It is the future year of 1964 and there has occurred a disaster on an unimaginable scale. World War Three broke out, devastating the Northern Hemisphere and now the poisonous radiation from the fallout is gradually making its way south. Practically the only people left alive in the World are in Australia, where the U.S. Navy Submarine Sawfish is arriving in Melbourne, captained by Commander Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck). He is planning a mission to North America, and asks Australian Lieutenant Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) to accompany him. Peter agrees but is afraid he will get back after the radiation has hit Melbourne and never see his wife Mary (Donna Anderson) and their baby again. However, there's a signal emanating from the East Coast of the U.S.A. - could there hope?
Nope, not here there couldn't. This restrained yet sorrowful end of the world epic was scripted by John Paxton from Nevil Shute's novel and takes a considered, non-hysterical look at the way its ordinary characters face the final curtain on a massive scale. Producer and director Stanley Kramer, known for his deeply felt liberalism, found his film greeted with controversy, with some saying it was an appeasement not only to dangerous pacifists but to the Communists in the Soviet Union as well. But On the Beach is not a film that rolls over and dies without complaint, it takes its message of there being no winners in nuclear war very seriously.
Patently the work of film makers who thought, "We can't just let our world leaders blow ourselves to Kingdom Come!", one downside of such a sombre, important subject is that any of the more personal human drama looks nothing short of trivial, and Kramer's submissive characters do little to change that. Every so often a character, such as Fred Astaire's embittered scientist Julian Osborne, will make an impassioned speech about the injustice of the situation, only to settle back into doleful moping. And it works the other way, too, with any burst of lightheartedness, Peck and tentative new love Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner) by the seaside for example, immediately swamped in the all-pervasive depression.
Mary is in denial about the approaching extinction, despite Peter's efforts to make her face up to it, and Dwight is in denial too, still not wanting to believe that his wife and two children have died in their American home. So the mysterious signal is something he must investigate, and after one scientist posits the theory that the weather system in the North may have dampened the effects of the fallout in a shorter space of time than first anticipated, it's all the excuse Dwight needs to set sail for the U.S.A. Taking Peter and the increasingly alcoholic Julian with him, they end up at San Francisco, finding the streets predictably deserted. But where is the signal coming from?
Everyone takes the news that they're all going to die with sighing acceptance, but the dread is always present. As the cast struggle with accents, Gardner and Perkins hardly bothering to sound Australian, and looking ashen faced, it's the smaller moments that grow large in the encroaching silence. Dwight hearing the singing of "Waltzing Matilda" (which you'd think was the only Austrailan song ever written according to this) and realising the apt signifcance of the final verse, or Peter searching high and low for a doctor to give him three suicide pills. Only the car race, which sees vehicles flying off the track and exploding in fatal crashes because the drivers don't care about living anymore, exposes the rage that you'd expect the remaining survivors to feel. Well meaning and respectful, On the Beach is too concerned with a regretful shake of the head, and doesn't provide any answers about how to avoid the situation it finds, but it has a understated, haunting quality that's difficult to deny. Music by Ernest Gold.