On The Beach (1959)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1959. , . Screenplay by , based on the novel by . Cinematography by . Produced by Stanley Kramer. Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

Humanity is about to disappear off the planet following a nuclear explosion at the end of a fictional, near-future war, all of which makes the perfect opportunity for Stanley Kramer to make another in a long line of issue films to wake humanity up to its own failures.

Based on the novel by Nevil Shute, this absorbing, thought-provoking drama stars as the captain of a submarine whose vessel contains among the few American survivors of the nuclear event, who sail to Australia as it is the one place in the world that has yet to be affected by the radioactive cloud spreading across the globe.

The cloud is on its way to the antipodes in a matter of months, so Peck is assigned the task of taking his boat north to the California coast to to see if there is any chance of the radioactivity dissipating, and to find out the source of a mysterious morse code signal being transmitted illegibly across the radio waves from San Francisco.

On his ship is as his Lieutenant Commander, who hopes to get back to Melbourne and spend his last few remaining healthy months with his wife and newborn child, and as one of the scientists who created the bomb who has become an alcoholic in despair. Back on Australia’s shores is the beautiful , with whom Peck allows himself to fall in love despite still thinking of his wife and family back home who are likely no longer alive.

Rather than preaching a screed about his era’s apocalyptic anxiety over nuclear power, Kramer emphasizes humanity over ideology in this beautifully photographed and often very touching film, asking his audience to question the wisdom of unchecked scientific advancement in military defense, while making sure we understand how precious and rare the life we hold dear really is. Later, less prestigious films like The World, The Flesh and The Devil are more effective at putting across haunting looks at abandoned cities and desolate new worlds, but this one gets points for a highly credible sense of imminent and unavoidable doom.

That the backgrounds against which this sorrow is playing are all the beautiful vistas of the film’s location shooting only make it that much more upsetting to experience, and that the ultimate star of the show is a Coke bottle is tragically humorous, but the effect after it’s over feels soul-stirring more than depressing, and it’s one of Kramer’s more complicated and interesting efforts in social justice filmmaking.

Academy Award Nominations: Best Film Editing; Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture

Golden Globe Award: Best Original Score
Nominations: Best Picture-Drama; Best Supporting Actor (Fred Astaire); Best Director (Stanley Kramer); Best Film Promoting International Understanding

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