#6: On the Beach

By Brock Wilbur · February 14, 2012

When I moved to Los Angeles, the hills were alive with the sound of inferno.

Forest fires raged, and consumed subdivisions whole. Smoke covered the smog that covered the city, and on several occasions, my friends from the Valley evacuated and crashed with me. Darkness never blotted out our sky, but if the wind hit just right, you could smell the embers. One morning my car was covered in soot — a surreal image I'll never shake.

In an op-ed piece which ran at the time, a coastal contrast was highlighted. New Yorkers had to deal with 9/11, taxi drivers, extreme weather, and other New Yorkers on public transit. Los Angeles was jealous of this threatening lifestyle, but overcompensated. Our people proved we could hang by fully embracing the Apocalypse, in whatever form it took that week. Californians never ran from their own burning homes, but stood out front in sunglasses, gin and tonic in hand, smiling and humming "Light My Fire" as the flames took control.

What the op-ed writer drew attention to was a city-wide inferiority complex, but the image remains cool because it personifies exactly that: an acceptance of that which we cannot change, and the mildest of revelry in the face of doom. Maybe LA refused to accept the emotional undercurrents of the moment, but at least that one homeowner opted for a sense of humor over pitiful rebuke.

Directed by a pre–Inherit the Wind Stanley Kramer, On The Beach (1959) broached the subject of nuclear Armageddon with nary a degree of hope. resigned to the unbeatable of the inevitable. The same gin would fill our glass, we'd hum a different song, but we'd also been the ones burning.

In the future (1964), the United States' nuclear submarineSawfish surfaces outside Melbourne. World War III has come and gone, and so has the entirety of the northern hemisphere. Australia, posing no threat to any of the major powers, was mercifully overlooked, and the American sub was trapped in the Pacific during the global bombardment. Commander Dwight Lionel Towers (Gregory Peck) leads his men to shore, hoping the last earthly government will benefit from their aide.

While the nuclear blasts wiped out life across the globe, Australian scientists fear they'll fare no better; wind patterns will sweep the radioactive fallout into the southern hemisphere within five months. There are a few hypothetical safe-points that only the Sawfish can reach, but the population has already begrudgingly accepted their fate.

Here lies the genius of On The Beach: an entire country of survivors — who had nothing to do with the war — damned to a horrific fate, but "gifted" an extra half-year for their troubles. How society crumbles is not the focus, but rather how long it may survive past the point of necessity.

Local lieutenant Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) is assigned to take the American Commander into his care for a weekend of shore leave, before embarking with their crew to explore possible nuclear safe-zones on other continents. Holmes is nervous about accepting a position that may keep him at sea past the point of Australia's expiration, as he wants to be home with his newlywed wife and their child for the final moments. Seeing Psycho's Norman Bates as a romantic lead is just as unsettling as any theme within the film.

Cmdr. Towers witnesses the various reactions to the incoming airborne toxic event while having one hell of a blow-out at Holmes' house party. Since there is no definitive explanation of what brought about the third world war, the men of the party dedicate themselves to unearthing a cause, and assigning the blame. The power mad actions of a select few? Simple mechanical error? Trigger-happy defense commanders? The details no longer matter, but the painful truth remains: "Who would ever have believed that human beings would be stupid enough to blow themselves off the face of the Earth?"

Holmes' wife, who refuses to accept the futility of the situation, breaks down. Scientist Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire) drunkenly buries the room in despair, as he berates his own involvement in weapon's development. His lush of a lab partner, Moira (Ava Gardner), falls hard for Towers, ignoring that the captain has rejected reality: opting instead for a fantasy world where his wife is still waiting at home for him, and his children will attend the colleges he always imagined.

The film is long, literary, and jarringly inconsistent between bleak pain and comedic release — distracting moviemaking, but unabashedly honest. No party ever ends on a high note; no dark evaluation of humanity's chances slips past without a few clunky one-liners. These jokes may rarely land, but how funny are the harbingers of destruction expected to be?

Character arcs serve their purpose, and the cinematography employs fascinating use of sudden adjustment to canted-angles. The best parts of On The Beach is an odd assortment of memorable scenes, beginning with the small moment of removing nuclear warheads (a now-laughable anachronism) from the sub.

The Sawfish's expedition searches Alaska and the United States coastline for safe-zones, and turns up empty. A mysterious Morse Code signal which had provided so much hope is revealed to be a cruel cosmic prank. Crew member Swain bails near his home of San Francisco, choosing the quick brutality at home over the slow fade to black waiting in Australia. Towers watches him die, respecting his decision, and communicating via periscope in a sequence that looks hilariously oddball, but contains more heart than any other conversation in the film.

Back at home, elder curmudgeons in the local pub complain about the excess remaining Port, and the poor planning on the part of the producers to leave more than they can possibly drink by the Apocalypse. Holmes procures government-issued suicide pills to ease the pain of his wife and child. A geriatric server outlives all his pub regulars, but still keeps the place in order. Fred Astaire's dedicated yet devastated scientist procures the finest race-car in the country, and enters himself in the Grand Prix, because why not? Towers and Moira pursue a love that cannot be, and then one day, humanity is dead. The final shot pulls out from a church gathering square, now abandoned, overseen by the banner "This Is Still Time… Brother," a message no longer applicable to this world.

They say that the best science-fiction does not merely predict the future, but prevents it. Kramer's intention was clear, and for the time, successful. Without a single mushroom cloud leaves the film open to all future interpretations for comparable endgame sequences. More than fifty years later, On The Beach resonates with the same harsh reminders: when the end comes, it will come for us all, but the choice will not be made by you.