Thanks for reading!