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On the Beach

by Glenn Erickson Sep 06, 2022

End-of-the-world Sci-fi went mainstream with a heavy message about human extinction in John Paxton’s all-star adaptation of Nevil Shute’s best seller. Always controversial and often derided as ‘glamorous obliteration chic,’ Stanley Kramer’s film plays better than ever. The possibility of Nuke Doom could be ignored back then, but we’ve since gained a more apocalyptic outlook (gee, wonder why?) It’s got fine work from Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire, and only real Australians wince at the iffy accents. It’s also Kramer’s best-judged, best-directed movie overall. [Imprint’s] special edition includes an entire separate documentary feature, Fallout.


On the Beach
Blu-ray
Plus the full feature Fallout
Viavision [Imprint] #147
1959 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 134 min. / Street Date August 30, 2022 / Available from [Imprint] / au 69.95
Starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins, Donna Anderson, John Tate, Harp McQuire, Lola Brooks, Guy Doleman, John Meillon, Paddy Moran.
Cinematography
Giuseppe Rotunno
Film Editor Frederic Knudtson
Original Music Ernest Gold
Written by John Paxton from the novel by Nevil Shute
Produced and Directed by Stanley Kramer

 

“It may be that someday we can say that ‘On the Beach’ is the motion picture that saved the world.”
— Linus Pauling, Nobel Prizewinner for Chemistry

 

“Too many Americans have an ‘On the Beach’ attitude that all we can do is throw up our hands, take a suicide pill, and die.”
— Edward Teller, Father of the Hydrogen Bomb

 

Around eight years ago American and English Blu-rays appeared for Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach, one of them with an out-of-sync soundtrack and the other restricted to Region B playback. Now Australia’s [Imprint] company brings us friendlier a two-disc special edition, in deluxe packaging.

Australian Nevil Shute’s enormously influential 1957 novel On the Beach chronicles the end of the world as experienced by a number of atom war survivors in Melbourne, Australia. The date is January 1964. The entire Northern Hemisphere has been wiped out, and when seasonal winds bring the radioactivity South most life on earth will be extinct. Shute’s book became a controversial best seller. The Eisenhower administration declared that no nuclear exchange could end with the extermination of humanity, but dissenting scientists affirmed the basic premise. Some went so far as to say that the issue was not ‘if,’ but ‘when.’

Stanley Kramer’s expensive film adaptation of On the Beach split the critics along political lines. Kramer claimed that his anti-nuke film had the noble aim of saving the world. His advertising called it ‘the biggest story of our time’ and ‘the most important picture you will ever see.’ He enlisted the endorsement of the famed scientist Linus Pauling, providing publicity both for the film and for Pauling’s campaign to halt aboveground nuclear testing. For a simultaneous global premiere, nine of the film’s stars were dispatched to different world capitals. If one wants to give On the Beach credit for turning public opinion and helping President Kennedy push through 1963’s Limited Test Ban Treaty, Kramer’s film indeed had an impact.

The movie may be Stanley Kramer’s best job of directing. Many critics were suitably impressed but others dismissed the show as a glossy soap opera: glamorous movie stars were cast as author Shute’s ordinary people– Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck generate considerable romantic chemistry. Whereas the characters in the novel reacted to doomsday “not with a bang but a whimper,” John Paxton’s script gives each victim a grandstanding soliloquy, a morbid crisis moment, or both.

Australian naval officer Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) must deal with the necessity of committing suicide, and taking his wife Mary (Donna Anderson) and his baby daughter with him. Nuclear scientist Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire, in his first straight acting role) grapples with professional guilt for helping develop the bomb. To combat his feeling of impotence, Julian rejects the advances of beautiful Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner) and tries to commit suicide with other fanatics in a big car race. The desperate Moira begs for comfort from American submarine commander Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), only to discover that Towers is in denial over the demise of his family back home. A straight-arrow Navy man, Towers follows the book to the bitter finish. Moira must reconcile herself to a lonely death.

Considering the film’s gloomy message, it did well at the box office. Daily Variety: “The spectator is left with the sick feeling that he’s had a preview of Armageddon, in which all contestants lost.” The melodramatic crises take place in a well-established post-apocalyptic ‘normal.’ Horse-drawn buggies and bicycles crowd the streets; people go about their business as best they can.

The second act sees Captain Towers’ submarine sailing the Pacific in search of signs of life. It makes an eerie entrance to the now-dead San Francisco Bay. A homesick sailor (John Meillon) jumps ship at Market Street, preferring to die where he was born. The film’s most suspenseful set piece occurs in San Diego, where a lone crewmember dons a radiation suit to locate the source of a mysterious telegraph signal. Ernest Gold’s previously gentle score becomes thunderingly bold during the investigation of the dead Californian cities.

The adapted script changes how World War 3 began, replacing a political clash with a technological dilemma — we couldn’t control our own machines. Stanley Kramer did preserve Nevil Shute’s overriding sense of fatality. The third act witnesses several couples bidding each other farewell with a disturbing solemnity. The descending blanket of radiation spares nobody.

 

Stanley Kramer had the reputation of a pushy producer who chased controversial material and promoted his movies with must-see admonitions. Kramer ‘resolved’ one social issue after another: medical ethics (Not as a Stranger), race prejudice (The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?), evolution vs. creationism (Inherit the Wind), German war guilt (Judgment at Nuremberg). On the Beach does indeed take on a big, thorny topic. Kramer approaches scenes of genuine controversy with what was for him an unusual sensitivity. Nobody forgets the long lines of citizens picking up government-dispensed death pills. The Grand Prix race, with sports cars crashing in an insane frenzy, offers a taste of the violent madness of post-apocalyptic movies to come. Is On the Beach the civilized ancestor of Mad Max?

Kramer’s directing may seem improved because of his choice of cameraman, the Italian cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno of The Leopard and Toby Dammit. ‘Pepe’ Rotunno lends On the Beach stylistic refinements not seen in other Kramer pictures. The images are economical and graphically clean, with storyboarded sequences much better organized than in Kramer’s earlier epic The Pride and the Passion.

 

Although Australians complained about Anthony Perkins’ accent, the domestic scenes between Perkins and Anderson are probably Kramer’s best-directed material. He progressively tilts the camera to create a feeling of insecurity. Dwight and Moira’s impassioned embraces carry real power. The only lapse of director’s judgment comes when Kramer goes nuts with a kissing scene, adding emphasis by racing around the lovers as if they were on a carnival ride. Today, it looks as though Kramer were imitating the 360-degree embraces between James Stewart and Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

On the other hand, the final kiss is a knockout. Backlit in front of bright water, Gardner and Peck’s faces glint and sparkle in a huge close-up. The filtered backlight ‘dissolves’ their silhouettes, working as a visual correlative to the lethal radioactivity eating into their bodies. 

The final scene on a windy knoll over the ocean is a perfect expression of doomed isolation: the camera finds Moira Davidson standing by her Austin-Healey, watching the Sawfish sail away. Kramer was lucky not to have to use miniatures, as the U.S. military refused to cooperate with the production. Kramer’s request for assistance was answered with a letter that outlined necessary changes — the world can’t be destroyed and Communists should be blamed. Luckily the Australian politicians stepped in with a submarine and an aircraft carrier.

 

On the Beach did influence public thinking, altering the perception that nuclear bombs are practical weapons, and helping to kick-start the anti-nuke debate of the 1960s. Even if Nevil Shute thought it a betrayal of his novel, it’s a fairly daring picture. Stanley Kramer could have avoided the Peck-Gardner love affair as Shute wanted, but the audience would have been cut in half. Perhaps to placate the Catholic-dominated production Code, Kramer invented new inserted scenes of a Salvation Army public vigil, with speeches by churchmen. The dwindling public doomwatch solves the problem of how to suggest the mass suicide underway: even if Kramer had wanted to, the Office would never let him depict the business of the suicide pills more directly. Kramer stayed true to the novel’s basic thrust, and didn’t mute its ‘everybody dies’ message.

Critics did have a point when complaining about the glamorous, un-messy demises dished out to the all-star cast: nobody dies puking up their insides. But no American audience was going to put up with an utterly miserable realistic finish. Peter & Mary’s baby remains almost entirely off-screen, because showing it in close-up would be devastating. Ava Gardner gets to be statuesque watching a ship go out to sea. If Moira and Dwight had rejected the government pills, they could have ended up like the awful romantic couple in H.G. Clouzot’s Manon.

Incidentally, if a ‘sweet dreams’ sleepy-time Kill Pill as depicted in On the Beach really does exist, why was there ever a controversy and debate over the mode for lethal injection executions?

In the end we’re left with many haunting and poetic images. The desolate oil refinery resonates with the imagery of science fiction movies like Quatermass 2. A lone man is dwarfed by the huge chemical installation that expresses his vulnerability to a frightening technological future. America has been converted into a sterile land suited only for creatures that can live in highly radioactive conditions. The fatalistic phrase, “When the time comes” keeps cropping up, looking forward to the perverse survival scheme of Joseph Losey’s These Are the Damned.

The authority figure in Losey’s film flatly asserts that nuclear war is inevitable, a public position professed by more than a few notables, like former Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Eisenhower and the Pentagon decided that the show was just more anti-nuclear testing ‘propaganda,’ and not helpful to America’s effort to counter the Soviet threat. But On the Beach is an honest warning against nuclear proliferation, that made a significant impact on the Cold War.

 


 

Viavision [Imprint’s] special edition Blu-ray of On the Beach is a good presentation of a film that looks better every year, for both its message and for its artfulness. The main draw is the masterful lighting of Italian camera genius Giuseppe Rotunno (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). The only gripe is that this is the exact same HD master as seen on the earlier two Blu-rays. The film element transferred does have a number of issues, including more wear than usual at reel changes, and more dirt than is normal. Also, it looks as if the film’s negative were at some point poorly spliced (or re-spliced). At many cut points the image jumps slightly, with traces of what looks like film cement. The visually impressive movie could still use a major digital restoration.

The [Imprint] disc is a good deal for customers that avoided the Kino 2014 disc, which had several sections that played out of synch for an entire reel. Various buyers confirmed this. Kino denied that there was a problem, a rare occurrence for that fine company.

This show has always had good audio. Composer Ernest Gold provides chilling cues for Captain Towers’ hearse-like submarine. The most common complaint against the film today is that the score grossly overuses the traditional tune Waltzing Matilda. The song wasn’t as well known abroad then as it is now, but it does wear thin. In selected scenes the song is still very effective — even over director Kramer’s ‘imitation of Hitchcock’ turntable kiss scene.

Viavision extras include some older items — the 8mm home movies of the shoot, an audio interview with Gregory Peck, a newsreel, the dramatic theatrical trailer touting all the premieres. An older audio commentary was taken from the 2015 UK Signal One Blu-ray release.

But new material dominates. Adrian Martin’s new track covers all the bases quite well. Kim Newman delivers a lecture on Apocalyptic Cinema, Kat Ellinger analyzes the new kind of all-obliterating horror of end-of-the-world pictures, and Elissa Rose makes sure we appreciate Ava Gardner’s fine costumes while she’s waiting for The Big Sleep. The insert booklet included (56 pages) is a textless gallery of film stills (b&w) and advertsing art (color).

 

Blu-ray Disc #2 contains the 2013 feature Fallout, a documentary about the filming of On the Beach that actually covers much more: the history of the making of the bomb, author Nevil Shute’s entire life story and literary career, the career of producer-director Stanley Kramer. We get excellent input from Shute’s daughter Heather Mayfield, historian Paul Ham, and journalist Gideon Haigh, and additional insights (and great photos) from photographer Wayne Miller, who shot Navy photos at Hiroshima as well as serving as still man for On the Beach. Unfortunately, the docu dips its toe into subjects too big and too thorny for one show. Hazy discussions touch on the morality of the bomb and the accuracy of Nevil Shute’s assertion that Atom War means annihilation. Not helping are numerous featherweight sound bites from Stanley Kramer’s widow Karen Kramer, who offers quick dismissals of any issue that went against her husband’s judgment. Ms. Kramer begins by saying “My husband didn’t make message movies,” and her credibility goes down from there.

The making-of content goes no further than the film’s publicity and the tabloid-generated gossip about Ava Gardner. There is no mention of cameraman Giuseppe Rotunno’s stunning B&W cinematography, for instance. For a better viewpoint of Stanley Kramer’s one-producer attempt to make liberal message pictures, I recommend the book Producer of Controversy by Jennifer Frost. It increased greatly this cynic’s appreciation for Kramer’s contribution to Hollywood history.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


On the Beach
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
New Supplements:
Audio commentary by Adrian Martin
Outtakes, Location Footage and Costume Test
Kim Newman on Apocalypse Cinema
Video essays No Safety Nets: Human Horror & On the Beach with Kat Ellinger,
and Clothes to Die For: Costumes of Ava Gardner with Elissa Rose.
Other Supplements:
2015 audio commentary written by Dr. Philip Davey
1997 audio interview with Gregory Peck, by Lawrence Johnston
Newsreel Big Stars Arrive In Melbourne (1958)
8mm amateur footage of the shoot from 1959
Theatrical Trailer and Original Radio Spots
Photo Galleries featuring Stanley Kramer’s photo album (with optional descriptive text), Ava Gardner wardrobe tests, original film posters, etc.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
September 3, 2022
(6790beac)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.