Saturday, August 19, 2023

On the Beach: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Fred Astaire.

It's the end of the world as we know it, but no one feels fine in On the Beach. Dour, hopeless and hopelessly long, On the Beach drags good actors into its message. 

The world has gone to war with nuclear weapons, and the poisoned nuclear air is starting to drift to the Southern Hemisphere. Melbourne, Australia is the last major city to feel the impact of the nuclear fallout, so the citizens live their lives as best they can, awaiting the inevitable end. 

The American submarine Sawfish comes unexpectedly to Melbourne, having been out at sea and thus unaffected by the nuclear war. The Sawfish's captain, Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) is later tasked by the Australian Navy to investigate the possibility that the fallout is lessening. There is also the possibility that there may be survivors in San Diego, as a garbled Morse code message is coming from there. Joining him on the voyage is Australian Naval lieutenant Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) and scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire).  Peter's wife Mary (Donna Anderson) still insists that there is hope. Seductive Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), who has been asked to keep Captain Towers company, does not know what to think.

The Sawfish sails to Point Barrow, Alaska, only to find that there is no hope for humanity. The ship stops briefly in San Francisco, where a crewman swims off to die with his family. In San Diego, they find that the Morse code message is really a Coke bottle caught up in a window shade pull cord that has been hitting the button whenever the wind blows through.

With Australia now doomed, the residents all accept that death is inevitable. They quietly take their suicide pills, and Mary finally accepts to not only take the suicide pill but give another to their infant daughter. Julian commits suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. The Sawfish crew vote to return to the United States to die there, and Moira, with whom Towers has had a brief affair, watches them sail away. As the streets of Melbourne now turn silent, we see in the town square a Salvation Army sign declaring, "There Is Still Time...Brother".

Producer/director Stanley Kramer apparently wanted audiences to think about the dangers of nuclear war (On the Beach is set in January 1964). That is all well and good. What I cannot figure out is why an experienced filmmaker like Kramer decided that such a fatalistic, if not downright nihilistic film like On the Beach would be embraced by the public. The total sense of hopelessness and misery in the film is not going to make for even educational viewing. 

Everything in On the Beach is so dour and miserable that it is a surprise that there weren't mass suicides going on already. I'm also surprised that the Australian government here didn't just go and bomb their cities in an act of mercy killing. 

As a side note, given that Australia veered dangerously close to creating quasi-concentration camps for those infected with or coming into/back to Australia during the COVID-19 era, I am surprised the Australian government did not offer its citizens government-issued suicide pills. I am more surprised that Aussies weren't begging for such pills for themselves and their families "if it saves just ONE life".  

Everyone in On the Beach is so serious as to make it almost parody. There is not even any gallows humor allowed in the film, just an endless parade of misery and quiet despair. To be fair, there are a few little bits of life, but even those are tinged with the despair Kramer and screenwriter John Paxton (adapting Nevil Shute's novel) are determined to drown the audience in. 

On the Beach is so heavy-handed with its message that it grows tiresome and boring. Such lines as "There was a choice. It was build the bombs and use them, or risk the United States, the Soviet Union and the rest of us would find some way to go on living" are so blatant, almost pompous, that they turn the viewer off with their messaging. Ending the film with the "There Is Still Time...Brother" sign is equally eye-rolling in its call to metaphorical arms. 

Its nearly two-hour-and-fifteen-minute runtime does not help matters. I could not help thinking that a lot of On the Beach could have been cut or trimmed for a more palatable runtime. We could have started with the Sawfish arriving in Melbourne and the crew learn that the nuclear fallout was coming. We could have had them skip the San Francisco visit, or at least let the crewman swim off to his fate without going back to him. I thought that Kramer would have done better to reveal the truth behind the Morse code message by having Towers read the response from the crewman sent to investigate versus seeing the crewman make his discovery and then having the Sawfish crew discover the truth.

Kramer also was rather fond of two things with his filming. He either loved spinning his camera around or having many medium shots. He also struggled to get some of his actors keep their Australian accents. Perkins started with one, but somewhere along the way he forgot he was not American. He was a bit blank as Holmes.

Fred Astaire did better with his Australian accent. It is nice to see him show he could do drama, and to be fair to him, he had to read some terrible and heavy-handed lines. Astaire did well when playing an angry drunk, full of dissolution by how humanity blew it up to coin a phrase. He was rarely given a chance to do drama, but he could do it well. 

Gardner was somehow Australian by way of North Carolina, but she did give a surprisingly strong dramatic performance. She is here still a great beauty. However, I found this to be a deeper, richer performance. As she talks about her past and the regret of never having the chance of walking down the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, she does move the viewer. Peck was his usual moral rectitude self, up to where one wonders why, even drunk, Moira would want him.

On the Beach is long, boring and preachy. It has little to recommend it, and outside The Deer Hunter may be the worst date movie ever. 


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