Like many citizens for whom the daily headlines are an invitation to ponder the mental health of our political leaders, it is hard not to wonder from time to time about the risk of slipping into yet another war to end all wars—especially when the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki roll around, on August 6th and 9th, year after passing year.
In this context Stanley Kramer’s 1959 film, “On the Beach” is still worth a look. The screenplay was adapted from a novel of the same name by the English writer, Nevil Shute, who spent his later years in Australia, where both novel and film are set.
The plot provides a coolly understated take on the end of the world. Radioactivity from all-out nuclear war, both between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. and the Soviets and the Chinese, has done in anyone in the Northern Hemisphere who might have survived the initial blasts and fires. Australia is still in one piece, but it is only a matter of months before the great cycles of upper atmosphere winds bring a fatal plague of radiation southward, making it game over for our species. A laconic Gregory Peck, stoically repressing his knowledge that his wife and children had been long since annihilated in the initial nuclear exchange, plays a submarine captain whose vessel survived by being underwater. He takes his loyal crew on a futile exploratory voyage from Melbourne across to the California coast, both to test the intensity of atmospheric radiation and to confirm that no one has survived beyond the Australian continent.
In both novel and film, nobody knows who initiated the planet-ending wars and it hardly matters after the fact, just as it would not today. The only difference is we realize almost seventy years later that not only wind-born radioactive dust but also nuclear winter could hasten our planetary end. The wintry chaos of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel “The Road” may take a more authentically grim tone, just as the film “Dr. Strangelove,” released not long after “On the Beach,” suggests that only satire could do justice to the absurdity of the “policy” of Mutually Assured Destruction.
And yet in 1959, with the Cold War intensifying and only five years beyond the red-baiting Army-McCarthy hearings, it must have taken a certain courage for Stanley Kramer to make a Hollywood film of Shute’s novel, devoid of the least sign of a happy ending to lighten the quietly enveloping darkness.
The almost antique understatement of “On the Beach,” book and film both, somehow ends up working in favor of the subject. They illustrate our frustrated awareness that we imperfect humans continue to behave stupidly and sleepily in our inability to do something about our suicidally destructive weapons. Just as it sometimes seems as if we are appendages of our smartphones and computers, we appear to be appendages of our vain approach to security by deterrence. The leaders of the nuclear powers do not dare to do anything to stop the juggernaut of technological “advance,” the “we build—they build” momentum that is taking us ever faster downriver toward the waterfall.
“On the Beach” ends with a shot of a Salvation Army banner flapping emptily in the wind with the slogan “There is still time, brother.” In fact not everyone on the planet is sticking head where the sun don’t shine. More than 120 nations recently signed a United Nations pact agreeing to outlaw the manufacture, deployment and use of nuclear weapons. None of the nine nuclear nations signed, and the U.S. refused to even attend. The historic occasion didn’t come close to making the front pages of major U.S. media outlets, saturated as they have been with the Russian attempts at subversion of our electoral processes with the willing connivance of the Trump family.
In our pig-headed refusal to face reality, the nuclear powers appear to have learned nothing in all the many years since the first halting attempts, including “On the Beach,” to use the arts to dramatize the risks with which we heedlessly flirt, and how we need to change course or die. 120 nations have changed course—why not the U.S.?