Made in 1959 On The Beach is as relevant today as it was then. Simply put Neville Shute’s story says only one thing – in a war involving weapons of mass destruction – although that was never a contemporary phrase – will end with no winners. Those that will be left will have a short time to reflect on their follies and then there will be nothing. Not overstated and never has a message resonated with more truth and been ignored ever since.
When your story is as powerful and plainly told as this then your if you make a film of it there needs to be no further embellishment or exaggeration. Stanley Kramer did just this. He shot the film in Australia where Neville Shute spent most of his life and the novel was set. Gregory Peck, a man who passionately believed in the message of On The Beach, was perfectly cast in the role of Captain Towers being the Tom Hanks of his era, a reliable, relatable and likeable actor that people trusted.
The story, like all ‘end of the world’ scenarios, is successful because it focusses not on the huge dominate picture that would overwhelm a story like this, but on the minutia, the individuals and the affect it has on them. With this it is more successful than most modern takes on this type of apocalyptic storyline. In this story the horrible maniacs are dead, gone with the rest of the world, all that is left are normal people trying to get by in a decent, honest way whilst the biggest Sword of Damocles hangs over their head.
Perkins, Gardner and Anderson all play their roles with shades of realism not seen in this era and type of film. I found it almost sad that Gardner was cast as a downtrodden and somewhat sad ‘lush’ looking for love considering her own life story but she clearly attacked the role with relish and real feeling, likewise Perkins before he became forever associated with a less savoury film character.
With the cinematography and pacing almost pitch perfect we are not distracted from the reactions and the way each character handles the coming end of the world. True some the accents seem a bit off with Americans playing both Australians and British characters and then oddly a small cameo role of a US submariner being played by a famous Australian character actor but much like the over-played and over-bearing Waltzing Matilda throughout the film this in no way jarred the viewer out of the story, in fact that tune is saved in a scene where a rabble’s drunken chorus of the song turns in a subtle way into a beautiful male choir of the same song – obviously hugely dramatic and theatrical but nevertheless very effective.
It is to the film-maker and script-writer’s credit that the poignant and powerful ending to the novel is in no way changed and that despite their love for each other Moria and Dwight Towers must meet their end on their own as all the characters do but thankfully with no melodramatic flourishes or grand-standing, just a stoic acceptance. Sad and memorable.
On The Beach is perhaps to understated for main-stream audiences and now, being in black and white, with full-on mood music, it might look dated but it is a powerful statement on the thinking of people who are in positions in power then as it is today.
“We have been standing on the beach for many years and it may be too late already. Watch this film”