Friday, 7 April 2017

Film Friday: «On the Beach» (1959)

In honor of Gregory Peck's 101st birthday, which was on Wednesday, this week on «Film Friday» I bring you one of my favorite of his pictures. This also happens to be the first science-fiction film I have ever written about on this blog.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Stanley Kramer, On the Beach (1959) begins in 1964, as the USS Sawfish arrives in Australia after an atomic war devastates the Northern Hemisphere. Royal Australian Navy Lieutenant Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) is assigned to liaison with Sawfish Captain Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) for a reconaissance mission to track the deadly radiation circling the globe and prevent complete human annihilation. For assistance, they turn to hopeless nuclear scientist Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire). As the Sawfish is readied for the mission, Peter spends time with his wife Mary (Donna Anderson) and their baby daughter, while Dwight begins a romantic affair with Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner).

Using Australia's nuclear power, the Sawfish sets off on its mission and, several days later, surfaces in the northern Pacific Ocean amid icebergs. There, Julian determines that the radiation levels are intensifying, invalidating the theory that Australia might survive radiation poisoning. The submarine then sails to San Diego, where they hope to learn the source of the telegraph signals they have been receiving for days. Protected by an anti-radiation suit, communications officer Lieutenant Sunderstrom (Harp McGuire) goes ashore to investigate, only to discover that the signals are the result of a empty soda bottle caught in a window shade cords that, in the breeze, pulls it up and down on the transmitter key. That last hope vanquished, the Sawfish and her crew return to Australia to try to enjoy what pleasures remain to them before the end. Julian enters and wins an auto race, just days before the deadly radiation arrives in the country. Seeing their end as inevitable, Julian commits suicide, while Peter convinces Mary that the family should all take a pill which will induce coma and then death. As for Dwight and the Sawfish crew, they all decide to return to the United States to die at home. After an emotional farewell with Dwight, Moira stands on the pier to watch the submarine sail out of the harbor.

Julian Osborne: Who would ever have believed that human beings would be stupid enough
to blow themselves off the face of the Earth?

Graduating from Oxford University in 1922 with a degree in Engineering Science, Nevil Shute worked for the De Havilland Aircraft Company and Vickers Ldt., before founding his own aircraft construction company in 1931. At the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, he was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a Sub-Lieutenant and, because of his experience, was quickly assigned to the position of head of engineering of the Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development. There, he worked on several secret weapons, developing the Panjandrum, a massive, rocket-propelled, explosive-laden cart (which was actually never used in battle), and the Rocket Spear, an anti-submarine missile with a fluted cast iron head. After the war, Shute emigrated with his wife and two young daughters to Australia, where he decided to dedicate himself to his rising career as a novelist.

Perhaps inspired by the prospect of atomic war between the United States and the Soviet Union, Shute wrote On the Beach, which depicted the impact of a nuclear conflict upon ordinary people who will soon die of radiation poisoning. The phrase «on the beach» is actually a Royal Navy term that means «retired from the service» and also refers to T.S. Eliot's poem The Hollow Men, which includes the lines: «In this last of meeting places / We grope together / And avoid speech / Granted on this beach of the tumid river. / [...] This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.» Published by William Morrow and Company in 1957, On the Beach was an instant best-seller, described by The New York Times as «the most haunting evocation we have of a world dying of radiation after an atomic war.» Galaxy Science Fiction magazine considered it «an emotional wallop. It should be made mandatory reading for all professional diplomats and politicians,» while the enthusiastic San Francisco Chronicle reviewer called it «the most shocking fiction I have read in years. What is shocking about it is both the idea and the sheer imaginative brilliance with which Mr. Shute brings it off.»

Anthony Perkins, Gregory Peck and Fred Astaire
in On the Beach
Some time in late 1958, independent producer and director Stanley Kramer purchased the screen rights to On the Beach. A famously high-minded and politically liberal filmmaker, Kramer had built a reputation for producing movies with social relevance: for instance, Home on the Brave (1949) and The Defiant Ones (1958) dealt with racism; The Men (1950) depicted the effects of post-war stress in veterans; and The Caine Mutiny (1954) portrayed the consequences of battle fatigue. At a time when the United States and the Soviet Union had missiles aimed at each other and the threat of mass destruction was ever-present, the anti-war, anti-nuclear-proliferation message of On the Beach was a perfect match for Kramer's liberal agenda.

United Artists, which had a co-production agreement with Kramer, was dubious about the subject's commercial prospects, but the director was optimistic. Still, he hedged his bets by assembling a cast that would guarantee box-office success despite the grim nature of the material. To play submarine commander Dwight Towers, he hired Gregory Peck, the Academy Award-nominated star of the acclaimed films The Keys of the Kingdom (1944), The Yearling (1946), Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and Twelve O'Clock High (1949). As the high-living Moira Davidson, Kramer signed Ava Gardner, who had already appeared with Peck in The Great Sinner (1949) and The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1953). In his first dramatic role, song-and-dance man Fred Astaire was cast as a disillusioned racecar-driving nuclear scientist named Julian Osborne. Anthony Perkins, then a popular young actor thanks to successful films like Friendly Persuasion (1956), Fear Strikes Out (1957) and The Matchmaker (1958), was assigned to the role of Royal Australian Naval Lieutenant Peter Holmes, while Donna Anderson made her film debut as his anxious wife Mary.

Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck and
Stanley Kramer on location in Australia
Before On the Beach began shooting, Kramer asked State Department officials for the use of an American submarine, but was told that «I was taking myself and the film too seriously.» Supposedly, the government refused to let Kramer photograph a real submarine because the Assistant Secretary of State disagreed that everyone in world would die in the conditions presented in the film. He believed that there would be survivors if a nuclear war occured, insisting that casualties would be limited to eight or nine million. Instead, Kramer used a British «Guppy,» revamped to look like the real American atomic submarine Sargo. Kramer did, however, receive assistance from the Royal Australian Navy, which supplied resources, including the use of the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne.

On the Beach was filmed between mid-January and late March 1959 on location in Australia. Kramer had determined to shoot whenever possible at the Australian settings of each scene in Shute's book, including Frankston, where Dwight first meets Moira; the Phillip Island raceway, where Julian wins the Grand Prix; and all over the city of Melbourne, where most of the action takes place. Although there had been a film industry in Australia for decades, large-scale studio space was limited. As a result, Kramer decided to build his own at the 72-acre Royal Showgrounds, most often the site of agricultural fairs, transforming halls that had previously been used for judging cattle into soundstages, production departments and dressing rooms. All interior scenes were filmed at the Royal Showgrounds, including those of the submarine, which was constructed at a cost of $100,000. 

Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner on
location in Phillip Island
Having never witnessed the making of a Hollywood film before, the Aussies naturally turned out in droves to watch the On the Beach company work. However, for the film's devastating ending scene, which depicted the city's deserted streets due to radiation fallout, Kramer needed the locals to leave them alone. Using the newspapers and radio, the director asked everyone to stay off the streets for a designated hour every day — and, surprisingly, they did. «Bearing in mind that this was a very real, very large, and very busy city,» Kramer later recalled, «it was a huge favor to ask, a huge operation, but it went off without a hitch.»

During filming, a disagreement arose between Shute, Peck and Kramer regarding Dwight and Moira's relationship. Both Shute and Peck argued that the two characters should not engage in an affair, while Kramer believed that the audience needed the relief of romance to counterbalance the film's bleak subject. Peck contended that «he was corrupting my character, that self-denial was a matter of principle over romance.» Indeed, the actor strove to be completely accurate in the preparation for his role. For instance, he often conferred with the naval technical advisor to make sure he knew everything that was to know about submarines. Kramer later reflected on Peck's performance in the film: «He stands there, tall and handsome, cleft chin akimbo. There is steel in his eyes, and you know you believe him. The gift of believability is the mark of Gregory Peck.»

Given the picture's theme, Kramer decided that On the Beach would have simultaneous premieres on December 17, 1959 in seventeen major world cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Melbourne, London, Madrid, Paris, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Rome and West Berlin. Although the film did not receive a commercial release in the Soviet Union for obvious reasons, a special screening was unprecedentedly arranged for that night in Moscow. Peck and his wife, French journalist Veronique Passani, travelled to Russia for the event, which was held in the auditorium of a workers' club before an audience of 1,200 Soviet officials, the international press corps and a few foreign diplomats, including United States Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson. To Peck's suprise, the whole evening was an astounding success. «They loved us in Moscow,» he said to Variety. «It was the best reaction I've seen in the showings I've attended. They laughed in all the right places, and applauded after many dramatic sequences.»

Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner as Dwight and Moira in On the Beach

Critical response to the film was somewhat mixed. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it a «deeply moving picture», praised the cast as well as Kramer's direction. He concluded that «The great merit of this picture, aside from its entertaining qualities, is the fact that it carries a passionate conviction that man is worth saving, after all.» Variety wrote, «On the Beach is a solid film of considerable emotional, as well as cerebral, content. But the fact remains that the final impact is as heavy as a leaden shroud. The spectator is left with the sick feeling that he's had a preview of Armageddon, in which all contestants lost.» The reviewer did, however, applaud John Paxton's screenplay and considered the cast to be «almost uniformly excellent.» On the other hand, Dwight McDonald of Esquire described the film as «slick, vulgar, sentimental, phony [...] the greatest theme of our day cut down to Hollywood size which is very small indeed.» Still, On the Beach grossed $5,300,000 at the box-office, placing 8th in Variety's list of the biggest moneymakers of 1960 and giving Peck a top-ten film for the first time since 1956. On the Beach earned Kramer the BAFTA for Best Director and was nominated for Best Original Score and Best Film Editing at the 32nd Academy Awards held in April 1960.

Ava Gardner: «Love is Nothing» by Lee Server (St. Martin's Press, 2006)
Gregory Peck: A Bio-Bibliography by Gerard Molyneaux (Greenwood Press, 1995)
Gregory Peck: A Biography by Gary Fishgall (Scribner, 2002) 
Transforming the Screen, 1950-1959 by Peter Lev (2003)
The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther
Variety review by the Variety staff

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