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It is January 1964 and much of mankind has been obliterated in a nuclear holocaust. Deep in the southern oceans, only the Australians survive the apocalypse...but time is running out. In five months, they too will be poisoned by radio-active fallout as the toxic clouds drift down from the north. The commander and crew of a US nuclear submarine, the Sawfish, who were spared when their vessel submerged before the bombs went off, arrive in Melbourne to await the inevitable. Commander Powers (Gregory Peck) falls in love with a local woman (Ava Gardner) who feels that her life has been a waste and a cynical scientist (Fred Astaire) thinks of a novel way to waste his life.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Linus Carl Pauling was one of the great American scientists and peace activists of the last century. Between winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954 and for Peace in 1962 he praised a controversial Cold War film that seemed to encompass all his concerns about the future of mankind. "It may be that some years from now," he said, "we can look back and say that On The Beach is the movie that saved the world." Linus Pauling died at age 93 in 1994 and did not see the end of the world. On his deathbed, chances are that he was still thanking director Stanley Kramer and Australian author Nevil Shute for the reprieve. No-one knows who started the film's fictional war that ends all wars and it's sobering to think that, in the real world, we might never know "who pushed the button."

Fred Astaire as cynical British scientist Julian Osborn, tries to explain what went wrong to the sullen Sawfish crew as they listen intently: "The war started when people accepted the idiotic principle that peace could be maintained by organising to defend themselves with weapons they couldn't possibly use without committing suicide." This is as piercing as any anti-nuclear statement ever made and it is delivered with such solemn resignation and despair by Astaire (in his first dramatic role) that the producers were not displeased that both Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson had declined.

After dancing in over 30 pictures, Astaire turned 60 and decided that enough was enough, but he was not the only quirk in Kramer's casting. American Anthony Perkins (who copes surprisingly well with the strine) is an Australian Naval Officer, whose pregnant wife is traumatised by the impending doom; Gardner is a Melbourne party girl who has "lived too hard and drunk too much" and Australian John Meillon has a moving scene as Swain, an American sailor who wants to die while fishing from a pier in hometown San Francisco!

With the U.S. and Russia locked in a furious space and arms race, the nuclear threat was a hair-trigger issue at the time. "Everybody had an atomic bomb and counter bombs and counter-counter bombs," Osborn says, "we couldn't control them." Given the sensitivities, the U.S. Department Of Defense refused to co-operate. Access to an actual nuclear submarine was denied and Kramer was forced to use the Royal Navy's diesel-electric HMS Andrew to film crucial scenes. These include a gripping sequence when the Sawfish is diverted to investigate a mysterious radio signal which emanates from San Diego where no man should be left alive.

Filmed on location in Melbourne, its southern beachside suburbs and Phillip Island, where the final Australian Grand Prix serves as an arena for suicidal drivers, On The Beach is a grimly ironic and still very affecting film which was screened at anti-nuclear fund-raisers until well into the 1980s. The overall gloom is leavened by odd little nuggets of humour ... an officious admiral and his young secretary have a flirtatious rapport; two wine buffs bemoan the fact that they won't have the life-time to consume their precious horde of fine port and Waltzing Matilda is sung (a mite too incessantly) by a drunken Aussie making merry of his last days.

This could have been a great picture if Kramer had focused more on the human aspect and less on the romantic. Meillon's everyman role was recklessly cut. Shute was unhappy and took no part in the production and Peck argued: "My character goes right out the window; his eccentricity and that peculiar twist that makes him interesting (a man haunted by the death of his family in his absence back home) goes down the drain when I do the expected thing and go to bed with Ava." Gardner, by the way, who was stymied by the lack of night life in Melbourne, never did say: "I'm here to make a film about the end of the world, and this sure is the place for it!" It was these words, not Pauling's, which not only echoed right round the world but are repeated to this day. A journalist for The Age admitted to the fabrication 40 years after he had written it.

Published August 12, 2004

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(US, 1959)

CAST: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins

DIRECTOR: Stanley Kramer

RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes


SPECIAL FEATURES: Collectable booklet


DVD RELEASE: August 18, 2004

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