One of the staples of Science Fiction, in both literature and film, is the Post-Apocalyptic , or “end of the world” story. Films like Mad Max, Escape From New York, The Omega Man, The Stand, and even Resident Evil all fall into this category. The more recent films in this sub-genre go to great lengths to show the viewer the devastation and ruin of the planet. We are shown destroyed cities, wrecked bridges, giant tidal waves, and the occasional Mutant horde. All of these images are intended to elicit a strong feeling of empathy for the doomed human race. Sometimes this works very well as in The Stand. Other times it is just a bunch of high gloss special effects, as in Deep impact, with no real emotional ties.
In fact, as strong argument can be made that the most emotionally compelling Post-Apocalyptic films do NOT show much (if any) of the external destruction and instead focus on the impact on individual human lives. This latter approach brings to mind such films as The Day The Earth Caught Fire, The World, The Flesh, and The Devil, Testament...and
On The Beach.
On The Beach is a film shot in 1959 and is based on Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel. When I was in High School and the Cold War was still a part of everyday life, the threat of nuclear war was very real. Shute’s novel was required reading for students, not only in the United States but all over the world. The film, which starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins and Fred Astaire, stayed very close to the spirit of the novel.
The story is set in the near future in the months following World War III. The conflict has devastated the most of the world, polluting the atmosphere with nuclear waste and killing all human life. While the nuclear bombs were confined to the northern hemisphere, global air currents are slowly carrying the fallout to the southern hemisphere. The only part of the planet still habitable is Australia.
From Australia, survivors detect an incomprehensible signal originating from the United States. With hope that some life has remained in the contaminated regions, one of the last American nuclear submarines, USS Sawfish, placed by its captain under Australian naval command, is ordered to sail north from its port of refuge in Melbourne, headquarters of the Australian Navy to try to contact whomever is sending the signal. The American captain, Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), leads the operation, leaving behind a woman of he has recently begun seeing, Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner).
The Australian government makes arrangements to provide its citizens with suicide pills and injections, so that they will be able to avoid prolonged suffering from the fallout once it arrives. One of the film's poignant dilemmas is that of Australian naval officer Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins), who has a baby daughter and wife, Mary (Donna Anderson), who is in denial about the impending disaster. Because he has been assigned to travel north with the Americans to search for signs of life, a trip expected to take several weeks, Peter must try to explain to Mary how to euthanize their baby and kill herself with the lethal pills should he be unable to return in time. Mary, however, reacts badly, almost violently, at the prospect of killing her daughter and herself.
After sailing to the Arctic Ocean, the expedition members determine that radiation levels are intensifying and that life near the Poles will also shortly be impossible. On the way back, they stop at San Francisco. The views through the periscope indicate what they have seen elsewhere; there are no signs of life, and minimal or no damage to buildings. One crewman, who is from San Francisco, jumps ship to spend his last hours in his hometown. After first attempting to convince the crewman to return, Towers then accepts his decision.
Sawfish then travels to an abandoned oil refinery, where they discover, although the city's residents have long since perished from radiation poisoning, the electric power is still on-line. The ship's communications officer is sent ashore in a radiation suit to investigate. The mysterious signal is the result of a Coke bottle being nudged by a window shade teetering in the breeze and occasionally hitting a telegraph key. Bitterly disappointed, the submariners return to Australia to live out the time that remains before the fallout arrives and kills everyone.
The characters make their best efforts to enjoy what time and pleasures remain to them before the end. Scientist Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire) and others organize a dangerous motor race that results in the apparent violent deaths of several participants. Moira remarks on the apparent senselessness of the race, but when she asks Osborne why he is taking part, he responds, "because I want to" -- apparently sufficient reason given the circumstances.
Prior to the submarine voyage to America, Towers had remarked to Moira about his enjoyment of the silence and relaxation of his pastime of fishing. During his absence, Moira uses her friendship with government officials to 'move up' the fishing season so Dwight will get one more chance to fish. With Towers now apparently accepting the death of his wife and children, they embark on a weekend trip. Unfortunately, the fishing stream is anything but silent and relaxing, as raucous visitors turn the outing into a fiasco. Retreating to the resort for the night, Dwight and Moira make love (in a 1960’s movie sort of way) inside the dark hotel room, as outside, a gathering storm howls.
Returning to Melbourne, Towers is informed one of his crew members has developed radiation sickness. The deadly radiation has arrived. When he asks the ships doctor “Why him/ Why now?. The Doctor snaps back that they won’t all just fall over in rows. He then observes that one of the first signs of radiation sickness is irritability. The end is definitely near.
Some citizens seek spiritual guidance from religious leaders. They hang a banner. It says:
"There Is Still Time ... Brother".
Osborne, proud and satisfied after winning the auto race, seals himself and the car, engine running, inside a garage to set up his suicide by exhaust poisoning. Others line up outside hospitals to receive their suicide pills. Later, Mary Holmes becomes emotionally unbalanced and must be placed under sedation. However, she regains lucidity and she and Peter share a tender moment recalling how they met “On the Beach”. Mary decides that she has been "foolish and impractical" and asks her husband to "take care" of her and their daughter. Peter makes tea for his wife and drops laces it with the suicide pills.
Dwight wants to stay with Moira, but his remaining crew wants to head for home and die in the U.S. In the end, Captain Towers chooses not to remain with Moira but rather to lead his crew in a final attempt to make it back to the States. Moira watches from the shore as the Sawfish submerges beneath the waves. The final scenes of the movie show the deserted, abandoned streets of Melbourne.
The last shot is pointedly of the "There Is Still Time ... Brother" banner.
The great strength of this film, and why it resonates with viewers to this day, is the fact that it focuses not on death but on the uniquely human ability to embrace life even with the certainty that death lies just around the corner. It is this ability that allowed concentration camp prisoners to create theater, literature, music and even babies in the most horrific of charnel houses. It is our ability to not dwell overmuch on our own mortality and to live in the moment that ultimately keeps us sane and productive.
The overall tone of the film is bitter sweet. The tragedy lies not in the billions of dead but in the few thousand still alive. THEY have time to reflect on all that they have lost. The poignancy of their relationships and their ability to love one another with no hope for tomorrow has an emotional impact that no CGI created mushroom cloud could hope to duplicate.
On The Beach is one of those rare films that, like Seven Days In May, was very much “of it’s time”, and yet remains timely some 50 years later. It is a film that will stay with you for a lifetime.