On the occasion of Fred Astaire’s 112th birthday, we revisit this article written for the late, lamented original Scifipedia website.
Adapted by John Paxton from the novel by Nevil Shute, this 1959 classic was one of the first major studio productions that seriously addressed the possible outcome of a nuclear war. Unlike such earlier post-apocalyptic efforts as Five (1951) and The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), it examined the concept’s global ramifications instead of concentrating on a few isolated survivors.
One of Hollywood’s most socially conscious filmmakers, Stanley Kramer tackled various sensitive subjects in his films as a producer and/or director. These included paraplegics in The Men (1950), racism in The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967), evolution in Inherit the Wind (1960), and the Holocaust in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).
Kramer produced and directed, with a cast headed by Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Astaire (in a rare dramatic role), and Anthony Perkins. “I only hoped that the emotional impact of what we were presenting would convince people that we’d damn well better do something to assure our survival,” he wrote in 1984, in an essay for Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies.
Dwight Towers (Peck) is the commander of a U.S. sub that arrives in Australia, where the only remaining survivors of a nuclear war await the cloud of lethal radiation heading inexorably toward them. Young navy officer Peter Holmes (Perkins) and his wife, Mary (Donna Anderson), introduce Towers to Moira Davidson (Gardner), who is busily drinking away the rest of her life.
At the same weekend party, he meets scientist Julian Osborn (Astaire), who is later asked by the crewmen of the Sawfish how the end of the world came to be unleashed. “The war started when people accepted the idiotic principle that peace can be maintained by arranging to defend themselves with weapons they couldn’t possibly use without committing suicide,” he responds.
Although haunted by memories of his dead wife and children, Towers eventually gives in to his growing affection for Moira, which has a salutary effect on her dissolute lifestyle. The sub travels to San Diego to investigate a series of undecipherable radio signals, which are caused by a windblown shade tapping a soda bottle against a telegraph key, and then returns to Melbourne.
Each faces death in his own way: auto enthusiast Julian buys a sports car and wins a race before asphyxiating himself with exhaust; Peter poisons himself, Mary, and their baby to avoid a lingering death from radiation sickness; and after they have enjoyed an idyllic fishing trip, Moira waves goodbye as Towers takes the sub out on one last voyage, knowing that it will never return.
Remade for cable in 2000 with Armand Assante, Rachel Ward, and Bryan Brown, On the Beach is a moving, thought-provoking cautionary tale, with the popular tune “Waltzing Matilda” as a melancholy musical motif. Superior on all counts, the film is rich with evocative detail as it presents the varied responses of its fully rounded characters to the unthinkable reality they face.
On a personal note, when I shared this film a few months ago with three generations of Bradley women (my mother, wife, and daughter), I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house, and that’s saying something…