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Film Criticism by David O'Connell

On the Beach

December 9th 2009 03:52
The year was 1959 and for the first time Hollywood came trudging into Melbourne with a select band of luminaries, an armada-sized crew and copies of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach tucked under their arms. Back then, Melbourne was a colourless, drippy backwater, but in Shute’s world it's the last place on earth left untouched, for now, by corrosive nuclear winds. The last clusters of humanity play a morbid waiting game while trying to pretend that life in these last months must continue - as if the Sword of Damacles, in the grip of a patiently sunning Grim Reaper, isn’t perched above them.




Stanley Kramer’s adaptation, scripted by John Paxton and set in 1964, strips away the grand scale of disaster, opting for the telling of intimate, internal struggles for survival. The emphasis is on family, relationships and preserving dignity as the doomsday clock counts down to zero.

An American submarine, with its Commander, Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), docks in Melbourne as the film begins. The hospitality shown by a local officer from Frankston, Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins), draws him into their circle which includes Peter’s wife Mary (Donna Anderson) and more significantly, the local drunk, Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), who takes an instant shine to the handsome, deferential officer.

Towers is the kind of character so often portrayed by Peck: noble, dignified, distinguished by his stern sense of morality and slight discomfort around others. He has a wife and children in the States and despite confining knowledge of their demise to a subconscious level, he’s still reluctant to stray for much of the film. Even after the flirtatious, depressed Moira drapes herself all over him, spilling her guts about her life and the woe that has befallen it.


Fred Astaire, Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner


The other key figure wafting in and out of these lives is Fred Astaire’s hardened British doctor, Julian Osbourne. Here’s the one person who seems to have contemplated their collective fates and fully accepted the inevitable. Though horrified by the premature demise of humankind, he masks his horror with cynicism and philosophical musings.

On the Beach has survived the decades with its dignity intact. It’s easy to imagine that Melbourne’s legendary first encounter with the dream factory of Hollywood might overshadow the quality of the resultant film, but although it’s no out-and-out classic, it holds up remarkably well as compelling drama, even if the odd line of dialogue draws an unintentional chuckle.

The performances are all strong with Peck as proficient and sympathetic as ever; the guy is still every boy's dream father. Playing against type in his first dramatic role, Astaire proves to be a revelation, his weather-beaten exterior well suited to the despairing but resilient Julian. Gardner, despite her glaring lack of attempt at an Australian accent, displays a formidable sexual presence even as her star was beginning to fade; there's a sensual, strangely potent mix of sadness and strength in her portrayal. Perkins – just a year before he stepped into the role of Norman Bates - and Anderson are both convincing too as parents having to consider the torturous prospect of their young child's finite existence.

Donna Anderson and Anthony Perkins


The black and white cinematography of Giuseppe Rotunno, who had already barely begun a now-famed collaboration with director Luchino Visconti, is exceptional. Ernest Gold’s score, with its use of Waltzing Matilda as a main theme, becomes a little excessive despite some clever variations. His finest moments highlight original material such as the strident dramatic music accompanying one of the film’s best sequences as the submarine ventures back to the west coast of America to scour the streets of these ghost towns for signs of life.

With its fascinating historical context, both from the perspective of Melbourne and the shadow of the bomb, On the Beach is a reminder of the bleakness of the time. In some ways, little has changed of course, but here a plea for hope remains crucial to effecting the film’s anti-war agenda. Amidst the eerie, barren streets of the closing frames, Kramer offers an addendum to the harsh finality of Shute’s vision with a stark, imploring declaration that rings out like a prayer; it’s one that resonates down through the decades and should stick as firmly in the minds of audiences today.





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5 Comments. [ Add A Comment ]

Comment by JohnDoe

December 9th 2009 15:16
Great review of one of my favourites David,

On the Beach is a brilliant sub/Armageddon thriller that certainly ranks with the best films ever shot in Oz.

If your interested you can read my review of On the Beach by clicking HERE

Comment by David O'Connell

December 10th 2009 02:28
Thanks JD, I actually got to see a brand new print of this on the big screen last weekend at ACMI in Melbourne. There was also an informative panel discussion afterwards which included Philip Davey who wrote that definitive account you mentioned of the whole production and the circus that went with it.

Interesting how you mention the "town" of Berwick where the brief homestead scenes were shot. Both Berwick and Frankston are now very much outer Melbourne suburbs in their own right, having long ago been swallowed up by expansion out that way!

Certainly deserves to be a lot better known than it is, you're right there. I love the scenes in the sub off the coast of San Francisco where they survey the emptiness and as they all, in turn, look in horror through the periscope not one of them has to say a single word to convey what they and the audience are feeling. A great sequence.

Comment by Matt Shea

December 10th 2009 13:35
Dave - I managed to see this when I was in my early teens and it struck me then as one of the most frightening and thoughtful films I'd ever seen. It was those little things that really made it - like the decision to just have the people disappear (if I'm remembering the right film on this point) - I would have loved to be at the table when somebody came up with that strange but very effective visual touch. Haven't watched it since but hopefully that print will finds its way north one day soon

Comment by MelGee

December 10th 2009 23:38
I grew up on a farm just outside of Berwick, not unlike that in the movie. When I was young, Berwick was still a town, but as you've said this is no longer the case. It's suburban sprawl. I remember the older people often talking about the days when 'On The Beach' was filmed and how exciting it was for the community. They are still bitter about the famous quote by Ava Gardner, even though we know know that this was fabricated and she didn't call Melbourne the 'end of the earth' at all! Great review of a great film. Thanks.

Comment by David O'Connell

December 11th 2009 06:28
Matt, you're spot on mate, there's not a bullet fired in anger and not a single dead body shown throughout (the few glimpses they filmed were eventually cut). It's a very subtle, humane film in many ways, and yes with plenty of haunting scenes of the desolation. The final moments really strike a chord.


MelGee, some days I think Melbourne really is the end of the earth. You know the kind of weather I'm talking about.

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