[Feb. 1, 1960] Sand in my shorts (On the Beach movie review)

With the Hugo nominations already afoot, I felt I could not advisedly give my vote for Best Science Fiction in Media (1959) without giving last year’s post-apocalyptic sleeper, On the Beach a watch.  It’s just now leaving the theaters, so I caught it in the nick of time.  I did not take my daughter with me on this outing, as I felt the material might be a bit subtle for her.  Perhaps I don’t give her enough credit.

In any event, just as I was sharpening my quills, I made the acquaintance of a learned and delightful young woman named Rosemary, who was just about to put her own thoughts on the film to paper.  I invited her to share them with my readers, and as she was interested in expanding her own audience by some five to ten persons, she graciously obliged my request. 

Without further ado:

Reaction to On the Beach (1959 film)
-Rosemary Benton

I first heard about Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, depicting life in Australia after an atomic apocalypse, within the pages of the March 1958 edition of Galaxy Magazine. Floyd C. Gale’s review was glowing. He even went so far as to say that On the Beach, “should be made mandatory reading for all professional diplomats and politicos” (120). Despite such high praise, I didn’t take an interest in the title until United Artists announced that they would be releasing a film adaptation just in time for the 1959 Christmas season. Having just seen Stanley Kramer’s masterful direction of The Defiant Ones last year in September I was very much looking forward to seeing how Mr. Kramer would do justice to Shute’s tale of the acceptance of human failure and mortality in the face of certain, calendared, radioactive doom.

In preparation of seeing the movie I made it a priority to read the novel so I could contrast the two versions. While I did enjoy the cinematography, the musical score, and the acting of Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, my largest problem with this adaptation was the melodrama that was infused into the film. Beginning from the dinner party scene when the scientist and politician argue over who is to blame for the atomic war, and remaining through the highly charged relationship between the self-described town drunk Moira Davidson and the US naval officer Captain Dwight Towers, the emotions of the characters run much higher than in Shute’s novel. My impression is that this was done for several reasons. Firstly, to redirect the story’s focus from the Australian naval family of Peter, Mary and their baby Jennifer Holmes to the more romantically charged friendship between Moira (played by Ms. Gardner) and Dwight (played by Mr. Peck). Secondly, to add more drama on the fatalistic situation that the characters find themselves in.

While the novel plays more on the angst of lost potential and hope for a better future that the young Australian family must come to grips with, the movie instead plays to the tried and true story of love lost and the inevitable divide between duty, country, and status. It’s a shame that there isn’t more time given to the lives of the Holmes family. Not only do they symbolize the struggle for new life through the already difficult early stages of marriage and child rearing, but they feel that they must hang on as long as possible despite the deadly radiation and inevitable death being carried into the last bastion of humanity. Moira and Dwight are more symbolic of desperate, grasping hope. As their friendship evolves both characters come to realize that what they want is holding them back and apart. Moira wants a romantic relationship with Dwight, but respects that he can not let go of the deceased family he left in Connecticut. Dwight, with his intense loyalty to his old family’s memory and his determination to cling to the slight hope that he and his crew might find other people still alive in the irradiated lands of the Northern Hemisphere, effectively limits his ability to find happiness in his short time remaining. 

While I respect Stanley Kramer’s ability to engage his audience, I think he played too much to the conventions of Hollywood. Disasters in movies tend to rend communities apart, while in reality they bring local people together. The more disruptive a threat, the more people will band together. Our own civil defense committees that formed across the nation during the Second World War showed a solidarity in small communities that counteracted panic. Even during the Great Flood of 1951, when disaster struck Kansas and ruined thousands of livelihoods, civilians still rushed to help those who were trapped. Shute, I believe, understands this human solidarity in his depiction of the calm equanimity that his characters display. Shute gives his characters addictions, socially awkward encounters, playful banter, and a grace that comes with the characters’ acceptance (or flippant dismissal) of the coming extinction of humanity. Having been pushed into a corner through a mass extinction event Shute knows that his cast of players are not as irrational and/or oblivious to their situation as Kramer’s movie would have the audience believe.

The starring cast… on the beach

Editor’s prologue: Rosemary is far more charitable to the movie than I can be, focusing on a few, quite astute observations.  I found the film a dreadful, morose, melodramatic bore.  The endless variations of “Waltzing Matilda” (eternally heralding that We Are in Australia) punctuated by needlessly loud blasts of brass during the poignant bits, sent me diving for refuge in my Buddy Holly records.  Suffice it to say, this film will not be my recommendation for best science fiction film of the past year.

Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!

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