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ON THE BEACH

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: 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
Studio: MGM
Features: None
Length: 134 minutes
Release Date: March 23, 2000

"In 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 transistors."

Film *** 1/2

In 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 nuclear age.

It 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?

As 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.  

On 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 Australia.

Yet, 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.

However, 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.

While 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.

Dwight 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.

Regrettably, 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.

As 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?"

But 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.

In 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 last voyages.

On 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 instincts.

Video ** 1/2

The 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.

Audio **

This 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.

Features (zero stars)

The DVD has no features other than English close-captioning.

Summary:

Compelling yet cautionary, On the Beach's dramatic statement is as contemporary today as it was over forty years ago.  Plus, the film showcases many fine performances from all the lead actors.  It is an entertaining and thought-provoking film by Stanley Kramer and a solid recommendation!