ON THE BEACH
Review by Ed Nguyen
Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins, Fred Astaire, Donna Anderson
Director: Stanley Kramer
Audio: English mono, French mono
Subtitles: French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, non-anamorphic widescreen
Length: 134 minutes
Release Date: March 23, 2000
the end, granted time for an examination, we shall find that our so-called
civilization was gloriously destroyed by a handful of vacuum tubes and
the late 1950's and the early 1960's, Cold War tensions were at their horrible
peak. Suburbs were frequently
subjected to routine air siren drills. Bomb
shelters existed everywhere, sometimes even in private homes or public schools.
The schools themselves often screened shorts films which taught children
how to react in the event of a true intercontinental missile attack.
Such were the dark, omnipotent remainders of the real dangers of the new
was in this environment that Stanley Kramer's somber 1959 drama On
the Beach was unveiled. Kramer
was well-known during this period for the social commentary of his films (such
as Inherit the Wind or
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?), and On
the Beach was his cautionary tale of a terrible but potential post-WWIII
scenario. In the film's premise,
much of humanity has been destroyed by a global nuclear war, except for the
people of Australia, who have been temporarily spared.
However, a massive cloud of radioactive fallout is slowly spreading
across the ocean waters and, in a matter of months, it will arrive upon
Australian shores. Kramer's film
poses this question - how might people choose to live out their remaining days,
given the seeming inevitability of their fate?
On the Beach opens, the war has
already ended. A solitary nuclear
submarine, the Sawfish, is quietly
navigating the remote Pacific waters. Finding
nothing but eerie calm, the captain, Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), decides to
turn his boat towards Australian coastal waters. The Sawfish soon
arrives at a seaport, which is surprisingly buzzing with civilian activity.
the surface, life appears normal here. The
global warfare never actually involved the Australian subcontinent, so the
people here have been nonchalantly going about their usual activities.
They report to work routinely, they visit the beaches on sunny days, and
they engage in social outings at parties or the local movie houses.
Among them is Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins), a young naval lieutenant
devoted to his pretty wife Mary (Donna Anderson) and their baby girl, Jennifer. Life, it would seem at first glance, hasn't changed much in
behind this public facade, there lies an unspoken desperation that this illusion
of outwardly public calm cannot entirely mask.
The signs are present. Fuel
rationing has forced people to start abandoning their cars.
The streets remain crowded, not with automobiles, but with pedestrians,
bicyclists, and horse-drawn carriages. Hushed
whispers emerge of the rumor of suicide pills.
The government itself soon issues a report on the presence of a huge,
ominous cloud in international waters and its imminent arrival over Australia
within six months.
the unexpected arrival of the Sawfish
offers new hope for a possible redemption.
Plans are quickly drawn up for the submarine. Perhaps it could be used to explore the Antarctic regions for
suitably inhabitable lands. Or
perhaps it could be sent to investigate a persistent and mysterious radio
contact from the American coastal city of San Francisco, the only indication
thus far of life beyond these shores. Peter
is re-assigned to the Sawfish in
anticipation of an international reconnaissance mission.
the Australian navy contemplates the options, Captain Dwight Towers uses his
limited time for some shore leave. Upon
his arrival at a local train depot, he is met by Moira (Gardner), a spirited
woman sent by Peter to greet him. Moira
shows Dwight around the town and introduces him to several of her friends,
including Julian (Fred Astaire), an old scientist who was once involved in
nuclear research. In fact, the film
establishes an almost small-town ambience, as though everyone knows everyone
else in this coastal Australian locale.
finds himself enjoying Moira's good company.
However, he still considers himself to be a loyal family man, thinking
constantly of his wife and children back home.
In a sense, he is choosing to ignore the horrible reality that his family
is probably already dead. Dwight is
a man conflicted by his own sense of decency, his attraction for Moira, and his
unwillingness to face the truth.
his shore leave is brief. Soon, the
final orders arrive from the Australian navy, and the Sawfish will depart on what may be its final voyage.
In addition to Lieutenant Peter Holmes,
the reconnaissance mission will also require Julian's expertise, in the
event that the ship encounters surface radioactivity.
the film progresses, increasingly frequent signs of resignation appear among the
populace. At a local country club,
the members bemoan the loss of the club's fine wine that will go wasted in the
years to come. Town pep rallies
draw progressively fewer and fewer participants.
Some try to cling to hope, such as Peter's wife, who refuses to accept
that their child will never live beyond infancy. Before Peter leaves with the Sawfish,
he presents her with two suicide pills, one for herself...and one for their
baby. Mary, in anguish, cries,
"You're not trying to tell me you want me to kill Jennifer?"
eventually, the weight of the inevitable future will bear down upon the people
of Australia, as symbolized most dramatically in a national Grand Prix race near
the end of the film. It is an
impressive sequence, with cars roaring by at thunderous speeds. The
drivers are reckless, racing with abandon and little concern for personal
safety. In an all-or-nothing race
for the victory line, there are numerous terrible crashes as car and driver
repetitively succumb to flames. It
is the unspoken understanding between these participants and the spectators -
far better to meet one's demise in the glory of the last Grand Prix than to die
in the dark loneliness of one's room.
many ways, On the Beach might seem to
be a rather downbeat movie, for while the film offers some encouragement, the
survival of humanity still hangs by a thread.
Fortunately, Kramer has been careful to avoid any preachiness in his
film, instead always maintaining some modicum of optimism and hope; On
the Beach actually has many light-hearted and touching moments.
Plus, it is greatly enhanced by its star actors, all of whom are quite
good. Gregory Peck gives a subtly
nuanced performance as the sub commander, conflicted between his duty to his
men, his memories of a loving wife and two children, and his longing to remain
in Australia with Ava Gardner's Moira. It
is one of his finer roles. Gardner,
for her part, is wonderful in the role of a lonely woman, reaching out for
companionship and aware that there may never be another chance; she presents a
cheerful and merry exterior but in quieter moments, her sadness is apparent.
Anthony Perkins, as an officer with an apprehensive wife, is a
revelation, serving notice that he was already a polished actor before his
immortal role in Psycho.
And then there's Fred Astaire, appearing in his first completely
non-musical role. He provides
arguably his best dramatic performance as the weary and bitter scientist who
accompanies the Sawfish on one of her
its premiere, in an unprecedented motion picture event, On the Beach was shown simultaneously in eighteen international
cities, including Moscow and Tokyo. It
received universal praise worldwide and did solid box office business.
To its credit, the film presented no moral finger-pointing or soapbox
lecturing. Nor was it concerned
with assigning any blame or responsibility for the commencement of the war.
Its goal was to reveal the heart of the people, the true gracious nature
of humanity in face of a doomed fate. Perhaps
therein lies its message - that there is a beauty in the persistence of
relationships and perhaps some redemption in our ability as a species to always
retain the qualities that elevate us from mere beasts, in spite of our base
source print is a good one, with excellent contrast levels and only a few dust
spots or timing dots. The MGM
mastering, for the most part, is pretty decent. The black and white hues are quite solid, and images are
crisp. My only complaint is a trace
of shimmer and slight anti-alias jagginess to some of the edges, but these are
minor and do not distract from the film.
is one of those MGM DVDs boasting a deafening lion logo.
I would advise you not to turn on the speakers until the main menu
appears! As for the film, its 2.0
mono track is adequate but not very dynamic.
The film is mostly dialogue-driven, so the sub-woofer channel will not
see much use. Nothing spectacular
here, but at least this old soundtrack is clear of most pops or hisses.
DVD has no features other than English close-captioning.