(1959) dir. Stanely Kramer
I don’t know that a film about the end of the world is really the way to start off the new year, but I have a strange sensibility. Having had a particular interest in the Cold War doomsday film, a friend recommended a favorite memory of her childhood, the 1959 superstar film adapted from the notable book by Nevil Shute, On the Beach. While I was familiar with the novel while never having read it, I wasn’t as familiar with the film, which is odd since it stars the likes of Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins, and Fred Astaire. Star power indeed.
But oddly, that is perhaps the film’s weakness. It’s a big-budget affair, full of not necessarily “pomp” but certainly circumstance. It’s played out like the big dramas of its day, like an Elia Kazan or Sidney Lumet film, something about “people” but about important issues, humanity against the real challenges of ethics and morality. The stuff of Oscars.
The truth is that the world of science fiction or horror, the end of the world, seems to be in better hands of the pulp artists. For instance, in Panic in Year Zero! (1962) and The Last Man on Earth (1964) you have the end of the world in more chaotic terms, with actual death and actual violence. People are dying! People are losing their shit! The world’s gone mad! The drama is in survival.
The world of On the Beach, it’s a truly “British” world, one of honor, order, and no one is going to be caught having a “fit”. Heck, even when you see the city streets of a devastated San Francisco or Melbourne, there are no bodies! Everybody is content to die inside. “Heck, if we all have to die, we might as well keep the city clean!” The drama is unfolding after a series of nuclear attacks has devastated the entire world except for Australia, but Australia is doomed to a coming nuclear fallout, people will all die. It’s just a matter of time. And they all take it without making a scene.
Folks line up to take pre-set doses of suicide sleeping pills. People enjoy themselves, fall in love, live, drink port, and basically keep their upper lips stiff to the very end. It’s dignity embodied. It’s an odd fantasy. Civilization does not have to come to and end just because the human race is about to. Even if we’re feeding babies overdoses of barbituates too so they don’t starve to death while their parents drop like flies. And nobody gets tumors or lesions or anything that makes them look unwell. It just wouldn’t do.
Really, if anything, this film is a snapshot of an odd anachronistic dream of the death and the end of the world. And the film leaves a rather pointed note at the end, punctuated with important music that “There is still time!”, in case you missed the message. The whole thing is like that. And it’s not horrible, a little dull perhaps, but with a good cast and a bizarre message about the end of the world. The Twilight Zone, which starts out as a contemporary to this film, gets the drama and the weirdness in much less pompous ways. One wonders what Rod Serling thought of this film. It’s an odd one, certainly. But not bad. Just weird.