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On the Beach, written by John Paxton from the novel by Nevil Shute, directed by Stanley Kramer, 1959, 140 min.

On the Beach is a good example of a certain kind of Stanley Kramer film -- earnest to the point of boredom, overly long, and loaded with big names to no apparent purpose. Anyone watching this film and Kramer's Judgment at Nuremburg (as I did within a short span of time) will be astonished at how such well-intentioned movies could fall so flat dramatically. On the Beach concerns nothing less than the end of human civilization, and somehow the effect is less than the intended one (and certainly less than the book by Shute). Interestingly, my impressions of this movie were different both times I saw it. The first time through, I hated the whole thing and thought of it as bottom of the barrel, TV-movie-of-the-week material. On second viewing, I thought the opening half was well-constructed and worthy of the book, but that the last half was boring and agonizing all at once. And in light of the book, I would say that the movie version throws out much of the pathos of the ending in favour of bathos (my label for almost any Hollywood attempt at romance), about which I'll say more in a minute.

Paxton writes his script much in the same vein as Shute's novel: people continue their lives in the face of coming annihilation, in all the accumulated trivia and profundity of any society. So we get comic bits, like the extra bottles of port in the Commonwealth Club, and tragic bits, like Peter talking to his wife about cyanide pills for their baby daughter, just as in the book. And the engine of the movie's plot is the same as the book's: a vain clinging to hope. What is this mysterious radio signal? Could someone have survived? Any rational person knows the answer -- of course not -- but how human would the person who gives up all hope be? And the argument about blame and responsibility is nicely presented here as well. Kramer wants us to know that "There is Still Time, Brother!" but gives us a nasty indictment of contemporary society.

Gregory Peck is Dwight Towers, the American submarine commander, and Ava Gardner is Moira Davidson -- both fit their roles, except that Gardner seems older than Shute's depiction of Moira (a welcome change as far as I'm concerned). Their romance is much different than Shute's more restrained and unique version, and fits the formula of Hollywood tragic love exactly. Remove "advancing cloud of radiation" and substitute "disapproving parents" or "inopportune circumstances" and very little about the dynamics of their relationship would change. Shute may have a skewed or sexist view of women, but at least his characters acted out of the ordinary (the Hollywood ordinary, hence "bathos"). Anthony Perkins (in a non-typecast role in his pre-Psycho days) and Donna Summer do okay as Peter and Mary Holmes, and do less to distort their roles by their Hollywood personas as do Peck and Gardner. All of the other roles are cast well, especially Fred Astaire as Osborne. Astaire does an astounding job as a serious actor (his first serious role, if the hype on the movie case is to be believed), a bit of acting that impressed me much more on my second viewing. Is casting Astaire only a stunt (like Montgomery Clift's odd cameo in Judgment at Nuremburg)? I would say no, definitely not. Watch Astaire's face, itself expressive, as he delivers lines like "I inevitably say something brilliant." Or his presence at the party, a commanding presence that seems to draw guilt and anger and depression into itself. I especially liked the moment later in the movie, when the submariners have asked Osborne about the origins of the war. Astaire delivers his lines with a stubborn conviction of his own view of humanity, then leaves with a kind of downtrodden dignity. A crew member asks, "What's with him?"

I won't detail all the changes that Paxton and Kramer have made to Shute's conclusion. The movie's ending does drag on forever, though, and I was pushed more and more out of my earlier sympathy. Osgoode never had a boyfriend because of her uniform. "Waltzing Matilda"! And the details accumulate, to no coherent effect, much unlike Shute's book, where the quotidian monotony deepened the effect of his message. If the worst accusation that can be levelled against nuclear armageddon is that Hollywood romances will be ended, then so be it!


Also see the review of the book this movie is based on.


Last modified: September 21, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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