On The Beach, the film of Neville Shute’s novel, was shown at ACMI in February this year. Along with the documentary about the making of the film, Fallout. These mini seasons are one of the great things about ACMI. And so I finally read the book as well. The cover of this relatively modern reprint of the novel reflects images from the film.
There was lots of interest in the film during its very short season. Wandering into ACMI on a warm Saturday afternoon expecting to get in with ease (as usual) I was astonished to find only one ticket left! I was lucky to get it as plenty of people were turned away. So I sat in the first row of ACMI Cinema 2; a surprisingly good viewing spot.
Produced in 1959, only two years after the book was published, and set in the (then) near future of 1964, it was directed by Stanley Kramer. It’s still an incredibly powerful film. Radioactive clouds have decimated the northern hemisphere and are slowly making their way south. The viewer is left wondering: what would I do contemplating the end of the world?
Shute was an engineer and fascinated with technological developments. His imagined cataclysm was caused by cobalt rather than atomic bombs as these were the latest weapons as he was writing the novel. But the movie is clearly a warning about the dangers of nuclear proliferation.
Ava Gardner who plays good time gal, Moira, was famously reported as saying Melbourne was a great place to film a movie about the end of the world. The accuracy of that quote is questionable; it’s now thought that local journalist Neil Jillet made the claim. In any event it was probably true in 1959!
It’s great fun seeing shots of 1950s Melbourne; the State Library, Flinders Street station, Parliament House, Bourke and Collins streets and the old red and blue trains and green trams. Frankston features heavily as that’s where a lot of the action is set. Shute lived there when he migrated to Australia from England; in what was then a separate and basically rural place even though it was on the metro train system.
Gregory Peck brings wonderful gravitas to the figure of Captain Dwight Towers who has brought his nuclear powered submarine to Williamstown (where it is docked next to the destroyer Melbourne). The submarine has survived the northern war – which was short and sharp – because it was safely submerged. Fred Astaire plays Julian, a local scientist, employed by the CSIRO no less, in his first non-musical role. Anthony Perkins plays a sweet newly wed naval officer, Peter, with a wife Mary and a new baby. One had to put images of Perkins the psychopath out of mind.
It’s an incredibly interesting film because it focuses, as the book does, not on what has caused the end of the world but on the reaction of people to what is happening to them. By and large they ignore the catastrophe and seek to maintain their normal routines. It’s quite confronting viewing. Mary plants a garden that will look lovely in the springtime that she’ll never see. Boat races on the bay – off Frankston Beach – continue. Farmers continue farming. The Victorian Grand Prix is run – in the book, but not the film, there are lots of accidents with people being killed left right and centre. Julian buys a Ferrari from a widow, at a bargain price, and takes ot the track with reckless disregard for his own life.
At the same time there are suggestions that things are not as they should be. The Salvation Army conducts rallies in front of the State Library. In the film, but not the book, there is a banner with an overt political message: THERE IS STILL TIME BROTHER.
Moira is invited to a party at Peter and Mary’s and instructed to keep Dwight entertained. In the past people from the north have broken down, thinking of their families who have been wiped out. They form an unlikely alliance.
At the same time the film is full of quite humorous moments. At the Squatters (i.e. Melbourne) Club the closing of a door continually upsets a painting, a Wodehouse type member rails against the foolishness of the wine committee not having foreseen that hundreds of bottles of very good port will go to waste and takes it upon himself to drink as much as possible. And there’s plenty of slapstick involved in Dwight and Moira’s fishing expedition in the hills. It looks like Warburton. In the film, nothte book, that’s where their relationship is consummated.
All the while reports are coming in about the progress of the radiation – it has reached Singapore, Brisbane, South America. Interesting that there’s no mention of Sydney. Finally Dwight is given command of the whole US navy; he’s told that his telegram acknowledging receipt of the instructions will not be necessary. There is no-one left alive in Brisbane to receive it. Before that though the submarine is sent on a mission to the northern hemisphere. They are to see whether scientific hypotheses that the radioactive cloud is dispersing are true – they’re not. And also to find out why someone is sending out unintelligible morse code signals from just above San Francisco; is there life in the north after all?
And so the submarine travels north, with Julian on board to check radiation levels. In one of the film highlights the captain and then members of the crew take turns at the periscope to check out San Francisco. Each man looks and then turns away sombrely, replacing the periscope handles with a sharp click. We see four or five men do this; all in close ups of their faces. We don’t know what they’re looking at. Which makes it the more powerful when we finally see the city which is completely untouched. Except for the complete absence of people. The famous steep roads are completely empty. One of the crew members, a native of the city, decamps through the escape hatch. Might as well die here as at the end of the world. We leave him fishing in the bay.
The submarine travels on and a besuited (very rudimentary special effects) sailor goes on shore with strict instructions to get in and out as quickly as possible. He finds the source of the erratic signals after walking through a deserted power plant, all its turbines silent and menacing and then through the administrative offices. It’s an empty coke bottle attached to the cord of a window blind that’s been randomly hitting the morse code machine as the blind flaps in the wind. An accident or a final deliberate act by a person who knew he was going to die? Either way a poignant moment.
Back in Melbourne the captain can inform authorities that all is lost. There is no life elsewhere and soon there won’t be any here. People start asking what the symptoms will be that precede inevitable death. The Government issues pills to be taken when it starts. There is a heartbreaking scene where Peter and Mary discuss what they’re going to do to their baby daughter Jennifer (it was a popular name in the 1950s). It’s all quite horrifying in its ordinariness. We know what Mary means when she says she’s ready for her cup of tea.
Dwight asks his men what they want to do. They elect to return to America. So the submarine sets sail, with Moira watching it go through the heads. The background music throughout the film is Waltzing Matilda which starts at the very beginning. It took me a while to recognise the tune. You get both good and bad. I loved the operatic version, which comes late in this video – you have to put up with the awful jingoistic repetition until the end. It’s especially poignant at the end of the movie, which starts with Julian, our scientist, taking his own way out via his beloved Ferrari and the final farewell between Dwight and Moira which is very moving. It’s here.
As noted above, ACMI also screened Fallout, a documentary about the making of On The Beach. I intended seeing it on the same day as the Kramer film, but it too was sold out. It’s noteworthy that there was so much interest in both of these films. I went back the following Monday and was terribly pleased I did because I enjoyed it immensely.
The documentary was made by Lawrence Johnston in 2013 and features interviews with Neville Shute’s daughter Heather Mayfield, Stanley Kramer’s widow, Karen and Donna Anderson who played Mary in the film (presumably the only actor still alive). Gideon Haigh talks about Neville Shute; he must have written about him I think. Helen Caldicott talks about the context in which the Kramer film was made; a time when everyone was really fearful about the possibility of nuclear war.
It also contains archival footage of filming which is terrific. In wobbly, presumably hand held camera work, we see the cast and crew shooting the Frankston beach scenes during which Peck and Gardner are in a yacht that overturns while racing and then frolicking in the sand, observed by the other main characters. We see the stars being bustled in dressing gowns into a big black car and driven away. Lots of locals are watching from the hills above the beach.
It also shows the frenzied media reception that the film people received when they arrived in Melbourne. Which must have seemed to them, a sleepy little suburban town. They were here for four months in early 1959. There is audio of Gregory Peck talking about his experience making the film. Always a liberal (in the American sense of that term) he said he was attracted to the story as a warning against nuclear proliferation.
Heather Mayfield is really interesting. Her father usually didn’t care about the films made from his books; he always sold the rights unencumbered. But he was upset about this movie. Mostly because of the relationship between Moira and Dwight. In the novel it is unconsummated. And he was upset that the focus in the film is on the romantic relationship. I understood his concern better when I read the book (see below). The really interesting thing about the movie, that the documentary also illustrates, is how the story focuses on the effects of a nuclear war on ordinary people. And that is exactly right.
It’s not didactic about the evils of nuclear power and is all the more horrifying for that, it just shows what it could end up like. It’s not ideological in any way; what does it matter who starts a nuclear war – Russia or America – the result will be the same. Its real focus is on what it would be like as an individual to face the end of humanity. I couldn’t find a trailer, but this interview with Lawrence gives you a great feel for it.
The book was published in 1957 which is early in terms of people’s awareness of the implications of the Cold War and nuclear arms race. Shute was actually thinking about cobalt bombs not nuclear ones. But he was clearly aware of the dangers of both. As noted above the entire focus is on the impact of a global catastrophic war on people who’ve had nothing to do with the machinations that have led to this end. The setting here in Australia reinforces the point; as well as being in the southern hemisphere we’re well outside the realm of global politics.
The novel is psychologically so astute. What would you do if told that the whole world will be devastated in a matter of months or even weeks? Shute has people go about their normal business, because the alternative is too hard to contemplate. Mary refuses to engage in any discussion of what has happened in the north; and for a long time refuses to acknowledge what is going to happen to her and her family. Moira observes that it is all so unfair, given she and others like her, had nothing to do with the war.
I was reminded of a book by the East German author, Christa Wolf written in 1987, called Accident a radioactive cloud hovering over Europe. I don’t know whether it was inspired by the Chernobyl nuclear accident which occurred in April 1986 or something that happened later. The tone of the Wolf novel is similar to On The Beach; the narrator continues to garden while listening to reports on the radio about the cloud’s steady movement towards her country. Those caught up in the September 11 atrocity in New York also behaved in an orderly fashion rather than succumbing to hysteria. Shute was prescient about the human response to catastrophe.
In the book there’s reference to heavy physical damage in the northern places observed by the submarine crew on their trip. But I think the film is all the more powerful for not showing any of that. And I agree with the author that the romantic relationship between the submarine captain and good time girl overshadows the deeper point he was making about how some people, deeply traumatised, deal with grief. In the book Dwight is mourning the deaths of his wife, son and daughter by denying they have died. And his friendship (nothing more) with Moira is cemented when she acknowledges his grief by buying gifts for his children.
This friendship also saves Moira from a life lacking meaning. Before meeting Dwight, she is the quintessential good time gal or society butterfly. She’s from the landed gentry and spends her time drinking too much and having lots of casual sex. There’s a bit of a nod to the limited choices open to women at this period (only a nod Shute was very conservative); she doesn’t work and she’s not married; what else should she be doing? Given Dwight’s example of a steadfast morality life exemplified by his fidelity to his wife, Moira takes herself in hand, demonstrated by her undertaking a secretarial course and being proud of passing the shorthand exam with flying colours. None of this is included in the movie. And of course, all of which activity is meaningless in the face of imminent death.
It’s all very interesting, complex and moving. And makes you wonder how you would behave if forced to contemplate the end of the world.