not in our stars, but in ourselves
I don’t know about you, dear reader(s), but I seldom expect an emotional sucker punch from a movie starring Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire, with the additionally delightful eye candy of Anthony Perkins and Gregory Peck. And yet, as I watched On the Beach (1959), I found myself fighting back choking sobs again and again. It is not a film free of flaws; there are times that it verges on the downright silly, and at two hours and fourteen minutes, it is most certainly too long. Nevertheless, by the end, I was a wreck.
Though filmed in 1959, the action takes place in 1964. World War III has wrought unprecedented destruction on the northern hemisphere, to the extent that there is literally no one left – between atomic blasts and radiation poisoning, Earth is more than half-empty. The only place still standing, so to speak, is Australia. A submarine, the U.S.S. Sawfish, managed to escape the devastation up north, and lands in Melbourne. Commander Dwight Towers (Peck) meets with the Royal Australian Navy, and it is agreed that they should attempt to find out if there’s anywhere in the northern hemisphere that was spared. It is also imperative that they move quickly, as the clouds of radioactive poison are drifting south – Australia has about five months before it, too, suffers the slow and horrible death of radiation poisoning. Towers’s go-to Australian Navy man is Lieutenant Peter Holmes (Perkins), a proud new father and husband who is terribly worried about his wife’s ability to understand the gravity of the situation. Through Holmes, Towers is introduced to Julian Osborne (Astaire), a nuclear scientist who helped to develop much of the weaponry that annihilated the planet and its inhabitants, and feels horrific guilt; and to Moira Davidson (Gardner), a charming and vivacious alcoholic who falls for Towers almost immediately.
It is unusual, to say the least, to see a 1950s movie dealing with the question of nuclear war in such a frank and level-headed manner. This is no Cold War primer in which ideologies to hate and how to duck and cover. This is a film that presents the far more realistic version of how nuclear war would likely begin: by accident or by misunderstanding. If one person on one side misinterprets a blip on his radar, and drops the big one on the other side, and then the other side manages to send its own big one over to the first side before being vaporized – well, it’s a rather hopeless Mexican standoff. And it’s probably how it would happen, even now, with all our incomprehensible technology. Director/producer Stanley Kramer doesn’t even bother bringing any of the usual Soviet hostility nonsense into his film – because really, it doesn’t matter how it all began. What matters is that now, it’s all going to end.
That’s where the film finds its real power: four people who find each other at nearly the end of the world, who still have desires and loves and needs, and who all have to try to understand that it will soon be obliterated. I realize that I’ve cited this passage from Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory before, but I was struck by how well it fit in the context of On the Beach: “I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence.” The film is a beautiful, understated exemplar of that very principle: an infinite amount of sensation and love within a horribly finite lifespan. And unlike a great many other ’50s films – or indeed, a great many other Hollywood films from long ago right to the present – On the Beach leaves that message (if it is a message) unsaid. It’s there, in every frame, but thankfully we’re spared Perkins or Peck making a big speech with that as the punchline.
Speaking of the actors, I should say that much of the acting is first-rate. Astaire especially impressed me, since he is such a luminary of the musical comedy world, with his extraordinarily subtle portrayal of a man quietly realizing that his life has been an utter waste. Great dancers are always great actors, too, according to me; so while it’s no surprise that the twentieth century’s greatest dancer was also a deeply affecting dramatic actor, it’s nice to see it in action. Gardner is, of course, gorgeous and vulnerable and wonderful, and all those other things you expect from Miss Ava Lavinia. Peck is Peck, and awfully handsome at that. Perkins is a fine actor, always, but his Australian accent is – as the locals might say – a bit dodgy.
Believe it or not, that brings me to the film’s greatest liability, in my opinion: perhaps because the Australians are nearly all played by Americans whose ears for accents are, shall we say, tone deaf, the score aggressively plays with “Waltzing Matilda” – in billions of themes and variations – and I think that even the most devoted Aussie bogan (or yobbo, or whatever you like) would find it tiresome after the opening credits. But it goes on. It goes on for all 134 minutes, including a tender vocal rendition during a big love scene between Peck and Gardner. You read right. More than that, though, the score alternates between soft melancholia (often quite effective) and crashing bursts of horns and timpanis (never effective). I don’t often say this after watching a movie with such stars as these, but I’d love to see On the Beach remade by a slightly more disciplined director, with a much more sensitive composer, and an equally great cast. Perhaps Christoph Waltz in the Astaire role, Chris Hemsworth in the Perkins role, Idris Elba in the Peck role, and maaaaaaaybe Winona Ryder in the Gardner role? I don’t know. Watch the movie, and after you’ve recuperated sufficiently from the final shots of abandoned Melbourne streets (shots that, admittedly, have an awful and painful resonance with me for personal reasons), join me in casting calls.