Gregory Peck was vehemently against nuclear war and believed strongly that atomic weapons should not have been used against Japan during World War II. Peck’s strong beliefs were one of the main reasons why he agreed to appear in On the Beach. Even in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan revealed his defense missile system, Peck did not hesitate to voice his opposition. He made it a point during his lifetime to advocate against the use of nuclear weapons.
On the Beach is a film that demonstrates the devastation that nuclear weaponry can cause–even to those who weren’t the main targets. The folks depicted in this film are collateral damage, innocent bystanders, if you will. These people were just living their lives until World War III broke out in 1964. During this war, nuclear weapons were used, leading to the Northern Hemisphere being destroyed due to radiation. All the survivors fled to the Southern Hemisphere, mainly Australia, where the area was still habitable. Life seems to be going well for awhile, until it is discovered that the radiation is slowly making its way to Australia.
Gregory Peck portrays Captain Dwight Towers, an American who operates the USS Sawfish submarine. The USS Sawfish was submerged during the initial radiation fallout and emerges in Melbourne, Australia. Dwight begins to ingratiate himself into the Melbourne community. He quickly meets and befriends Royal Australian Navy Lieutenant Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins). He and his wife are trying to make a life for themselves in Melbourne with their newborn daughter, Jennifer. Dwight also meets the world weary, cynical, but romantic Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner). Dwight is quick to tell Moira that he’s married and has a son, but he is harboring a secret. Moira and Dwight attend a party where her ex-beau, scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire), is drunkenly holding court.
Up until the party, the film has an uncomfortable vibe. There is something going on in the community, something causing anxiety, fear, and worry. However, up until this point, nothing is explicitly said. Then a drunken Julian blurts out the bad news: the radiation is slowly creeping up on Melbourne and its citizens will be dead within months–there’s nothing that can be done. Everyone is doomed. Melbourne is one of the last places in the world where humanity can survive. This is an end of the world scenario. Humanity will cease to exist. As one can imagine, Julian’s doom and gloom outburst kills the party. Moira is drunk. Julian is obviously drunk. She explains to Dwight that they’re collectively known as the town drunks.
JULIAN: “Who would have ever believed that human beings would be stupid enough to blow themselves off the face of the Earth?”Fred Astaire as “Julian Osborn” in On the Beach (1959)
Peter’s wife, Mary (Donna Anderson), understandably has a hard time coping and accepting the news. She is in denial and keeps trying to go about her day as if she had many more ahead of her. Peter on the other hand, is more pragmatic and manages to get a doctor to give him and his family (including his newborn) a lethal amount of sleeping pills so that they can commit suicide rather than face sickness from radiation poisoning. If this film wasn’t bleak enough, the idea that two parents would have to administer a lethal dose of pills to murder their baby is pretty dark. This is not a silly disaster film.
Eventually, there’s a glimmer of hope when a faint signal is detected off the coast of San Francisco in the United States. Dwight, Peter, Julian, and the crew of the USS Sawfish embark on a journey to see if there is life somewhere else–another world that they and their loved ones can relocate to and thrive. However, the hope was just that, a glimmer. As the film wears on, the characters in the film begin to accept their fate and start being proactive to make the process as painless as possible.
This is a very bleak and depressing film. There are no funny monsters. No outrageous natural disasters. This is a man-made problem that could very well happen–which makes it more terrifying. Every character deals with their inevitable fate in their own way. However, the scene between Mary and Peter, when Mary finally accepts what is going to happen, especially what is going to happen to their newborn baby, is absolutely heartbreaking. It might be the saddest scene in the film which is saying a lot because this film is just one sad, painful scene after another. The action in this film is very relatable in anyone’s life. While it might not be the threat of nuclear annihilation, the idea that one person’s or a group of people’s actions could completely ruin or end (!) another person or people’s lives is a very real thing that can happen. It happens everywhere, everyday.
One scene that I enjoyed was the very bittersweet, romantic, yet mournful rendition of “Waltzing Matilda” juxtaposed with a scene of Moira and Dwight engaged in a deep, passionate kiss, while the camera twirls around them. In other films, this scene would be a sign of joy, of romance–not in On the Beach. The characters and the audience know that there will not be many more moments like this in Moira and Dwight’s future.
MOIRA: “There isn’t time. No time to love…nothing to remember…nothing worth remembering.”Ava Gardner as “Moira Davidson” in On the Beach (1959)
Gregory Peck plays one of his usual stoic, strong characters who has to guide everyone through the film and provide support. However, his character’s personal trauma lends a layer of vulnerability, and hope, even if bittersweet. Anthony Perkins also plays one of his usual nervous characters; but in this film his character is just sad. He is trying to do his job, but it’s easy to see that his heart isn’t entirely in it, as he knows what fate awaits his family. The real revelations in this film were the performances of Fred Astaire and Ava Gardner.
On the Beach was Fred Astaire’s first foray into dramatic acting. This film is not a typical Fred Astaire vehicle. He doesn’t sing. He doesn’t tap. He doesn’t wear tails. The Fred Astaire in this film is bitter, reflective, angry, and tired. This is a tortured man. He’s tired of being blamed for the nuclear war because he’s a scientist. He regrets having helped design and build these atomic weapons. Throughout the entire film, Astaire’s character drinks excessively and chain-smokes. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Fred Astaire call someone “an ass.”
JULIAN: “The war started when people accepted the idiotic principle that peace could be maintained by arranging to defend themselves with weapons they couldn’t possibly use without committing suicide.”Fred Astaire as “Julian Osborn” in On the Beach (1959)
Ava Gardner’s performance in On the Beach was also fantastic. This is a cynical woman. She’s upset (as anyone would be, presumably) that she is going to die. And soon! She has so much life that she hasn’t lived yet. She’s not in denial about the radiation poisoning. She knows that it’s inevitable. However, in the meantime, she’s going to live it up. When Ava’s character, Moira, meets Gregory Peck’s Dwight, she falls in love with him. However, things are complicated at first when he says that he is married and has children. She doesn’t want to live out her last days as a homewrecker. However, when she learns the truth, she’s even more conflicted. Moira and Dwight though are the film’s great love affair. Both realize that if they’re going to die, they may as well go out on a high note. It’s bittersweet that Moira and Dwight have both finally found happiness, even if it will ultimately be short-lived.
I recommend On the Beach to anyone who wants to watch four great performances while also watching one of the most depressing films that I’ve ever seen. What makes this film even more depressing is that its premise is not inconceivable. While the film is fictional, nuclear weapons and radiation is very real. What would we do? How would we handle it?