“Who would ever have believed that human beings would be stupid enough to blow themselves off the face of the Earth?”
I am not a fan of films that deal with the end of the earth and human existence. They always make me nervous. I was not particularly in a rush to see On the Beach because it is of people living in world after a nuclear holocaust and they are waiting to die from the radiation. But I had to see it because the cast is really great. The story actually turned out to not only be sad but very good.
The year is 1964 and the world has come to an end from nuclear warfare. The only country that was not devastated by the blasts was Australia but even they are preparing to face the radiation that will eventually find its way to them. Out at sea are the only surviving Americans traveling a submarine from the US Navy. When the war started they were out at sea. They surface in Australia. The captain of the submarine Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) works with the Royal Navy to go to sea to take tests of the air in different areas. One of the Royal Navy officers sent on the mission is Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins). He has a wife Mary and a little baby. Mary does not want to hear anything about how they will all eventually die.
Dwight is to stay with Peter as his home outside Melbourne. Peter has his friend Moira (Ava Gardner) pick the captain up at the train station. Moira is immediately attracted to Dwight. That night Peter has a party at his place for Dwight. At the party is an older man named Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire). He is the one responsible for the weapons that have destroyed the world. Moira tells Dwight that she and Julian are the town drunks they have no but themselves. Out on the porch Moira asks Dwight about his family and he speaks about them as if they are still alive in Connecticut. You can see the sadness on Moira’s face as he speaks about his family she knows they are dead. When the party is over Dwight is sitting by himself on the porch. Moira is drunkenly walks over to him and they talk. She has Dwight take her in his arms and she passes out.
The next Peter, Mary, Dwight, Moira, and Julian are at the beach. Moira and Dwight were in a sailing race when she flipped the boat over on purpose throwing her and Dwight into the water. When they get to the beach she jokingly tells everyone that Dwight made a pass at her so to get back at him she flipped the boat. Dwight takes Moira and wrestles with her a bit and when they come back he sticks to her joke. He goes to say something about Moira but instead of saying her name he says his wife Sharon’s name. Moira is upset after what happened on the beach so that night she goes to see Julian. She tells Julian she could have tried her tricks she uses to get a man but Dwight is married and he is still in love with his wife. Moira sees Julian is fixing up a race car. He tells her he plans to race it when he gets back from the submarine mission. She asks him if he plans on killing himself and he simply says if it happens.
The American submarine leaves the next day for their mission. Scientists in Australia believe that rain and snow in other areas of the world will weigh the radiation in the air down and not be as powerful when it hits Australia. Julian and the crew prove their theory is unfortunately wrong the world is becoming hotter. One of the crew asks Julian how the war even started. He tells them:
“The trouble with you is you want a simple answer. There isn't any. The war started when people accepted the idiotic principle that peace could be maintained - - by arranging to defend themselves with weapons they couldn't possibly use - - without committing suicide. Everybody had an atomic bomb, and counter-bombs, and counter-counter bombs. The devices outgrew us; we couldn't control them. I know, I helped build them. Somewhere, some poor bloke probably looked at a radar screen and thought he saw something. He knew that if he hesitated for a second that his own country would be wiped off the map. So he pushed a button and the world went crazy.”
The submarine reaches San Francisco. Some of the men are from the town. One man abandons the sub and swims ashore. The next morning through the sub’s loudspeaker talks to the man. The poor man saw his family dead in their homes. He wants to die at home he does not want to return to the ship.
Back in Australia, Moira thought she would never see Dwight again and that she would be all alone again. Dwight comes back to her and they are never without each other. They go to see Julian race his car and he winds up winning after continually missing dying in a crash by a few seconds.
The radiation fallout begins to hit Australia. One of the crewmen has become infected. Before Peter left he gave Mary pills for her and their baby to take so they would not suffer. Mary became angry she did not want to even think of killing her baby. The country began handing out a powder that would kill people if they took it. Peter took some for himself and Mary and she agrees to take it. The crewmen of the submarine want to return to the United States to die they want to die at home not in a foreign country. Dwight unfortunately has to leave Moira behind.
The last scene of the film is of an empty space in front of town hall.
The entire cast did a brilliant job. Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck have incredible chemistry. They had made two films together before this and were best friends outside the movies (when Gardner died Peck took her dog). You could tell both of them were tortured over what was going to happen that Moira did not want to be alone and that Dwight could not think of anything but his wife and that his relationship with Moira was nothing more than a short romance. Gardner was very good. It was kind of sad to see her playing a drunk because she had become one herself in real life. You can see the toll of her hard drinking and staying up all night partying on her face but she still looked beautiful especially in one close up of her when Moira is talking to Dwight about wanting to walk the streets of Rivoli. Peck was perfect in his part you can believe he would be a naval captain and look like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. I was very surprised that I actually enjoyed Anthony Perkins in this film because usually he gets on my nerves so bad. I felt terrible for his character the most since he had a wife and baby. Fred Astaire as a drunk was odd at first but he was great the man really did have acting talent besides his musicals.
On the Beach is an apocalyptic film but it is not bad. Nothing scary is shown like dead bodies all over the place nor the men and women suffering from radiation poisoning. It was a film and story about how a group of people are reacting to the knowledge that their time on earth is coming to an end. Some are lonely, some are suffering from guilt, some are dealing with the thought of taking their own lives to be spared an awful pain. On the Beach is a very well made film all around and one of the most heartbreaking I have ever seen. It is definitely worth seeing.