The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On the Beach

Not having lived through the Cold War, it's hard to fathom a life that always had a death cloud hanging over the world.  If the U.S. and the Soviet Union did decide to go to war, it would have been over in minutes with no real winner thanks to weapons that guaranteed both sides would be wiped out.  There was always that threat, that looming danger of what could be.  Movies like Fail Safe, Dr. Strangelove, and The Bedford Incident are just some of the movies that have dealt with this subject, but it's the rarer film that deals with after that big what-if, like 1959's On the Beach.

An American submarine commanded by Capt. Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) surfaces off the coast of Australia and docks.  A nuclear holocaust has wiped out most of the world's population, but Australia was untouched by the apocalyptic fighting.  Towers and the U.S.S. Sawfish arrive to find a country and a continent not quite sure what to do with themselves.  Scientists and intellectuals predict that Australia has five or six months before radiation from the fallout reaches them, and then it will be a quick process of a week or two before all survivors are killed too.  With possibly months to live, what do you do?  Towers and his sub head north to see if there's any hope of survival, that the radiation may miss Australia.

First off, this has to qualify as one of the most depressing movies I've ever seen.  Director Stanley Kramer creates quite a vision of what a post-apocalyptic world would be like. The whole purpose of the movie is to ask what would your reaction be if you knew you only had months to live?  The vehicle of a nuclear fallout is how you to that question, but it works just as well dealing with mortality, we're all going to die.  It's just a matter of when and how.  The story is honest and doesn't try to whitewash anything here, these people are doomed and respond in different ways.

We see these reactions through a wide range of characters.  Peck's Towers lost his wife and two kids back home but sees similarities in an Australian woman, Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), who has nothing and no one to live for. A young navy officer (Anthony Perkins) deals with his wife (Donna Anderson) who refuses to admit that anything is wrong, and that down the road to avoid unspeakable pain she may have to take her life and that of her baby.   An older scientist/doctor (Fred Astaire) copes by drinking and working on a Ferrari sports car he's purchased. No one reacts the same way, all responding individually to this horror that is presented.

Some moments provide these powerful instances of how the individual would respond.  While patrolling outside San Francisco, Towers' sub has a member of the crew (John Meillon) who is a native of the city escape from the sub and swim ashore, knowing he will die in a matter of days instead of months waiting back in Australia.  He tells Towers he wants to die at home, not in some strange place.  The scene where the sailor talks with Peck (via loudspeaker) is an incredibly moving one.  Just as moving, a scene where Astaire explains how this probably all started; one man probably looking at a computer screen swearing he saw a blip, an attack, and pushing the button or turning the key to assure the mutual destruction.  Kramer's film has a lot of these powerful moments, both those two stand out from the rest. 

For a movie that deals with the end of the world as we know it, in other words an epic scale, it also a very personal movie.  It depends on your reaction to the end of the world, your feelings about knowing that death is coming and there's nothing you can do about it.  My worry about halfway through the movie was that Kramer was waiting to pull the rug out from under the viewer, provide some sort of ridiculous solution that will allow these people to survive.  My worries were unfounded, Kramer is too talented of a director to do that, force some happy ending on the viewer for a story that needs to have an unhappy one.  The last 10 minutes are a perfect ending -- watch HERE -- including a final, very timely warning to 1959 viewers.

My one complaint, a minor one at that in relation to the whole movie, is that no one in Australia really tries to do anything to ensure survival.  With five or six months, much could be accomplished whether it's bomb shelters or finding some protection from the radiation.  Maybe it's naive to think that, probably only saving a few extra weeks or months, but all of Australia is content to go on with their lives as normal, drink a lot, go to the beach.  Everyone just seems freakishly calm, no riots, no looting.  They're all very mannerly about the end of the world.  A minor flaw in an otherwise really effective movie, but one I felt I had to point out.  Don't let it stop you from checking this one out.

On the Beach <----TCM trailer (1959): *** 1/2 /****

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