'On the Beach' Was the Film That Made Me Fear the Apocalypse

On my off days, I despair. But in general, all this morbid thinking actually thrills me, making me more grateful for every second I'm allowed. And I owe <i>On The Beach</i> for teaching me to stop worrying and to love the bomb.

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Mar 27 2015, 5:00pm

Sometimes, in my dreams, there are a blanket of meteors or there's a wall of explosive fire or a mile-high tsunami. But mostly, it's mushroom clouds. These dreams have occurred on a semi-regular basis for more than half my life. And I owe these apocalyptic visions, which I can't seem to escape, to a film called On the Beach.

An immature awe for Mystery Science Theatre 3000 steered me toward this 1959 flick that helped pioneer depictions of the nuclear holocaust in cinema. I was 11, led to believe all black-and-white movies were primitive at best, incapable of deep thought, let alone modest entertainment. I had rented On the Beach from the library with the aim to mock it in imitation of my heroes, Joel Robinson and his robot pals. Instead of finding myself laughing at some campy B-movie bullshit, I was stricken with malaise and scarred for life.

Based on the 1957 novel by Nevil Shute, On the Beach opens in the guts of an United States submarine, which has just survived nuclear holocaust and escapes to Melbourne, Australia. No one's sure what set off the Mutually Aided Destruction, but there's little time before a plume of radioactive gas gusts through town, killing everyone and everything in its wake.

Director Stanley Kramer used his camera the way some use a pulpit, producing films with conscience-driven sermons, juggling topics such as racism, creationism vs. evolution, fascism, and, here, atomic annihilation. In 1959, planetary extinction via the Cold War was still a new reality, one which On the Beach was early to address.

Everyone's worst fear was finally realized, so now what? With a few months left before their dying gasp, the survivors face their own untied futures, each in a unique, resigned way. Perhaps Andrew Bartlett, author of the analysis "Nuclear Warfare in the Movies" put it best: "All these victims accept with some dignity—but with what we might also feel is troubling resignation, if not baffling passivity—their status as an extended-life remnant awaiting only a slightly delayed membership among the extinct."

Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire), a scientist who worked on building the nukes, enters in the Australian Grand Prix, even though winning means nothing anymore. Knowing that his wife and kids perished in the war, Commander Dwight Lionel Towers (Gregory Peck) apparently suffers from PTSD (in a time when terms like "shell shock" or "gross stress reaction" were preferred). Towers is pawed at by Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), who wishes to fall in love before she croaks. Finally, there are the young parents Mary (Donna Anderson) and Lt. Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins), who must decide between feeding their baby cyanide or letting her succumb to radiation sickness.

For an 11-year-old, this was one of the first, most profound encounters I had with existentialism. Asking "what if nothing really matters?" was not a question I was used to, but this was perhaps the first time I realized how arbitrary my own existence was and is. If you're within range, nuclear oblivion happens fast—there's a flash on the horizon, then you're gone. Considering how many times World War III has come close to happening, twice in 1983 alone and recently in Crimea, my anxiety that any second, without warning, my life might be snuffed out doesn't seem like such a bogeyman.

That haunted feeling carries over. Even outside of the shadow of the bomb, life can seem casual and meaningless, and, of course, I'm likely to die spontaneously even if it's not from fallout. Growing older, this realization directed a lot of what I focus on creatively and socially.

I'm not alone in being painfully impacted by this film. When released, US President Eisenhower's cabinet were concerned the film would encourage "ban the bomb" propaganda, but more ironically, they were miffed that it "inaccurately presented the threat of extinction from nuclear war because there were not then enough weapons to cause extinction." This explains why the US Department of Defence declined to assist in the production of On the Beach, including offering access to a nuclear-powered submarine. Instead, the crew had to borrow a non-nuclear, diesel-electric Royal Navy submarine, HMS Andrew.

There's little doubt On the Beach had some impact on similar films like Fail Safe or Dr. Strangelove, which both came out five years later. In fact, Kubrick's classic could be seen as an absurdist answer to Kramer's more melodramatic despondency. In both black and white films, there is no happy ending, no survival, no hope, but the difference is whether you giggle or sigh deeply.

The futility can be seen echoed in Melancholia (2011) and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)—even Mad Max (1979) took a cue on the whole "nuclear war in Australia" thing by adding its own leather dressings. But, for better or worse, On the Beach is very much a product of its own time.

Its overt sexism should offend most feminist sensibilities, with women being treated as irrational, or worse, emotionally demanding. Mary, who struggles to face her reality, is depicted as hysterical. Moira's cloy come-ons were no doubt tantalizing in her day, but with a modern lens she appears weakened and desperate. Yet, somehow you sympathize with these women anyway—only the male reactions seem outmoded, cruel even.

A contemporary audience might also note the film's Western-centric worldview. In the novel, other nations such as South Africa, the southernmost regions of South America, and New Zealand also survive the blast, even as they likewise slowly succumb. In the movie, it's only Australia and a couple devastated American cities that are concerned.

Yet, in spite of its warts, On the Beach is still a rewarding narrative, containing a solid mix of foreshadowing, use of metaphor and irony, all sprinkled with jeering sarcasm. "I love Americans," Moira quips to Towers. "They're so naïve."

Quotes like this hint it's the audience who are the real intended recipient of these put-downs. "Who would ever have believed that human beings would be stupid enough to blow themselves off the face of the Earth?" Julian sneers, somewhat breaking the fourth wall. Here, there is no blame for starting the war—every single member of the human race is equally responsible for nuclear winter by not demanding that nuclear proliferation end.

By positing that we mustn't blame our leaders, we must blame ourselves, the film's iconic flapping banner that reads "There is still time... Brother" is meant in more than a religious context. Kramer is cutting deeper, aiming at suburbanite ideals of nationalistic infallibility, urging us to question authority, to take action.

Questioning authority is an odd theme given how much of the plot bows to it with militaristic uniformity. Despite its imminent demise, society in Melbourne plods on. Milk is no longer delivered and gasoline is scarce, but otherwise it's business as usual. Folks go to work, throw cocktail parties, the Royal Australian Navy is still kicking around, and there's an overwhelming dedication to duty. The bureaucracy echoes Kafka's The Trial, but here the entire cast is sentenced to death while living out their denial.

Interestingly, all of this is accomplished without visual representation. On the Beach may be the only nuclear warfare movie to feature zero mushroom clouds. When the nuclear sub arrives in San Francisco's bay, we see no violence, no demolished buildings, no littered corpses. We don't even see the couple drink their cyanide tea. If you watched this movie on mute, you'd probably assume it was an Australian update of Gone with the Wind, only with submarines.

Your average apocalyptic film, such as 2012 or The Book of Eli or any franchise Michael Bay that is imploding this week, bends over backwards to splatter the lens. In reality, if any of these explosive events were to play out, I hope we'd go out with more dignity.

Arguably, the lack of gore makes it easier to accept death. Maybe too easy. Before their end, everyone in this film pretty much goes on vacation. The long lines for suicide pills are dark, but their effect are described by one character as "lethargy, then some euphoria, coma. Then nothing. In fairly rapid order."

How quaint and perfect is that? Everyone has to die eventually anyway—they get to go out saying all their lovely goodbyes, holding hands. Maybe nuclear winter isn't such a bad thing.

Because I pay too much attention to world news, I'm still very anxious about some sort of Armageddon, and I still dream about it regularly. All this dwelling on it just leads to more dwelling on it. As I write this, I am filled with an overwhelming dread about the inevitable death of everything around me and how little control I have over my own ultimate destiny, which could be wiped out as arbitrarily as someone swatting a fly. And even if I somehow avoid nuclear war, global warming, large rocks from space, or any other breed of apocalyptic surge, death still awaits me in some form or another. Even the sun will die.

The characters in On the Beach are forced to answer the question, what do you do with what time you've got left? I was forced to ask my preteen self the same thing. My answer was to make the most of everything. To travel as much as possible, to spend as much time with friends and family, to stress out about nothing because nothing fucking matters anyway. I never ask myself if there's a point to it all, because there isn't, and that's actually quite OK.

On my off days, I despair. But in general, all this morbid thinking actually thrills me, making me more grateful for every second I'm allowed. And I owe On the Beach for teaching me to stop worrying and to love the bomb.

Follow Troy on Twitter.

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