Lowdown: Coping with the fact everyone will die soon.
On the Beach is a fifties film of which I have heard through a newspaper article. The article said this film, shot in fifties’ Melbourne, is often used in order to show Melbourne based students how life was like back in the good old days when everything was either black, white, or something in between. That article made me curious enough to want to watch the film, but the reality is I already knew most of what there is to know about On the Beach through a mini-series based on the same story and released early this century. I didn’t watch all the episodes and I was curious to see the beginning of the story, so I went out to seek the original.
Turns out the beginning is, indeed, interesting. On the Beach starts with Gregory Peck, a US navy submarine commander, as he navigates his vessel through Point Nepean (the entrance to Port Phillip Bay in which Melbourne resides). And while this takes place we hear a radio broadcast saying that the radioactivity from the nuclear exchange that took place recently seems to have killed the entire world, that is – no radio contact outside of Australia – and that carried by the wind, this radioactivity is now descending on Australia and is expected to reach Melbourne within five months. In effect, Melbourne is the last place on earth and it has a nearby expiry date, too.
Soon enough we are introduced to other characters. We start with a pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins portraying a young Australian navy officer from Frankston who is also a recent father. His wife refuses to acknowledge their imminent end but Perkins’ realism is and the ensuing conflict are at the core of the film.
Next we move on to a rather austere Fred Astaire, who in contrast to my expectations doesn’t do even a single dance step but rather spend his time as a serious scientist driven to alcoholism by the imminent cataclysm. That, and the knowledge that his work on nuclear weapons has helped bring the end of the world sooner rather than later.
Last, but not least, we bump into Ava Gardner as the femme fatale with whom Peck falls in love but can’t really fall in love with given that he has his wife and kids back home (but then again he doesn’t have them anymore).
The funny thing is that all the movie’s characters other than Peck are supposedly from Frankston, which defies any common perceptions the current Frankston may have. True, Frankston does have a nice beach, but at least today its reputation of roughness far exceeds its reputation as a lovely place by the beach.
As the reader can already figure out from the characters’ descriptions, On the Beach revolves mostly around the heroes and their surroundings coming to terms with what took place, what is taking place, and the imminent end. How do you live your life when you know it’s going to end soon? How do you raise a child when you know there nothing to raise them for? How do you love someone? What is there to live for in the first place? Each of On the Beach’s characters brings their own answer to these questions. Some look for a solution at whatever cost and don’t lose hope, others ignore the problem, some lose hope to become morbid, others put their faith in god, and others become suicidal.
Thus, by showing us a very possible future, On the Beach attempts to act as a warning to us all about the danger humanity is facing with nuclear weapons. This rather depressing film is, indeed, quite effective at pointing to this greatest of dangers, a danger that is still very much there even though the Cold War is officially over. Think about it this way: If, in every given year, there is a 1% chance of a nuclear exchange (for whatever reason - be it Iran, Pakistan or Russia), then what are our chances of making it to the end of the century?
On the Beach also points at the rational behind a nuclear exchange, or rather the lack of it. Is it worthwhile to kill the entire world in order to defend some ideal? Are our ideals so different to the other side’s that protecting them with two edged swords begging to be used is such a wise idea?
By dealing with imminent death, On the Beach takes another step towards relevancy. While, hopefully, a nuclear exchange may never happen, one thing that is guaranteed to happen is that each living thing around us will eventually die. That includes all of us, all of our parents, and all of our children. How do we and how should we, the condemned, cope with this very tragic outcome? Most of us are busy denying or ignoring it, but as On the Beach points out this is probably not the wisest course of action.
While being thought provoking, there is an oddity or two with On the Beach. For a film taking place in Australia with three out of its four stars being supposedly Australian, there is a definite lack of Aussie accents. Other than an NPC saying “mate” as a passing comment and the Melbourne views, On the Beach would have been deemed to take place in California. Today I would suspect the American filmmakers would go the other way around, with all Aussie characters riding their kangaroos to work and killing the occasional trespassing croc with their bear teeth. Then there's the incredible coincidence of all the key Australian characters featured in the film not only knowing one another but also ending up cooperating to save the world using the last remaining nuclear submarine. And if stretches are what we're discussing, another stretch is a world full of radioactivity yet also full of places with no visible physical damage as a result of the nuclear war. I don't particularly like it when films stretch things that far; yet the biggest potential stretch that may be open to debate is in the world coming to an end without society deteriorating into a state of utter anarchy. Could that really happen?
As for its impressions of Melbourne in the fifties, On the Beach definitely delivers. It’s interesting to note just how flat Melbourne’s CBD, now dominated by high rises, once was. One thing that didn’t change is Melbourne’s “electric train” service: The film’s trains look just like those run by Connex today, fifty years later. The similarity is staggering, just like the quality of service on Melbourne's trains is nowadays.
Best scene: The last car race in the world takes place in Phillip Island, and people will kill and be killed to win it. Funny things can happen when no one has anything to lose.
Overall: On the Beach is a rather weird film but definitely worth watching. 3.5 out of 5 stars.