On the Beach (1959)

On the Beach (1959), produced and directed by Stanley Kramer.

It's the end of the world, set in the near future of 1964. Radioactive clouds from a nuclear war have killed everyone and everything in the northern hemisphere and are moving south. The Australians carry on as best they can in the time they have left. They have horses and bikes instead of cars, and a few electric trains.

The last American nuclear sub is based there. Captain Gregory Peck ventures back up north to see if the radioactivity is diminishing (it isn't) and we have an eerie visit to the dead San Francisco Bay. Then down to San Diego to investigate some mysterious morse code transmissions, seeming gibberish:


Some joker tied a coke bottle to a window shade and it was bumping against a transmitter key.

Then back to Australia to wait for the end, for an odd final 35 minutes. Car racing, fishing, drinking, making love, going to revival meetings, contemplating suicide. What about the children?

That's it. No rescue, no hope except in the Hereafter. This is obviously a dark, pessimistic film. Maybe Love is the light in the darkness, but it is not easy. Love will tear us apart. Again.

Peck is just excellent in a reserved, anguished yet understated performance. Like everyone else, he can't take it all in. He speaks of his wife and children as if they are still alive when he knows they aren't. He starts seeing Ava Gardner who drinks and sleeps around too much. She just wants to be loved and not be alone at the end. In a poignant bit, she has to watch him sail away.

The title is the answer to the question: "Do you remember where we first met?" When you're at the End you think of the Beginning.

Filmed in Australia with real boats and shipyards. With Anthony Perkins and Fred Astaire. None of the American actors make any serious attempts at accents, which is just as well.

The DVD is 4:3 letterboxed, containing the 1.66 aspect ratio image. (Later: available on Blu-ray).

The Australians use Waltzing Matilda for their end of the world theme. I'd pick After the Gold Rush: use a cheap piano, no lyrics, but keep the horn solo.