On the Beach is a 1959 American post-apocalyptic science fiction drama film from United Artists, produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins. The film is based on Nevil Shute's 1957 novel of the same name depicting a nuclear war and its aftermath. Unlike the novel, no blame is placed on whoever started the war; it is hinted that it may have been an accident, a few faulty vacuum tubes, or transistor circuits as in the similarly themed film Fail-Safe (1964).
In 1964, in the months following World War III, the conflict has devastated the northern hemisphere, polluting the atmosphere with nuclear fallout, killing all life there. Air currents are slowly carrying the fallout south; the only areas still habitable are in the far reaches of the southern hemisphere.
From Australia, survivors detect an incomprehensible Morse code signal coming from the west coast of the United States. The last American nuclear submarine, USS Sawfish, under Royal Australian Navy command, is ordered to sail north to the U. S. to attempt to make contact with the sender of the Morse signal. The submarine is commanded by Captain Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), who must leave his new friend, the alcoholic Moira Davidson (Ava Gardener).
The Australian government arranges for its citizens to receive suicide pills or prepared injections, so that they may end things quickly before there is prolonged suffering from radiation sickness. An Australian naval officer, Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) and his wife, Mary, who is in denial about the impending disaster, have a baby daughter. Assigned to travel with the American sub for several weeks, Peter tries to explain to Mary how to euthanize their baby and then kill herself in case he's not yet home when the end comes; Mary reacts very emotionally at the prospect of killing her daughter and herself.
One scientist's theory is that the radiation level near the Arctic Ocean could be lower than that found at the mid-northern hemisphere, which might indicate the radiation could disperse before reaching the southern hemisphere. This theory is to be explored along with the submarine's main mission. After sailing to Point Barrow, Alaska, they determine that radiation levels are, on the contrary, intensifying.
Near San Diego, the ship's communications officer, in a radiation and oxygen suit, is sent ashore to a power station. He discovers the mysterious signal is the result of a tilted Coca-Cola bottle having been suspended by its neck with an open window's shade pull cord; the shade then fluttering from random ocean breezes and the suspended bottle's weight tapping out random signals on a "live" telegraph key. Using proper Morse Code, the officer sends a message describing the situation and then returns to the sub.
Sawfish and her crew return to Australia and try to enjoy what pleasures remain to them before the end. Scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire) wins the Australian Grand Prix, in which many racers, with nothing left to lose, die in various accidents. Dwight and Moira embark on a weekend fishing trip in the country. Retreating to the resort for the night, they share a romantic interlude inside their room as, outside, a gathering storm howls. Returning to Melbourne, Towers learns one of his crew has developed radiation sickness; the deadly radiation has arrived in Melbourne.
Osborn kills himself by carbon monoxide poisoning in his closed garage, with his race car's engine running. Others line-up to receive their suicide pills. Mary Holmes becomes emotionally unbalanced and must be sedated. Later, she regains lucidity in time for she, Peter, and their baby daughter to face the end by consuming the fatal drug.
Dwight wants to stay with Moira but many of his remaining crew want to head for home to die in the U. S.; Commander Towers chooses his duty over his love for Moira and joins his crew as they attempt to make it back to the radioactive ruins of America. Moira watches as the USS Sawfish leaves Australian territorial waters, then submerge for the final voyage home.
The deserted, windblown streets of Melbourne are punctuated by the rise of dramatic, strident music over a single powerful image of a previously seen street banner that pleads to the world, to the future: "There is still time ... Brother". Nuclear war and the end of humanity can still be prevented.
Gregory Peck as Commander Dwight Lionel Towers, USS Sawfish
Ava Gardner as Moira Davidson, Towers' Australian love interest
Fred Astaire as Julian Osborn, Australian scientist
Anthony Perkins as Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes, Royal Australian Navy
Donna Anderson as Mary Holmes, Peter's wife
John Tate as Admiral Bridie, Royal Australian Navy
Harp McGuire as Lieutenant Sunderstrom (ashore in San Diego)
Lola Brooks as Lieutenant Hosgood, Bridie's secretary
Ken Wayne as Lieutenant Benson
Guy Doleman as Lieutenant Commander Farrel
Richard Meikle as Davis
John Meillon as Sawfish crewman Ralph Swain (ashore in San Francisco)
Joe McCormick as Ackerman, radiation sickness victim
Lou Vernon as Bill Davidson, Moira's father
Kevin Brennan as Dr. King, radiation diagnosis doctor
Keith Eden as Dr. Fletcher (beach scene)
Basil Buller-Murphy as Sir Douglas Froude
Brian James as Royal Australian Navy officer
John Casson as Salvation Army captain
Paddy Moran as Stevens (club wine steward)
Grant Taylor as Morgan (Holmes party)
George Fairfax (Holmes party guest)
Earl Francis (Holmes party guest)
Smokey Matonis as Royal Australian Crew Member
Cary Peck (uncredited)
As in the novel, much of On the Beach takes place in Melbourne, close to the southernmost part of the Australian mainland. Principal photography took place from mid-January to March 27, 1959 in Australia. Beach scenes were filmed at the foreshore of Cowes on Phillip Island. The film was shot in part in Berwick, then a suburb outside Melbourne and part in Frankston, also a Melbourne suburb. The well known scene where Peck meets Gardner, who arrives from Melbourne by rail, was filmed on platform #1 of Frankston railway station, now rebuilt, and a subsequent scene where Peck and Gardner are transported off by horse and buggy, was filmed in Young Street, Frankston. Some streets which were being built at the time in Berwick were named after people involved in the film. Some examples are: Shute Avenue (Nevil Shute) and Kramer Drive (Stanley Kramer).
The "Australian Grand Prix" in the novel had the racing sequences filmed at Riverside Raceway in California and at Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit, home to the present day Australian motorcycle Grand Prix, conveniently near Cowes at Phillip Island. These scenes include an array of late 1950s sports cars, including examples of the Jaguar XK150 and Jaguar D-type, Porsche 356, Mercedes-Benz 300 SL "Gullwing", AC Ace, Chevrolet Corvette and prominent in sequences was the "Chuck Porter Special", a customized Mercedes 300SL. Built by Hollywood body shop owner Chuck Porter and driven by a list of notable 1950s to 1960s west coast racers, including Ken Miles and Chuck Stevenson, who purchased and successfully raced it in the early 1960s.
The U.S. Department of Defense, as well as the United States Navy, refused to cooperate in the production of this film, not allowing access to their nuclear-powered submarines. Additional resources were supplied by the Royal Australian Navy, including the use of the aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne.
It has often been claimed that Ava Gardner described Melbourne as "the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world." However, the purported quote was actually invented by journalist Neil Jillett, who was writing for the Sydney Morning Herald at the time. His original draft of a tongue-in-cheek piece about the making of the film said that he had not been able to confirm a third-party report that Ava Gardner had made this remark. The newspaper's sub-editor changed it to read as a direct quotation from Gardner. It was published in that form and entered Melbourne folklore very quickly.
Frank Chacksfield's orchestral performance of the love theme from On the Beach was released as a single in 1960. The song "Waltzing Matilda" became popular everywhere, as a result of the film, with many folk singers recording their own versions, including Harry Belafonte, Jimmie Rodgers (who had recorded two different versions of the song), and Tim Morgan. The Seekers, who are from Australia, recorded this song several times.
On the Beach was remade in 2000 as an Australian television film by Southern Star Productions, directed by Russell Mulcahy and starring Armand Assante, Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward.
Differences between the novel and film
Nevil Shute was displeased with the final cut of the film, feeling that too many changes had been made at the expense of the story's integrity. After initial collaboration with Kramer, it was obvious that Shute's concerns were not being addressed, subsequently, he provided minimal assistance to the production. Gregory Peck agreed with him, but, in the end, producer/director Stanley Kramer's ideas won out. Shute felt that having Captain Towers and Moira's love affair ruined a central element of the novel.
In the novel, it has been two years since the war ended with people still alive elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. Australia is in radio contact with other places such as Montevideo and Cape Town. Commander Towers is in communication with the only other remaining active-duty U.S. Navy vessel: another submarine, USS Swordfish, on duty in the Atlantic and, at the end, is based in Montevideo. Melbourne, where much of the novel is set, is the southernmost major city in the world and so will be the last such to go, but people in New Zealand, Tierra del Fuego and other, more southerly points than Australia are said to have a few additional weeks left to them, but will die in their turn as the radiation spreads inexorably southward. In the film an unidentified radio newscaster says that, as far as is known, Australia is home to the last human life on the planet, and there is no Swordfish.
In the novel the submarine is named USS Scorpion but in the film, she is called Sawfish and is diesel-powered, not nuclear-powered. The film production crew was forced to use a non-nuclear, diesel-electric Royal Navy submarine, HMS Andrew.
Characters were also altered with the novel's Moira Davidson, a slender, petite pale blonde in her mid-20s portrayed by the tall, curvaceous, 36-year-old brunette Ava Gardner. Nuclear scientist John Osborne, a 20-something bachelor, in the film, is portrayed by 60-year old Fred Astaire and is named Julian Osborn. Moira Davidson and John Osborne are cousins in the novel, but are former lovers in the film. Admiral Bridie and his secretary, Lieutenant Hosgood, are characters in the film but not in the novel.
A naval training base, near Seattle, is the location in the novel from where the strange Morse Code signals are being sent. The film, however, uses an oil refinery in San Diego as the location where signals indicate there may be survivors. The idea of a survivor sending code is forthrightly dismissed in the novel as ridiculous; Towers says at one point that even someone who didn't know Morse Code would sit there with a Morse book and send at about five words per minute. But everyone wants to know if there are survivors maintaining the electrical installation that makes sending the signals possible. It turns out that the power station has been running on its own but is beginning to break down from lack of maintenance, particularly lubrication. In the film, it is shut down. Buildings in San Francisco are shown in the film as undamaged, while in the novel, the city has been largely destroyed and the Golden Gate Bridge has fallen into the bay. In the novel, the northernmost point of the submarine's journey is Gulf of Alaska, while the film uses Point Barrow.
The novel ends with a dying Moira sitting in her car, having taken her suicide pills, while watching Scorpion head out to sea to be scuttled. Unlike the novel, no mention of scuttling the sub is made in the film; instead Commander Towers's crew asks that he attempt to take them home to the United States, where they can die on their home soil. Although he realizes that they probably will not survive a second passage north, he does as they request. In the film, Ava Gardner is merely watching Dwight's submarine submerge and disappear under the sea and is not shown taking her suicide pills at that moment.
Release and reception
On the Beach premiered simultaneously in 17 cities on six continents on December 17, 1959. The Hollywood premiere was attended by the film's stars, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins, in addition to other celebrities, including Cary Grant. The New York premiere was attended by Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr.. The London premiere was attended by Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom Yakov Malik. Star Ava Gardner attended the Rome premiere. The Tokyo premiere was attended by members of the Japanese Royal Family. The Stockholm premiere was attended by King Gustav VI. The Melbourne premiere was attended by Premier of Victoria Henry Bolte. Other premieres were held in Caracas, West Berlin, Johannesburg, Lima, Paris, Toronto and Zurich
Although the film did not receive a commercial release in the Soviet Union, a special premiere was unprecedentedly arranged for that night in Moscow. Gregory Peck and his wife traveled to Russia for the screening, which was held at a workers' club, with 1,200 Soviet dignitaries, the foreign press corps, and diplomats including US Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson attending.
On the Beach recorded a loss of $700,000. Despite this, the film received positive praise in its day and in later years. It also acquired a fan base that agreed on many of the issues presented. Bosley Crowther in his contemporary review in The New York Times saw the film as delivering a powerful message.
"In putting this fanciful but arresting story of Mr. Shute on the screen, Mr. Kramer and his assistants have most forcibly emphasized this point: life is a beautiful treasure and man should do all he can to save it from annihilation, while there is still time. To this end, he has accomplished some vivid and trenchant images that subtly fill the mind of the viewer with a strong appreciation of his theme."
The review in Variety was not as positive. "On the Beach is a solid film of considerable emotional, as well as cerebral, content. But the fact remains that the final impact is as heavy as a leaden shroud. The spectator is left with the sick feeling that he’s had a preview of Armageddon, in which all contestants lost."
In a later appraisal of both novel and film, historian Paul Brians (Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1964 (1987)) considered the novel "inferior" to the film. His contention was that the portrayal of nuclear annihilation was more accurate as it was clear that the world was coming to an end.
The U.S. government at the time voiced criticism of the general premise of both the novel and film that there was an actual threat of extinction by nuclear war because they did not have, nor had they ever had, enough nuclear weapons to actually cause the extinction of humanity.
Stanley Kramer won the 1960 BAFTA for best director and Ernest Gold won the 1960 Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Score. It was also nominated for Academy Awards in two categories:
Best Score Ernest Gold
Best Editing Frederic Knudtson
On the Beach (2000) is a made-for-television film directed by Russell Mulcahy and starring Armand Assante, Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward. It was originally aired on Showtime. The remake of the 1959 film, was also based on the 1957 novel by Nevil Shute, but updates the setting of the story to the film's then-future of 2006, starting with placing the crew on the fictional Los Angeles-class USS Charleston (SSN-704) submarine.