Where's the love for Stanley Kramer? Dismissed for half a century as a minimally talented producer-director of "message pictures," Kramer is long overdue for a major reappraisal. As a producer he made some of the finest films of the late 1940s through the mid-‘50s: Champion, Home of the Brave (both 1949), The Men (1950), High Noon (1952), The Wild One (1953), The Caine Mutiny (1954) among them, before turning to directing himself. After a shaky start Kramer found his niche helming socially conscious dramas: The Defiant Ones (1958), Inherit the Wind (1960), and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), all excellent. He surprised many with the hugely successful and (initially) critically-lauded comedy It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), and later deftly combined humor with his liberal societal interests in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), a sweetly funny, usually misunderstood work that was one of his best films. His next movie, The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) was a warm, atypical comedy whose only crime was bad timing. After that Kramer seemed to lose his way: R.P.M. (1970), Bless the Beasts and Children (1972), Oklahoma Crude (1973), and The Domino Principal (1977) all have their moments, but pale in comparison to his peak period. The title of his final film, The Runner Stumbles could as easily be applied to Kramer himself. That film was barely released at all.
On the Beach (1959), a shattering adaptation of Nevil Shute's acclaimed if controversial post-apocalyptic novel set mostly in Melbourne, Australia, ranks alongside Kramer's best, yet like his other films there's been a lot of misplaced and sometimes dead-wrong criticism about the picture's supposed shortcomings. Though dated in some respects, in other ways it plays timelier than ever, and some of Kramer's choices that seemed wrong to some then are today, arguably, validated.
On the Beach never had a proper home video release; MGM's previous DVD version was in unenhanced widescreen. Kino Lorber's new Blu-ray is a big if imperfect improvement, and the film looks (and sounds) very impressive on big screens and monitors.
The story is set in 1964, five years into the then-near future. A global thermonuclear war has decimated the entire northern hemisphere. Australia has been spared the devastation of nuclear bombs, but the air is already poisoned with radiation, and scientists conclude that it is only a matter of months until deadly radioactive fallout drifts over the continent and kills everyone there, too.
The movie opens with the arrival of the USS Sawfish, an American nuclear submarine underwater in the Pacific when the bombs dropped. Royal Australian Navy Admiral Bridie (John Tate) welcomes its skipper, Commander Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), eventually ordering him to sail his crew north to check an unlikely theory that rain and snow may have reduced the level of radiation in the atmosphere so that Australia might somehow be spared the worst, and to investigate an inexplicable radio signal, gibberish instead of Morse Code, emanating from somewhere near San Diego.
Meanwhile, Australian Navy Lt. Commander Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) is assigned as Towers's liaison officer. Holmes invites him to his home for the weekend. He and his wife, Mary (Donna Anderson), are leery of Towers, knowing that he lost his wife and two children in the war, suspecting he will be an emotional wreck. They set him up with beautiful but alcoholic Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), but to everyone's surprise he's surprisingly cool and composed. That's because he simply refuses to accept what has happened to his loved ones, talking about them in the present tense and even optimistically talking about their non-existent future.
Holmes, meanwhile, is a realist and, knowing the end is inevitable, wants to prepare his wife and their infant daughter for the day when the radioactive clouds will surely come, going so far as to secure suicide pills before they're officially made available. Mary, however, refuses to listen to any discussion about their certain deaths.
Meanwhile, Moira, terrified of dying alone, desperately clings to Towers, but he's willing to take their relationship only so far because, to his way of thinking, he's still got a wife and kids back home in Connecticut. The Sawfish eventually sets out on its mission, accompanied by Holmes and Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire), a fatalistic scientist who like Moira has taken to drink to numb the agony.
The movie is almost a complete success, the only real failing being Ernest Gold's score. It greatly overuses Australia's emblematic bush ballad "Waltzing Matilda," originally written around 1895. The song was heard in the 1949 British film Once a Jolly Swagman and later in The Desert Rats (1953) but otherwise was just becoming known in America, having also been featured prominently in Cinerama South Seas Adventure (1958), the popular roadshow-travelogue. In On the Beach Gold incorporates the chorus from the song ad infinitum, though his music for scenes aboard the submarine, particularly when the sub approaches San Francisco and San Diego, is effectively eerie.
On the Beach was both widely praised and criticized when it was new, and in the decades since its status diminished by other criticisms largely without merit. I suspect Stanley Kramer naively believed On the Beach had the power to impact foreign policy and even frighten movie-going voters into demanding a cooling-down of Cold War tensions and perhaps reverse the nuclear arms race. As the trailer included on the Blu-ray makes clear, On the Beach had a lofty, unprecedented simultaneous worldwide premiere in something like 30 cities that included Moscow (with Gregory Peck in attendance) and the film was overhyped as an earth-shattering event: "The Biggest Story of Our Time!" said the ads, along with "IF YOU never see another motion picture in your life you must see ON THE BEACH!"
The U.S. government had refused the filmmakers access to its naval vessels (an Australian Navy sub doubled for the Sawfish) or any other form of cooperation, and later the Eisenhower Administration, fearing the picture might accelerate the "ban the bomb" movement, plotted its own campaign to discredit the film. Officials and conservative media labeled it as irresponsible, claiming that while a global thermonuclear war might kill hundreds of millions, surely it would not wipe out the entire human race. As if that makes a difference.
Since then, it has been, inexplicably, fashionable among film critics and historians to bash Kramer's films, On the Beach included. The main complaints levied against it are that the romance between Towers and Moira trivializes the larger theme of human extinction; that it unrealistically depicts its characters as bravely and/or passively accepting their fates, i.e., without rioting and looting and descending into total madness; and that the scenes in San Francisco and San Diego are unrealistically sanitized in not showing any physical destruction and/or corpse-littered streets.
However, all of these issues are adequately explained and justified in the film itself. The romance, also in Shute's novel, is anything but conventional. It's disquieting listening to Towers talk about his wife and children as if they were still alive (and have their whole lives ahead of them) while Moira's fear of dying alone and without ever experiencing True Love (despite having slept with many men) is both adult and reasonable.
That all of Australia seems to be adjusting to a society where petrol is scarce, everyday goods are running out and everyone is trying to face up to the bleakest of futures may have seemed improbable then, but not now. Today, of course, we live in a world past the tipping point of cataclysmic climate change, change that seems certain to negatively impact billions of people, and quite possibly threaten all of humanity. But because it's happening so comparatively slowly, our reactions to the problem aren't all that different from the characters in Kramer's film: some are in complete denial that the problem exists at all, others fatalistically joke on Facebook and elsewhere that mankind is doomed. These are scenarios in which the threat has already been realized and its effects are well past the point of being avoided; angry, bitter passivity seems more believable response than pointless rioting so long as there's food, water, and electricity.
As for the scenes where the Sawfish reaches the shores of San Francisco and San Diego, and where one crewman in each city leaves the sub and goes exploring, Kramer likewise tackles with intelligence and creativity. Clearly, the Production Code would not have allowed Kramer to show streets full of rotting corpses. In its place the film smartly suggests something entirely reasonable: like dogs and cats who go into hiding to die, wouldn't it make more sense for people succumbing to radiation sickness to simply go home and die in their own beds? That the film never shows a single character dying (or taking one of those suicide pills) doesn't make One the Beach any less gripping and may even enhance its power, for it shows the psychological process of coming to grips with mortality itself, something sometimes presumably even more painful than physical death.
Further, in the wake of these obvious Production Code restrictions, I think Kramer and Italian cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (The Leopard, Amacord, All That Jazz) were opting for entirely different approach, one that simply dispenses with semi-documentary movie "realism." True, the filmmakers probably could have gotten away with showing a limited number of onscreen bodies, but instead the decision was made to depict these scenes with subtle surreallism. Because no one, dead or alive, populate areas normally swarming with traffic and pedestrians, the filmmakers create much unsettling imagery. The familiar images looks wrong, seeing a major metropolis bereft of life of any kind, and the viewer is still left with the same message had there been horrific destruction: every single person is dead. What counts is not what happened to the dead, but rather what the survivors see.
The audience is left feeling much as the characters in the story do. During the first part of the film there are constant reminders of approaching fallout. It's inescapable yet everyone realizes that there's no point simply sitting in a chair waiting to die. As the clouds begin to cross the Australian continent, however, the film becomes almost unbearably tense and disturbing, yet realistic.
The acting by Peck is especially excellent, but the entire cast, including the offbeat casting of dancer Fred Astaire, adds to its overall effectiveness. The use of unfamiliar or less familiar British and Australian actors in supporting parts adds to the realism, but so does the use of big stars, doing and saying things uncomfortably removed from their usual screen personae.
Video & Audio
On the Beach is presented in its original 1.66:1 wide screen aspect ratio. The image is occasionally dirty and shows signs here and there of damage, though part of this may be related to the challenges of shooting so much of the film on location in Australia, far from the more controllable atmosphere of Hollywood sound stages and backlots. I suspect the film was originally released monophonic, and possibly remixed in such a way that the music and sound effects track could be rechanneled with some directionality. It's a very good remix, as the sounds of passing ships and trains move into the surround speakers, and the ambiance inside the submarine is all-enveloping. I did, however, notice that for most of the film the audio appears to be several frames out of synch. At first I thought it might have been my player, but on a second machine I experienced the same flaw.* The disc includes optional English subtitles and is Region A encoded.
The lone supplement is an unusually long trailer that incorporates invaluable newsreel-type footage of the film's simultaneous worldwide premiere. It's in high-def.
A shattering, still completely engrossing and, sadly, timely cautionary tale, Stanley Kramer's On the Beach is Highly Recommended.
* "Scott," posting at the Home Theater Forum, insists the disc is not out of synch. Referring to claims to the contrary he writes, "Both [the reviewer at Blu-ray.com and DVD Savant] have been contacted and we're hoping that there will be retractions. We've checked 5 or 6 random On the Beach and Cast a Giant Shadow [also reportedly beset with the same issues] discs on three or four BD players and there were no audio sync issues on any of them. There's a chance that the players these reviewers are using are older models and they haven't downloaded the latest needed firmware."
No. DVD Savant tells me he hasn't been contacted about this, nor have I. Further, each of us have relatively new players - mine is less than six months old. And, anyway, as Savant points out, "Why doesn't it go out of sync on other discs? Why does it go out of sync in the exact same way every time? Why does Blu-ray.com say it's out of sync too? ... Nobody has contacted me, even though I contacted Kino as a courtesy, to make sure I wasn't firing off a mistaken, damaging review."
We're standing by are assertion that the problem exists.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.