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Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner in 1959's "On the Beach."

On the Beach August 15, 2022


Stanley Kramer



Gregory Peck
Ava Gardner
Fred Astaire
Anthony Perkins
Donna Anderson






2 Hrs., 14 Mins.


he end of the world looms over Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959). In a move that would probably be true to life, but which comes across awkwardly on screen (it’s almost choppy), the film uneasily wavers for a long time between to-the-bone bleakness and a nothing’s-wrong levity that can throw you off. (One of the score’s variations used during the first part of the movie is so cutesy and cheery — it practically bounces —

that it sometimes feels like you’re watching a romantic comedy and not an apocalypse drama.) The movie is set in 1964, and the getting-closer end days are the fault of a nuclear fallout that has followed World War III. The Northern Hemisphere has been almost completely devastated — one of On the Beach’s major scenes involves some Navy personnel scanning an eerily quiet San Francisco from the water — and the Southern Hemisphere is soon to follow owing to the unavoidable dispersion of toxically high radiation levels. 


On the Beach’s principal characters are stationed in Australia; they’re either directly or tangentially involved with the military. The star-studded ensemble playing them across the board offers some of their best-ever work. There’s the hyper-dutiful-to-his-country Cmdr. Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), who helms a U.S. submarine and falls in love with a local, free-spirited woman named Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner); young Lt. Cmdr. Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) and his sweetheart (Donna Anderson); and an often-around scientist, Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire), whose guilt over his role perfecting nuclear weaponry is excruciating to the point of feeling like an illness.

It goes without saying that in apocalypse movies the technical details are usually much less compelling than the human dramas that come from them. On the Beach often feels longer than its already-long 134 minutes because it’s partial, at least for the first few acts, to spend more time investigating what exactly is going on than the human particulars. The first part of the movie has a spinning-its-wheels quality; it’s as if Kramer and his writer, John Paxton (who’s adapting Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel), were trying to maximize the film’s runtime to give it an epic’s grandeur. 

On the Beach improves a lot in its more humane back half. It hosts the best-realized scenes in the movie, which involve the characters throwing themselves into big outing-style pastimes because it’s their last chance. There’s a drunken group fishing trip; there’s a car race with far more who-cares-what-happens spiritedness than you’d see in an average Grand Prix. On the Beach’s centerpiece arguably arrives when Towers and Davidson attempt to go on a date. They mostly stay wordless while clinking glasses — just having meaningful company when death lurks is perhaps more significant than any conversation could be — and the cameras romantically circle around them as they move from their chairs into each other’s arms, their kiss given the world-stopping importance the precarious situation in which they’re living is determined to rob them of. 

The next few last-ever goodbyes have a similarly touching pathos, and imbue the movie’s ending with an effective mix of horror and bittersweetness. On the Beach has a way, ultimately, of making the end of the world a little lyrical, though the devastating collection of images that prove its last — a succession of barren, indifferent locales, calling to mind Michelangelo Antonioni’s famed L’Eclisse (1962) finale — gives everything an appropriate shudder. B

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