MOVIE REVIEW | On the Beach (1959)

In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “It’s an anti-nuke message that never tries to be subtle about it.”

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“The war started when people accepted the idiotic principle that peace could be maintained by arranging to defend themselves with weapons they couldn’t possibly use without committing suicide.”

Last year, the internet lost its mind because we reached the date that Marty McFly travels to in Back the Future Part II.  While the online obsession was a little bit much, it did make me realise something; I like movies set in the future, where that future has now come and gone.  It’s fascinating to see just how wrong pretty much every single one gets it.  For example, in the 2015 of Back to the Future Part II, there are flying cars, but modern communication still includes dot matrix fax machines.  I didn’t know I was in for a future-that-never-eventuated movie with On the Beach, but I’m happy that’s what I got.

After a third World War in the 50s, the entire northern hemisphere has been decimated by nuclear fallout.  With radiation making the top half of the world unlivable, the last remnants of civilization have found their way to Melbourne, Australia.  It’s now the mid 60s, and after assuming there is no life north of the equator, a Morse code message is picked up, coming from California.

American submarine captain Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) and his crew make the trip to America, to see who, or what, is sending the message.  Along for the ride is Australian soldier, Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins).  And since his home life consists of teaching his wife how to painlessly kill herself and their baby daughter should the radiation ever make its way down under, a Pacific cruise isn’t the worst thing in the world for ol’ Pete.  Also in Melbourne are Dwight’s love interest, Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner) and scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire).

Made in 1959, On the Beach was only looking a few years into the future, but it’s still fascinating to see how the story runs wild with its Cold War paranoia.   There’s never any specific mention of the Russians or just which country caused the nuclear winter, but it’s an anti-nuke message that never tries to be subtle about it.

What I found even more fascinating than the story though was the setting.  As someone who lives in Melbourne, I loved seeing the city as it was in 1959, when the move was shot here, on location.   Just 50 years ago, it looked like Melbounre really wasn’t much more than a big country town.  And the movie uses that to great effect.  You can tell that Dwight and his fellow sailors feel like they’re kind of slumming it.  Even though Australia is literally the only inhabitable place left on the planet, it’s obvious that they still think it’s a step down from their native America.
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And even if you ignore all of that interesting stuff, On the Beach is still a Gregory Peck movie.  And his calm, thoughtful, measured intensity is so perfect for the character of Dwight Towers.  He’s pragmatic and logical in a world where it would have been easy to abandon those traits long ago.  Having Peck’s rock steady fortitude amongst this intense story makes the crazier aspects seems scarily plausible.

On the Beach
Directed By – Stanley Kramer
Written By – John Paxton

Other Opinions Are Available.  What did these people have to say about On the Beach?
The New York Times
The Roadshow Version
Movie Review Query Engine

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