On the Beach (1959 film)

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On the Beach
Onethebeach.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Stanley Kramer
Produced by Stanley Kramer
Written by Nevil Shute (novel)
John Paxton (screenplay)
Starring Gregory Peck
Ava Gardner
Fred Astaire
Anthony Perkins
Music by Ernest Gold
Cinematography Giuseppe Rotunno
Edited by Frederic Knudtson
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • December 17, 1959 (1959-12-17) (U.S.)
Running time 134 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2.9 million[1]

On the Beach is a 1959 American post-apocalyptic science fiction drama film, produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, and starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins. The film is based on Nevil Shute's 1957 novel of the same name.

Plot[edit]

The story is set in a then-future 1964, in the months following World War III. The conflict has devastated the northern hemisphere, polluting the atmosphere with nuclear fallout and killing all life. Air currents are slowly carrying the fallout south. The only areas still habitable are in the far southern hemisphere.

From Australia, survivors detect an incomprehensible Morse code signal from San Francisco in the United States. The last American nuclear submarine, USS Sawfish, under Royal Australian Navy command, is ordered to sail north to try to make contact with the signal sender. The sub is commanded by Captain Dwight Towers, who must leave his good friend, the alcoholic Moira Davidson.

The Australian government arranges for its citizens to receive suicide pills and injections, so that they may end things quickly before there is prolonged suffering from the inevitable radiation sickness. An Australian naval officer, Peter Holmes and his wife, Mary, who is in denial about the impending disaster, have a baby daughter. Assigned to travel with the American submarine for several weeks, Peter tries to explain to Mary how to euthanize their baby and kill herself with the lethal pills in case he's not yet home when the time comes. Mary reacts violently at the prospect of killing her daughter and herself.

One scientist's theory is that the radiation level near the Arctic Ocean could be lower than that found at mid-northern hemisphere, which might indicate the radiation could disperse before reaching the southern hemisphere. This was to be explored along with the submarine's main mission. After sailing to Point Barrow, Alaska, they determine that radiation levels are, on the contrary, intensifying.

In San Diego, the ship's communications officer is sent ashore to investigate. The mysterious signal is the result of a Coca-Cola bottle being bumped by a window shade fluttering in the breeze and tapping a telegraph key. With correct Morse he sends a message describing the situation and then returns to the ship.

The submariners return to Australia and try to enjoy what pleasures remain to them before dying. Scientist Julian Osborn wins the Australian Grand Prix, in which many racers, with nothing left to lose, die in accidents. Dwight and Moira embark on a weekend fishing trip to the country. Retreating to the resort for the night, they share a romantic interlude inside their room as, outside, a gathering storm howls. Returning to Melbourne, Towers learns one of his crew has developed radiation sickness; the deadly radiation has arrived.

Osborn kills himself by carbon monoxide poisoning. Others line up to receive their suicide pills. Mary Holmes becomes emotionally unbalanced and must be placed under sedation. Later, she regains lucidity and she, Peter and their baby daughter take the suicide drug.

Dwight wants to stay with Moira but many of his remaining crew want to head for home and die amidst the remains of the former United States. Commander Towers chooses his duty over his love for Moira and joins his crew as they attempt to travel back home to the radioactive ruins of the United States, even though they will all die from radiation poisoning en route. Moira watches as the Sawfish leaves Australian territorial waters and then submerges. The end shows the deserted, windblown streets of Melbourne. The last shot, punctuated by sudden and dramatic music, is of a church banner that reads "There Is Still Time … Brother"—evidently intended as a message from the film's then-future scenario to then-present-day viewers that nuclear war could still be prevented.

Cast[edit]

  • Gregory Peck as Commander Dwight Lionel Towers, USS Sawfish
  • Ava Gardner as Moira Davidson, Towers' Australian love interest
  • Fred Astaire as Julian Osborn, Australian scientist
  • Anthony Perkins as Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes, Royal Australian Navy
  • Donna Anderson as Mary Holmes, Peter's wife
  • John Tate as Admiral Bridie, Royal Australian Navy
  • Harp McGuire as Lieutenant Sunderstrom (ashore in San Diego)
  • Lola Brooks as Lieutenant Hosgood, Bridie's secretary
  • Ken Wayne as Lieutenant Benson
  • Guy Doleman as Lieutenant Commander Farrel
  • Richard Meikle as Davis
  • John Meillon as Sawfish crewman Ralph Swain (ashore in San Francisco)
  • Joe McCormick as Ackerman, radiation sickness victim
  • Lou Vernon as Bill Davidson, Moira's father
  • Kevin Brennan as Dr. King, radiation diagnosis doctor
  • Keith Eden as Dr. Fletcher (beach scene)
  • Basil Buller-Murphy as Sir Douglas Froude
  • Brian James as Royal Australian Navy officer
  • John Casson as Salvation Army captain
  • Paddy Moran as Stevens (club wine steward)
  • Grant Taylor as Morgan (Holmes party)
  • George Fairfax (Holmes party guest)
  • Earl Francis (Holmes party guest)

Production[edit]

Like the novel, much of the film takes place in Melbourne, close to the southernmost part of the Australian mainland. Beach scenes were filmed at the foreshore of Cowes on Phillip Island. The racing sequences were filmed at Riverside Raceway in California and at Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit, home to the present day Australian motorcycle Grand Prix, conveniently near Cowes at Phillip Island. These scenes include an array of late 1950s sports cars, including examples of the Jaguar XK150 and Jaguar D-type, Porsche 356, Mercedes-Benz 300 SL "Gullwing", AC Ace, Chevrolet Corvette and prominent in sequences was the "Chuck Porter Special", a customized Mercedes 300SL. Built by Hollywood bodyshop owner Chuck Porter and driven by a list of notable 1950s to 1960s west coast racers, including Ken Miles and Chuck Stevenson, who purchased and successfully raced it in the early 1960s.

The U.S. Department of Defense as well as the United States Navy refused to cooperate in the production of this film, not allowing access to their nuclear-powered submarines.[a] The film production crew was forced to use a non-nuclear, diesel-electric Royal Navy submarine, HMS Andrew. An additional scene was shot in Melbourne night-club Ciro's. Among the audience in the scene were several popular Melbourne television personalities, most notably Graham Kennedy. The scene was not used in the cinema release of the film, and does not feature in the various DVD releases. It is not known if the scene was included in any released version of the film. The movie was shot in part in Berwick, then a suburb outside Melbourne and part in Frankston, also a Melbourne suburb. The well known scene where Peck meets Gardner, who arrives from Melbourne by rail, was filmed on platform #1 of Frankston railway station, now rebuilt, and a subsequent scene where Peck and Gardner are transported off by horse and buggy, was filmed in Young Street, Frankston. Some streets which were being built at the time in Berwick were named after people involved in the film.[2] Some examples are: Shute Avenue (Nevil Shute) and Kramer Drive (Stanley Kramer).

It has often been claimed that Ava Gardner described Melbourne as "the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world." However, the purported quote was actually invented by journalist Neil Jillett, who was writing for the Sydney Morning Herald at the time. His original draft of a tongue-in-cheek piece about the making of the film said that he had not been able to confirm a third-party report that Ava Gardner had made this remark. The newspaper's sub-editor changed it to read as a direct quotation from Gardner. It was published in that form and entered Melbourne folklore very quickly.[3]

Frank Chacksfield's orchestral performance of the love theme from the film was released as a single in 1960. The song "Waltzing Matilda" became more popular all over, as a result of the film, with many folk singers recording their own versions, including Harry Belafonte, Jimmie Rodgers (who had recorded 2 different versions of the song), and Tim Morgan. The Seekers, who are from Australia, have recorded this song several times.

On the Beach was remade in 2000 as an Australian television film by Southern Star Productions.

Differences between the novel and film[edit]

  • Nevil Shute was displeased with the final cut of the film, feeling that too many changes had been made at the expense of the story's integrity.[4] Gregory Peck agreed with him, but, in the end, producer/director Stanley Kramer's ideas won out.
  • In the novel, there are people still alive elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, and Australia is in radio contact with other places such as Montevideo and Cape Town. Commander Towers is in communication with the only other remaining active-duty U.S. Navy vessel: another submarine, USS Swordfish, which has been on duty in the Atlantic and, at the end, is based in Montevideo. Melbourne, where much of the novel is set, is the southernmost major city in the world and so will be the last such to go, but people in New Zealand, Tierra del Fuego and other, more southerly points than Australia are said to have a few additional weeks left to them, but will die in their turn as the radiation spreads inexorably southward. In the film, an unidentified radio newscaster says that, as far as is known, Australia is home to the last human life on the planet, and there is no USS Swordfish.
  • In the novel, the submarine is named Scorpion. In the film, she is called Sawfish. This may be because there was an actual USS Scorpion under construction at the time the film was made. A nuclear submarine like her fictional counterpart, USS Scorpion was in service from 1960 to 1968, when she was lost with all hands at sea. (In fact the ship's number shown is that of the USS Nathan Hale (SSBN-623), which was launched in 1963, four years after the film was made.) The sub shown in the film; however, is a diesel model that fills in as a nuclear sub.
  • The novel describes Moira Davidson as a slender, petite pale blonde in her mid-twenties. In the film, she is portrayed by the tall, curvaceous, 36-year-old brunette Ava Gardner.
  • A naval training base near Seattle is the location in the novel where the strange Morse signals are detected. The film uses an oil refinery in San Diego as its location.
  • In the film, the matter of who might be sending the random Morse code signals is a great mystery, and gives rise to some hope that there are survivors in San Diego. In the novel, the idea of a survivor sending code is forthrightly dismissed as ridiculous — Towers says at one point that even someone who didn't know Morse code would sit there with a book and send at five words per minute — but everyone wants to know if there are survivors maintaining the electrical installation that makes sending the signals possible. (In the novel, it has been two years since the war ended.) It turns out that the power station has been running on its own but is beginning to break down for lack of maintenance, particularly lubrication. As in the film, it is shut down.
  • Buildings in San Francisco are shown as undamaged in the film, while in the novel the city has been largely destroyed and the Golden Gate Bridge has fallen.
  • The northernmost point of the submarine's journey in the novel is the Gulf of Alaska, while the film uses Point Barrow.
  • The nuclear scientist in the book is named John Osborne, a twenty-something bachelor. In the movie, he is portrayed by 60-year old Fred Astaire and is named Julian Osborn. The first name may have been changed and the surname spelled differently in the film to avoid any unintended reference to contemporary English playwright John Osborne.
  • Moira Davidson and John Osborne are cousins in the novel, but Moira Davidson and Julian Osborn are former lovers in the film.
  • Admiral Bridie and his secretary, Lieutenant Hosgood, are in the film but not in the novel.
  • Moira and Dwight never sleep together in the novel; Dwight remains faithful to the memory of his wife. Moira, though disappointed at first, comes to respect his stance. Film director Stanley Kramer believed that audiences would not believe that Dwight, as played by Peck, could resist the charms of sex symbol Gardner, so a love scene was inserted. Shute disliked this change to his original storyline.
  • The novel ends with a dying Moira sitting in her car, taking her suicide pills, while watching Scorpion head out to sea to be scuttled. Unlike the book, no mention of scuttling the sub is made in the film; instead Commander Towers's crew asks that he try to take them home to the United States, where they can die on their home soil. Although he realizes that they probably will not survive the passage, he does as they request. In the film, Ava Gardner is seen merely watching Dwight's submarine disappear and is not seen to commit suicide at that time.
  • Unlike the novel, no blame is placed on whoever started the war; it is hinted that it may have been an accident, a few faulty vacuum tubes, or transistor circuits as in the similarly themed film Fail-Safe (1964).
  • Dwight and Moira do not attend the "Australian Grand Prix" in the novel, unlike in the film. This was because they were vacationing in the mountains that day. However, during a radio news broadcast, they hear about John Osborne's first-place victory.

Release and reception[edit]

On the Beach premiered simultaneously in seventeen cities on six continents on December 17, 1959. The Hollywood premiere was attended by the film's stars Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins, in addition to other celebrities, including Cary Grant. The New York premiere was attended by Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr.. The London premiere was attended by Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom Yakov Malik. Star Ava Gardner attended the Rome premiere. The Tokyo premiere was attended by members of the Japanese Royal Family. The Stockholm premiere was attended by King Gustav VI. The Melbourne premiere was attended by Premier of Victoria Henry Bolte. Other premieres were held in Caracas, West Berlin, Johannesburg, Lima, Paris, Toronto and Zurich[5] Although the film did not receive a commercial release in the Soviet Union, a special premiere was unprecedentedly arranged for that night in Moscow, with star Gregory Peck and his wife traveling to Russia for the screening, which was held at a workers' club, with 1200 Soviet dignitaries, the foreign press corps, and diplomats including US Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson attending.[6]

The film recorded a loss of $700,000.[1] Despite this, the movie received positive praise in its day and in later years. It also got a fan base that agreed on many of the issues presented.

Awards[edit]

Stanley Kramer won the 1960 BAFTA for best director and Ernest Gold won the 1960 Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Score. It was also nominated for Academy Awards in two categories:

Category Person
Nominated:
Best Score Ernest Gold
Best Editing Frederic Knudtson

Criticism[edit]

The then American government voiced a criticism of the general premise of the novel and book—that there was a threat of extinction from nuclear war—because they did not have, nor had they ever had, enough nuclear weapons to cause human extinction.[7]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Bartlett, Andrew (2004). "Nuclear Warfare in the Movies". Anthropoetics 10 (1). ISSN 1083-7264. Retrieved 12 July 2012. The American government complained of Kramer’s On the Beach (1959) that it inaccurately presented the threat of extinction from nuclear war because there were not then enough weapons to cause extinction. 

References[edit]

External links[edit]