nevile shute expected the third world war to begin (and end) next year, 1961; and within a few months of the end of the war (which will last approximately 37 days) the entire human race will be burned, blasted or, if they are outside the battle areas, poisoned by the radioactive atmosphere carried by winds from the northern to the southern hemisphere. The last survivors, in Melbourne, and in particular a naval officer (Peter) and his young wife and baby, a scientist who helped to build the Bomb, the Commander of the last American submarine, and the woman (Moira) who tries to ‘take his mind off things’ go about their relatively normal lives until they too succumb with vomiting, blood, diarrhoea and suicide pills.
Stanley Kramer, directing his fourth film (the third was The Defiant Ones) has granted us all an extension until 1964, and provided all anti-Bomb campaigners and persuaders with vitally important anti-war propaganda. Important, because apart from dealing with the only war that matters—the next one—the film of On The Beach challenges many of our preconceived notions of how to dissuade the human race from destroying itself.
There is no blood or diarrhoea in the film version, and the vomiting is left to your imagination. It is this fact, plus the rather stock performances of Gregory Peck as the Submarine Commander and Ava Gardner as his temporary girl-friend which has muted the effectiveness of the film for so many critics. They are aghast at the cosiness, normality and calmness of everything. Who, they ask, is going to be stirred by lashings of Waltzing Matilda and Beautiful Contra-jour Clinches for Gardner and Peck? Undoubtedly, one could have done with less of the slush, but is this a high price to pay for Fred Astaire’s very important lines, all of them more intense and direct than anything said by the scientist in Shute’s original novel?
Is an audience which has accepted the basic situation of the film likely to be worried by Peck’s portrayal of the submarine Commander as a bewildered, inarticulate man suffering from what appears to be delayed and permanent shock? He talks about his wife and children back home and plans for their future, although he knows that they and everyone else in the United States is dead. As he explains to Ava Gardner, he had got used to the idea that something might happen to him, but had always taken it for granted that the people back home would be safe. He “just can’t seem to cope with it”—with his safety and their destruction. When confronted with the first case of radiation sickness in one of his crew, he cannot understand why just one man should get it first. The naval doctor has to point out that “we are not all machines you know, we shan’t fall down
Our annoyance with Peck’s performance may stem from his failure to make some deliberate comment on the military element’s responsibility, his failure to take that responsibility on himself and condemn the sort of mechanical thinking which has produced the final world war.
To Astaire falls the task of stating why the war started. And he does it three times; the first time rather drunkenly: “You can’t put all the blame on the scientists . . . We all had a choice . . . either to make the Bomb . . . or to find some means of controlling it. . . .” This self-evident truth is not as generally accepted as one would like to think, and it may be that the film’s most effective piece of propaganda is the planting and repeating of the idea that the next war was (still is) a matter of choice, of decisions to be made or not made, and not the result of some immutable law or and act of the gods. In his second and third answers, the scientist is confronted by some of the members of the American submarine crew, who question him as much for the laughs as for any useful opinions the ‘egg-head’ may have.
“It started,” says Astaire, in big close-up, “when people accepted the idea that they could defend themselves with weapons which, if they used them, would mean certain suicide.”