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Saturday, May 21, 2011

On The Beach

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of On The Beach (OTB) as a voice of the Cold War era. Nevill Shute's '57 novel, and Stanley Kramer's '59 film dared to speak the unspeakable lurking in the backs of everyone's minds -- that ever-present gnawing fear that nuclear war could wipe out all of mankind. OTB feature some big name actors: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins. Unlike most Hollywood movies, no one lives happily ever after. No one lives at all. It's oddly salient that this review will be posted on the day that some are convinced the Rapture will come (and the end of the world on Oct 21st).

Quick Plot Synopsis
The crew of the submarine USS Sawfish are the lone surviving Americans following a sudden and massive nuclear war. Fallout has killed all life in the northern hemisphere. Australia is one of the few places that fallout has not yet reached, though it is coming. They dock in Melbourne. Life downunder is trying to carry on as before, despite the impending doom and shortages. Captain Dwight Towers (Peck) becomes enmeshed with the other characters. Peter Holmes (Perkins) is a young Australian naval lieutenant. He and his wife Mary have a baby girl. They set up Towers with Moira Davidson (Gardner) as a date. She's an alcoholic shipwreck of a life. Julian Osborne (Astaire) is a former nuclear scientist assigned to Towers for the recon mission. A professor Jorgenson theorized that rain and snow in the arctic might have abated the radiation, showing that Australia might not be doomed. The Sawfish is ordered to go take readings. There are also strange random morse code signals being transmitted from San Diego. Sawfish will check those out too. Sadly, the atmosphere off Alaska is still just as hot. San Francisco is deserted. A crewman from SF jumps ship, preferring to die at home. In San Diego, the transmissions were caused by a window shade pull-string tugging on the telegraph key. There was no one. Back in Australia, things are getting worse sooner than expected. Julian races a vintage Ferrari to win a grand prix race. Dwight finally admits that he loves Moira. Peter convinces Mary that they need to take the government-issued poison pills. Towers and his crew decide it's better to go home and die, so they depart. Moira watches the Sawfish power out of harbor. The streets are deserted. Only the revival banner remains. "There is still time...brother." The End.

Lurking as a subtext in many Golden Age sci-fi, was the fear that nuclear war would wipe out civilization as we knew it. Most stories spun variations on what came afterward. OTB told the simple, horrible scenario that everyone was aware of, but did not want to face -- there would be no survivors. Shute and Kramer dared to show audiences what was behind the curtain of their fears. Every movie of the Armageddon Avoided or Armageddon Survived sub-genre require Shute's scenario as prerequisite.

Cold War Spotlight
Kramer's film did not rant about commies. Instead, he focused on the powderkeg climate of the Cold War. Julian summed it up, musing about how the war might have started. "The war started when people accepted the idiotic principle that peace could be maintained by arranging to defend themselves with weapons that they couldn't possibly use without committing suicide. Everybody had atomic bombs and counter bombs and counter counter bombs. The devices outgrew us. We couldn't control them.. Some poor soul probably saw a blip he couldn't identify and not willing to hesitate lest his country be lost, pushed the button. Then the world went crazy."

Based on the Book -- Nevill Shute wrote his novel in the mid 50s, as Cold War fears were looming large. Some people feel Kramer's book follows the novel fairly well. Others argue that it does not. Most of the nay-saying centers around details and not overall story and themes. There has always been something lost when a book becomes a movie. There have always been changes or insertions necessary in film adaptations. Overall, Kramer did the book justice.

Doom With Dignity -- Some are critical of how calmly everyone in the story accepts their doom. Chaos and bedlam seem natural enough. Recall the riot scene in When Worlds Collide ('51) when the crowds rush the space ark in hopes of escaping destruction. Instead, Shute and Kramer present a more subtle, resigned view. People go about their lives as if by clinging to normalcy, they could prolong it. Towers does this by always thinking of his family as still alive. Mary clings to hope until the last. Watch for how each character shifts from their coping mechanism to resignation. Shute imagined mankind going out with dignity. Not with hedonistic abandon (ala Prince partying like it's 1999) or brutal riots.

Poignant Moments -- Kramer does a good job of keeping the story from getting maudlin, but there are still moving moments that stand out.
Towers Turns: When Dwight and Moira are at the vacation hotel. He finally lets go of his family, and accepts that he loves Moira. The moment is captured in how the background music of the drunks signing Waltzing Matilda morphs from rowdy discord to smooth harmony. His world became clear and beautiful.
A Chat With Swain: There is one surreal scene in which Yeoman Swain, who jumped ship in San Francisco is, the next morning, fishing off the back of a boat in the bay. The Sawfish puts up its periscope right next to him. Swain and the captain carry on a casual chat -- man to scope -- as if it were quite normal.
Mary's Change: Mary held onto hope the longest of all of them. Viewers almost root for her denial. Peter finally coaxes her into accepting the need to take the suicide pills he has on the tea platter. "Peter, I think I'll have that cup of tea
Julian's Triumph: Having won is first and only race, Julian opts to die with his beloved Ferrari -- the closest thing he had to a friend. He closes up the garage and revs the engine. The smile of victorious memories fills his face.
May-November: Even though he has no navy left to command, old admiral Bridie is still manning his office. He calls in his weakening secretary, Lt. Hosgood, a plain-pretty young brunette who has stayed with him to the end. "Care to have a glass of sherry with an old man?" "No sir," she says softly. "But I would like very much to have one with you....Sir." She smiles, as if acknowledging that there had always been something more to their relationship than pure professional duty.
Banner Power: Near the end, the Salvation Army holds a rally under a banner which reads, "There Is Still Time...Brother". The preacher preaches of being reconciled to God in these last days, to a large and somber crowd. All the while, the tidy band plays a lively rendition of Onward Christian Soldiers. When we see them again, the band is smaller and less skilled. The crowd is scant and just stand silently, as does the preacher. There's nothing left to say. At the very end, when the streets are abandoned, the camera zooms in on the banner, delivering the movie's moral.

Bottom line? Kramer's OTB is a must-see for anyone who wants to understand the mood and mindset of people living during the Cold War era. It is not a happy tale, but it does give voice to the horror everyone knew was hanging over their heads. If modern viewers come away sad or depressed, they'll have come away with a kernel of what was in the hearts over nearly everyone back then -- every day. Those feelings of doom are why giant radioactive ants or martian saucers were palpably scary. 50s views knew the metaphor and knew the real fear.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong.
"You'll never catch me alive", said he.
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
"You'll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me."