Monday 2 October 2023

Movie Review: On The Beach (1959)

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic Cold War Drama
Director: Stanley Kramer
Running Time: 134 minutes

Synopsis: In 1964, a nuclear war annihilates humanity in the Northern Hemisphere. As Australia awaits the arrival of deadly radiation, Commander Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) docks the US Navy's nuclear submarine USS Sawfish in Melbourne. Still grieving the loss of his family, Towers is introduced to Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), who is seeking a romance. Towers also meets Lieutenant Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) of the Australian Navy, who is struggling to comfort his wife Mary (Donna Anderson). Nuclear scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire, in his first dramatic role) joins them on a reconnaissance mission to measure radiation levels over the Pacific, a journey that will reach San Francisco then San Diego, the source of a mysterious radio signal.

What Works Well: The adaptation of Nevil Shute's cautionary novel packs enormous quiet power, portraying humanity's demise through the eyes of the final set of survivors, resigned to their fate. John Paxton's script deftly avoids melodrama, instead allowing creeping dread to emerge in potent moments of realization, regret, and despair. The military, scientific, and civilian perspectives are provided equal weight through the stories of Towers, Osborn, Moira, and the Holmes family, and gradually themes of loss and lament grab hold at individual and collective levels. Director Stanley Kramer affords even minor characters (the San Francisco sailor, the Australian Navy commander and his assistant) respectful moments, and the closing embraces of finality have rarely been matched for sheer poignancy.

What Does Not Work As Well: The slow pacing allows the immensity of extinction to settle like a heavy fog, contrasting prolonged interactions with the miniscule time remaining for life on Earth, but the running length still borders on excessive.

Conclusion: Unthinkable tragedy distilled to the essence of human desire for meaningful connections.

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