Friday, September 26, 2014

Movie Review: Stanley Kramer's On the Beach, starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins (1959)

Gregory Peck, looking dashing in uniform as Dwight Towers in On the Beach, 1959.

Anthony Perkins, Gregory Peck, and nuclear scientist Fred Astaire.

The Coca-Cola bottle sending the Morse code signals in On the Beach.

A lighter moment on the set with Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck, and producer/director Stanley Kramer.

Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, 1959.
Stanley Kramer’s 1959 film On the Beach was one of the first Hollywood movies to take a serious look at the dangers of nuclear warfare. Based on the 1957 novel by Nevil Shute, On the Beach takes place in the then-future of 1964, after a nuclear war has destroyed nearly all of the life on the planet. Radioactive fallout is slowly spreading south, and On the Beach follows a group of people in Australia, which is the only place in the world that is still inhabited by humans. 

Gregory Peck plays Dwight Towers, the captain the Sawfish, an American nuclear submarine. The Sawfish survived the war and heads to Australia. Towers’ liaison with the Australian Navy is Peter Holmes, played by Anthony Perkins. Holmes has a wife and baby, and he struggles with the realization that they will all soon die. His wife is in denial about their situation, and doesn’t want to discuss it. Holmes introduces Towers to several of his friends, including the alcoholic Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner) and the alcoholic scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire). Towers has a wife and two children in the United States, and although he knows it is highly likely that they are dead, he still talks about them in the present tense. Towers and Moria start spending more time together, and eventually their relationship becomes romantic. 

Meanwhile, naval communications in Australia are picking up Morse code signals from San Diego. The signals are gibberish, but on the possibility that it could be a survivor, they dispatch the Sawfish to check it out. But on their way to San Diego, the Sawfish heads as far north as possible to see if radioactive levels have dropped. Julian Osborn goes along on the trip as the head scientist, and he confirms that radioactive levels are still very high. I was surprised at how little of the movie took place on the submarine. I thought most of the movie would be focused on their journey northward and then to San Diego, but they get to Alaska in about two minutes. The Sawfish stops by San Francisco on their way to San Diego, and one of the most moving moments in the film is the montage of crew members looking through the periscope at a totally uninhabited city. One crewman from the Sawfish, Ralph Swain, is from San Francisco, and he leaves the submarine to return to his home. An oddly moving moment is the conversation that Towers and Swain have the next morning as the Sawfish prepares to depart. Towers is speaking over the loudspeaker of the submarine, so all we see is Swain sitting on shore talking to a submarine periscope. It’s funny and sad at the same time, a moment that seems so surreal, yet the emotion is heightened as we know that Swain’s conversation with Towers will be the last contact he has with another human being before he dies from fallout. 

The Sawfish tracks the Morse code signal to a refinery in San Diego. One of the crew is sent ashore to investigate and find the signal. He finds that the signal is coming from a Coca-Cola bottle that has fallen and gotten stuck in a window shade. As the breeze moves the window shade, the bottle strikes the telegraph keys, sending the nonsense gibberish messages. The last hope for any survivors has been dashed. 

The submarine returns to Australia and the men wait out their inevitable fate. Osborn has always had a passion for cars, so he enters a car race and wins. It’s the most suicidal car race ever seen on film, as drivers deliberately crash their cars to avoid a painful death from nuclear fallout. The government is handing out suicide pills, and Holmes and his wife finally have a realistic conversation about how they will euthanize their baby before killing themselves. Osborn commits suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, sitting at the wheel of the race car he loved. Towers and Moira know that they have little time left. The remaining crew of the Sawfish vote to head back to the United States, even though they know they will die before they make it home. Towers commands the ship on its final voyage, and Moira watches from a hill as Towers and the Sawfish depart. 

On the Beach is a bleak film. There is no glimmer of hope for mankind, no way out of the terrible situation the characters find themselves in. One of the questions the movie asks is: how would you spend your last days on earth? Personally, I would rather be in the arms of Ava Gardner than on a doomed submarine. But that’s just me.

All of the performances in On the Beach are excellent. Gregory Peck is perfectly cast as the stoic Dwight Towers, who never panics in the face of a terrible future. If I were on a submarine as the world was ending, there’s really no one I’d rather have be in charge than Gregory Peck. Ava Gardner is very well cast as the alcoholic Moira, who sees in Peck a final chance at some happy moments. While it might seem unbelievable that Dwight and Moira would embark on a romantic relationship, the fact that they are played by the superbly handsome Greg Peck and the delectable Ava Gardner makes it seem obvious why they would like each other. On the Beach was Peck and Gardner’s third and final movie together. They also co-starred in The Great Sinner in 1949 and The Snows of Kilimanjaro in 1952. Peck and Gardner have an obvious chemistry in their scenes together. 

Anthony Perkins is touching as the officer with a wife and a young baby. A baby is always a symbol of hope for the future, but in On the Beach we know that there will be no future for this baby. Perkins brings his all-American boy next door charm to the role, and he’s very convincing in the part. A year after On the Beach, Perkins would star as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which forever changed his on screen image. Hitchcock saw that Perkins’s off-kilter charm just needed a slight twist to seem super creepy. Although Psycho was a highlight of Anthony Perkins’s movie career, it also typecast him as a bad guy.

On the Beach is a rare non-musical film role for Fred Astaire. He does a good job as the morose scientist, even though his toupee is distractingly awful. Astaire looks so much older in On the Beach than he did in Silk Stockings and Funny Face, both released just two years before On the Beach. The character that Astaire plays was written as a much younger man in his 20’s in the novel. That makes a little more sense given his love of race cars. But Astaire brings touching moments to the part. When Perkins is worried about his wife and baby, Astaire says “At least you have someone to worry about.” 

One thing I didn’t understand about the movie is what nationality is everyone supposed to be? Peck is obviously an American, but what about the characters that Perkins, Astaire, and Gardner play? Are they all supposed to be Australians? Thankfully no one attempts an accent, although Astaire does pronounce some words very strangely, as though he suddenly remembered his character wasn’t American. 

Stanley Kramer does a good job of directing On the Beach, and I liked his use of titled camera angles to emphasize the surreal circumstances the characters find themselves in. There’s ambiguity in On the Beach, as we never learn how the nuclear war started, or which side dropped the first bomb. Ultimately, that’s irrelevant to the story, which was Kramer’s point-every side loses in a nuclear war. Kramer was most famous for serious films that dealt with important topics of the day. His credits as a producer include Death of a Salesman, High Noon, The Wild One, and The Caine Mutiny. As a director, his most famous films are The Defiant Ones, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, Ship of Fools, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The least successful aspect of On the Beach was the ridiculously repetitive score by Ernest Gold, which will make you really sick of “Waltzing Matilda” by the time you get half an hour into the movie. Oddly enough, Gold won a Golden Globe for his score for On the Beach, and the score was also nominated for an Oscar. Gold would win the Oscar the following year for his score for Exodus. Trivia note: Gold was married to Marni Nixon, who famously dubbed many female stars’ singing voices, including Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, and Natalie Wood in West Side Story.

On the Beach is an excellent movie from an era in which the threat of nuclear destruction was at its highest, and I strongly recommend it.


Anonymous said...

classic movie

Anonymous said...

This is a great movie. They don't make them like they used to.