On the Beach (1959)

Drama, Sci-Fi
Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins
After a global nuclear war, the residents of Australia must come to terms with the fact that all life will be destroyed in a matter of months.
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  • 17 Dec 1959 Released:
  • 15 Aug 2001 DVD Release:
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  • John Paxton (screenplay), Nevil Shute (novel) Writer:
  • Stanley Kramer Director:
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Trailer:

Powerful Without Being Pretentious5/10

"On The Beach", despite it's heavy subject of a nuclear holocaust wiping out all human life, succeeds because Stanley Kramer is mercifully more restrained and less pretentious than he would later be in "Inherit The Wind" and "Judgment At Nuremberg", which are memorable more for their polemics than their characters, in my opinion. Except for one minor speech by Fred Astaire at one point (which as the previous reviewer noted is somewhat ironic in light of the fact that the very thing Astaire rails against, the idea that large nuclear stockpiles could keep the peace, turned out to be absolutely true) the film is for the most part about people and how they react to the knowledge that their world and their lives will soon come to an end. This is what makes the film so compelling as far as I'm concerned. The cast is excellent, with fine performances by Astaire (his first non-musical part), Anthony Perkins and Gregory Peck. But the real strength of the movie is Ava Gardner's touching performance as the lonely, alcoholic Moira Davidson who manages for one brief moment before the end to find true love with Peck. Having read much about her life, there is something almost hauntingly autobiographic in Gardner's portrayal, and that only adds to the movie's overall poignance.
A great Tour de Force by a fine cast, interpreting a great story10/10
I watched this movie in a USAF chow hall on the island of Makung in the China Strait with about 20 other airman. The year was 1960. We were stationed there on a missile site. Our targets were 7 Chinese missile sites. Their target was us.

I was 22 years old and immortal.

Until I watched this movie.

When the movie ended, I will never forget the fact that no one moved for perhaps 10 minutes. There was just the bright, blank screen and the sound of the end of the film going around and around. Thiketa-thicketa-thicketa................... No one ever said a word about what we had just seen.

We, or at least I, never forgot this movie. As said earlier, it was more than scary. It was sad.

It seems strange now, 40 some years later, to be telling people that you really should watch this film and watch the masters at work, with a script that is chilling. And you know what? We still haven't outlived the possibility...........
We are all on that beach, on the thin line between life and death.5/10

And the essence of our lives is expressed in the way we treat each other under the implacable threat of imminent mortality. As Ava Gardner's character says, at the penultimate moment of love's farewell, "It's been nice, Dwight Lionel. It's been everything." And what she says on her beach is true for every last one of us, on ours.

The primary power of this great movie to me is how well it conveys the idea that for us, on this beach, love and tender kindness are all that matter in the end, and the end is always near. The sheer kindness that Ava and Gregory's characters express for each other is surely the key element of their triumphant relationship.

The moment in which their relationship most completely triumphs, of course, occurs at the Narbethong Hotel. "On The Beach" achieves a cinematic moment of genius when the chorus singing "Waltzing Matilda" changes from a rowdy crowd of drunks to a magnificently harmonious group of fine male voices. As the sheer beauty of the music overwhelms us, it also overwhelms our characters, and we all unite together in a sublime moment of awareness that true love and kindness give us our only victory over imminent death. "You'll never take me alive," says the ghost.

The way Gregory Peck's character shifts from fumbling with the fire to turning toward Ava as the music inspires transcendence, and the way Ava smiles at him, make this scene unforgettably great.

Nearly as wonderful is the scene in which Ava's character learns that the Sawfish will be leaving, with her captain at the helm. She will have to face her death alone. She doesn't waste a moment in argument or recrimination, but expresses the fullness of her love for him and her great courage when she accepts his decision and thanks him: "..it's been everything." And then: "oh, I'm so frightened." This moment is one that I take to heart. It shows the love and courage I wish to have "when the time comes."

There is still time, brothers and sisters. But we are all on the beach.
Perfectly paced and well acted, it keeps melodrama minimised10/10

In an era (1959) and on a topic (nuclear war) that usually demands melodrama, "On the Beach" resists. In fact, the all-star principal cast and director Stanley Kramer seem to treat the topic as a stage play, focussing on the individual. And that is how such a story should be treated. Life on the northern hemisphere has been destroyed a defence mistake by one of the (then) two superpowers. Gregory Peck's nuclear-powered submarine was submerged at the time (they stayed under water for a hell of a long time in those days). The sub heads for Melbourne, Australia, which is one of the only places in the world not yet affected by radiation. But the radiation will come, and this is where the truth of the piece comes out.

The inhabitants of 'the end of the world' go through what you would expect: denial, anger, clinging to the thinnest hope, and finally, resignation. As I said at the start, this is clearly a story about the individual. Kramer knows this, and the cast of Ava Gardner, Tony Perkins, John Meillon and Fred Astaire play it with a reality that is all too rare. Even recent films like Final Impact fail to deliver on this count. The real joy of the film is the pacing, which gives the cast the chance to play it like it should be played. Astaire proves he is an actor, and only once slips into his raised eyebrow 'top hat and tails' mode. It is a well thought out movie without the Hollywood ending, but such is the art of Kramer that the ending is a good resolution, not just a funeral. The camera work is exceptional throughout, starting with the continuous shots in Peck's submarine. I don't know about the Waltzing Matilda music at the start, however. But it does work later in the piece, and makes it worthy of the Academy Award nomination it received.
a great human drama8/10

The Cold War aspects of this movie may be a bit dated, but for those of us of a certain age it is a reminder of the fears we lived under at that time. In retrospect, it may be that Julian was wrong: it may have indeed been the very presence of these terrible weapons that prevented a third world war.

In any case, that aspect of the story never overshadows the movie's underlying theme, which is, rather, how each of us views the sum of our lives as our mortal end approaches. Are we alone? Have we connected with anyone? Have we failed? Have we loved? Have we been loved?

Color would have been all wrong for this essentially b&w story. Superb performances from Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and the pre-Norman Bates Anthony Perkins. A fine bit as well by John Tate as the old admiral("to a blind, blind world").

A mere cold-war nuclear destruction movie would leave one merely frightened at the end. The fact that this movie leaves you with an almost unbearable feeling of terrible sadness is a testament to the human power of Nevil Shute's book, as well as to the fine script and Kramer's superb direction.

One of the most depressing movies ever made, but a truly great one.