“On The Beach” contains something that is unfortunately lacking in many films of the of post apocalyptic genre – story. Nearly the entire first half is nothing but characterization and exposition. Sure, it’s a slow start, but by the time we reach the climax (giggity), we actually give a shit about nearly ALL of the characters, and in the closing scenes of the film I honestly shed a tear or two. If you’re not used to watching old movies, this is going to be painfully slow for you, and you’re going to be turned off by the overly dramatic stage-style performances and lack of anything resembling action. This movie isn’t about survival, scavenging, wastelands or wastelanders. This film is about love, regret, and dignity. In short, it’s a character piece in which the few remaining humans on earth are left with no options for survival and must come to terms with their inevitable end. Depressing.
The film begins by establishing that in 1964 (woot, dodged it!) the earth was plunged into nuclear war, and even those areas not directly hit by bombs were completely bathed in fatal doses of radiation. Somehow, only parts of Australia and Antarctica managed to escape both the bombs and the radiation, though scientists predict that they will also be overtaken in five months. In short, there’s no hope.
An American submarine, the USS Sawfish, piloted by Commander Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), escapes the radiation under water and surfaces in Australia to find that life is carrying on… pretty much as if nothing had happened at all. Hmm. Even Towers and his crew seem strangely cheerful considering knowing that everyone they know and love is now dead. The only clue that something has changed is the fact that the Australians are now traveling by foot, bicycle and even horse – many of their cars left abandoned by the roadside due to shortages of guzzoline. There is some discussion of imminent supply shortages, but no effort is taken to ration or conserve supplies. In fact, no one even discusses attempting to survive the impending radiation – they seem immediately resigned to death, and at peace with it. Everyone still goes to work, in many cases turning down vacation. As you watch them go about their lives, you can tell that the fear and panic is hiding just below their calm exteriors – they’re not at peace with death, they’re just pretending to be for the sake of maintaining decorum.
This would never happen today. In fact, while this “stiff upper lip”, “quiet desperation” thing might have been considered dignified at that time, I’d sooner respect the man that died while ferociously digging a trench in the dirt with his bare hands, wheezing and growling, giving every last ounce of effort until the final seconds to try and survive. In the end, there are only those who survived and those who didn’t. When death is looking you in the eye, laugh at him… but at least make the bastard chase you first.
It reminds me of the scene in “The Day After” when the bombs fall, and the mother decides to calmly make the bed despite the apocalypse outside her door. Her husband struggles to snap her out of it and pull her into the storm shelter, but she refuses to acknowledge what’s happening, because by acknowledging it she would have to DEAL with it, and she can’t… so she doesn’t.
The first character to betray this fear is Peter, a young Leftenant in the Royal Navy played by Anthony Perkins before he took to cross dressing and stabbing women. Peter is very much in love with his young two-dimensional wife and infant daughter, and is still young and vulnerable enough to be obviously shaken by the prospect of not only his own death, but his family’s. He spends much of the film attempting to remain calm and appear as indifferent as the older men around him. He even hesitates to discuss the topic, and is admonished at one point for openly expressing his fears to the aging nuclear scientist, Julian (Fred Astaire). Perkins plays himself, but it fits this role well, and his character is the first I felt myself caring for – the love he feels for his family is tangible from the first moment we see them together, and Peter has more to lose than any other character in the film.
Gregory Peck is solid as Towers, as well, but his character shows far less emotion and vulnerability – in a way, he doesn’t require our sympathy. However, we later learn that though his wife and children perished in the initial blast, he is unable to admit that to himself and refers to them in the present tense with strangers. Rather than express a hope that hey somehow survived, he simply avoids the idea that anything happened at all. On one hand, he can calmly discuss that the entire rest of the world is uninhabitable, but then immediately change gears and discuss his family as if they exist somewhere outside of the ruined world – as if a part of his mind, the part that contains them, is still stuck in the past… before the bombs fell.
Towers’ liaison, Moira (Ava Gardner), takes an instant liking to him, and between bouts of drinking in excess and clumsily throwing herself at him, manages to elicit a kind of pity from Towers that grows into a flirtatious friendship as the days pass. Gardner is the guiltiest over-actor in the film, often appearing disingenuous and even antagonistic at times, when she forces herself upon Towers over and over again despite his pleas that, in his own mind, he is still a married man. Her character, within the film, seems disheveled and desperate. Towers seems, to put it bluntly, too good for Moira. To be fair, Ava Gardner was a beautiful woman, but it just doesn’t come across in this film. The chemistry between Towers and Moira seems forced for the sake of the plot, and I find myself believing more that Towers simply needs SOMEONE to hold in his final moments, and that Moira just happened to be the best choice, given the circumstances.
The Navy theorizes that there might be habitable areas in the far northern hemisphere and orders the only remaining sub (the Sawfish) to investigate. At the same time, they begin receiving unintelligible, but random, morse-code-esque radio transmissions from California – an area thought to be completely devoid of life. They investigate the arctic circle, only to find that the radiation levels there are far too high to sustain life, and are intensifying. Next, they investigate the radio transmissions… only to find they they are the result of a coke bottle laying over the telegraph key, with a window shade attached to the bottle, catching the breeze and causing it to bounce on the key, broadcasting truly random signals. The broadcasts are still powered thanks to a hydroelectric plant running independently of its human masters.
First of all, since the odds of a coke bottle, window shade, and telegraph key finding their way into this configuration naturally are astronomical, I’m guessing some asshole rigged this up before succumbing to his radiation sickness in a last bid effort to piss someone off. Touche’ sir… touche’.
The crew returns to Australia dejected, but resigned to live out their remaining days as best they can. Towers and Moira spend their time as a married couple, and Julian debuts his home-built race car in a road race that he ends up winning by default… after every other participant crashes – many obviously dying in the process. Moira is appalled by the spectacle, but Julian explains that, with such little time left, what does it matter? They’re doing what they want to do, and that’s what’s important.
Now, each character must choose whether they want to die a slow, painful death by radiation poisoning, or commit suicide. This part of the film really affected me emotionally, believe it or not. Julian, having no family or love in his life other than his beloved race car, seals himself inside the garage, sits in the driver seat, and revs the engine until he dies from carbon monoxide poisoning. In a way, he died in the arms of his true love, and what more could anyone want?
Peter chooses the same end, though by different means. He settles into bed with his wife and they reminisce about the first time they met while sharing hot tea laced with cyanide.
Towers, however, chooses his men over Moira (can’t blame him) and tells her that his men wish to spend their last moments in America, and that, as their captain, he must accompany them. They part, and Moira watches from the shore as the Sawfish submerges. Why Moira wasn’t allowed to come, I don’t know – it seems like a logical solution. It’s not as though there isn’t room on board, especially considering they’ve already lost some of their sailors. If you ask me, I think Towers just wasn’t that into her and needed an excuse to escape. Again, I don’t blame him.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10
Hidden Moral: Many people overlooked the very strange and violent race in which Julian took part as an excuse to show exciting stock footage of vintage race crashes, but I saw something else… maybe something that wasn’t intended. Intentional or not, it was there to be perceived. I saw a microcosmic allegory of survival. Julian didn’t win because he was the best driver or had the fastest car. He won because he was the only racer left after all the others had crashed, many of whom died. In the end, the winner isn’t the biggest or the best, but the one that’s left to finish the race.