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.
John Paxton, who did the screenplay from Nevil Shute’s novel, avoids the usual cliches. There is no sergeant from Brooklyn, no handy racial spokesmen. Gregory Peck is a US submarine commander. He and his men have been spared the atomic destruction because their vessel was submerged when the bombs went off.
The locale is Australia and the time is 1964. Nobody remembers how or why the conflict started. ‘Somebody pushed a button,’ says nuclear scientist Fred Astaire. Australia, for ill-explained reasons, is the last safe spot on earth. It is only a matter of time before the radiation hits the continent and its people die as the rest of the world has died.
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In addition to Peck and Astaire, the other chief characters include Ava Gardner, a pleasure-bent Australian; and a young Australian naval officer and his wife, Anthony Perkins and Donna Anderson. All the personal stories are well-presented. The trouble is it is almost impossible to care with the implicit question ever-present – do they live?
The cast is almost uniformly excellent. Peck and Gardner make a good romantic team in the last days of the planet. Perkins and Anderson evoke sympathy as the young couple. Fred Astaire, in his first straight dramatic role, attracts considerable attention.
1959: Nominations: Best Editing, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture