Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner in On the Beach (1959)


(director: Stanley Kramer; screenwriters: John Paxton/James Lee Barrett/from the novel by Nevil Shute; cinematographer: Daniel Fapp; editor: Frederic Knudtson; music: Ernest Gold; cast: Gregory Peck (Cmdr. Dwight Lionel Towers), Ava Gardner (Moira Davidson), Fred Astaire (Julian Osborne), Anthony Perkins (Lt. Cmdr. Peter Holmes), Donna Anderson (Mary Holmes), John Tate (Admiral Bridie), Lola Brooks (Lieutenant Hosgood), Guy Doleman (Farrel), John Meillon (Swain), Peter Williams (Professor Jorgenson); Runtime: 135; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Stanley Kramer; MGM/UA Home Entertainment; 1959)
“Gloomy doomsday film that is more talky, melodramatic and numbing than imaginative.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Liberal director Stanley Kramer (“Inherit the Wind”/”The Defiant Ones”/”Ship of Fools”) helms this gloomy doomsday film that is more talky, melodramatic and numbing than imaginative. It’s based on the Australian Nevil Shute’s controversial best selling novel. The downbeat screenplay is by John Paxton. It follows a group of characters as they each wait in different ways for their expected death. The 60-year-old Fred Astaire gets his first straight dramatic role after his 26 year film career as a song and dance man, playing a guilt-ridden nuclear scientist. The film made the Australian standard “Waltzing Matilda” its theme song and it gained worldwide popularity; composer Ernest Gold made it effectively chilling and memorable as played throughout the film.

It’s set in Australia in 1964, after a nuclear war between the USSR and the USA (they are the only countries at the time with the nuclear capacity to destroy the world) left Australia as the only safe place in the world. The ‘down under’ residents await their end from the fallout from radiation, which some of the informed citizens think will be in five months. The submarine commander of the US Sawfish, Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), who was submerged under water during the attack, docks outside of Melbourne in the harbor in Williamstown (the film was shot on location in Melbourne). Australian Admiral Bridie (John Tate) assigns the young married Lt. Cmdr. Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) to join the American crew of the submarine on a four month reconnaissance mission. Peter only desires to be home with his delicate anxious wife Mary (Donna Anderson) and their infant daughter Jennifer when the radiation fallout reaches Australia.

Peter invites Dwight to their house gathering in an attempt to keep things normal, and Mary invites their single friend Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner) to keep Towers company (he’s still not over the shock of losing his wife and kids to the disaster). At the party, an inebriated cynical British nuclear scientist and race car driver of Grand Prix pretensions, Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire), gets into a verbal tiff over another guest’s statement blaming the scientists for the nuclear disaster.

Buoyed by Professor Jorgenson’s (Peter Williams) theory that heavy rain and snowfall in the Northern Hemisphere may lessen the threat to the existing survivors, Bridie orders Towers to go north to test the theory. Also on the mission is Osborn, who was a former flame of Moira. Before taking off on the mission, Bridie reveals to Towers that a radio signal has been detected coming from somewhere around San Diego. When arriving there, Towers discovers the signal came from a Coke bottle brushing against a curtain. Meanwhile a bunch of the characters, back in Australia, sensing there’s no hope commit suicide, while party girl Moira drinks to forget her troubles and then falls in love with the reluctant Towers. The bleak message of hopelessness leaves no room for anyone to escape the inevitable consequences of a nuclear war, as the film serves as a dire warning for any country who dares push the button.

Peck had the gravitas for the part, but Gardner and Astaire were embarrassingly miscast–completely out of their element in this serious sci-fi disaster film, whether it was their inability to achieve the right accent or act in a credible manner. For that matter, no one in the film was able to reach for the kind of emotional impact that such an important themed story almost demanded. In the apocalyptic climax, everything becomes leaden and it became difficult to feel anything for the melodramatic doomed characters. The film was a failure for being such heavy going, but nevertheless should be applauded for its effort to at least bring something worthwhile and cerebral to the table about nuclear war and its apparent danger.