A Comparison of On the Beach (1959) and These Final Hours (2013)
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Year: 1959 Director: Stanley Kramer -- Cast: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins, Donna Anderson, John Tate, Lola Brooks -- Screenplay: John Paxton. Source novel: Nevil Shute -- Length: 134 min. B&W/Mono -- estimated budget: $2,900,000; USA rentals $5,500,000
If you thought the Batman
Multimatch was dark, this one will beat it. For sure. Batman was trying to stop the world from ending, in a sense. But these two films are about the end of human life on earth. Pure and simple, without candy-coating. So what that means is that this is (as with the three films in the Scum
Flashmatch) a very heavy pair of movies.
I was only 5 when the book On the Beach
was published, and only 7 when the film was released. I could have read the novel when I was in High School, and many of the English teachers put it on their suggested reading list, but there was a lot of Cold War paranoia about, and I was already terrified enough of a nuclear holocaust without reading a decade-old novel where everyone perishes because of one. I took a pass.
But I could not see the film. There were no outlets other than broadcast or theatrical re-release for you to see movies. The high school English teacher in charge of the Kingsbury High School Film Society tried to get a 16mm print of it to show, but without success. And I can't imagine a TV executive programming such a film and trying to sell commercials in those days. As late as 1983 ABC TV broadcast The Day After
, and no company wanted to buy any of the commercial spots after the point in the story where the bombs fall. So most of the show was broadcast without commercial breaks. ABC bravely aired the program, anyway. In that case not everybody dies, nor is it suggested that all humans are going to die as a result of the nuclear war. Also, The Day After
is in color. On the Beach
is black and white.
Then, as a 40-something I got curious about the film, and blind-bought a DVD of it on sale at Best Buy 15 years ago. I watched the film a single time, and then put the box on my DVD rack. My second viewing was for this Rematch. I bought the novel and read it for the first time for this Rematch.
The idea for this NQRR arose when I watched the other film just this summer: These Final Hours
(2013), also set in Australia. Something within urged me to explore how the two films are alike and how they differ. So here it is.
One of my English teachers while attempting to get us to select On the Beach
for an extra reading assignment, told us that at the end it holds out absolutely no hope. Well, if I had been predisposed to read it, at that moment my willingness died a harsh death. But Stanley Kramer had to deal with this when making his film.
Reportedly, Kramer was a social activist, which might have led to his decision to make this film. To get the message of warning out, if he could. We were all uptight about the possibility that the film depicts, adults and kids alike. I have never spoken to anyone my age who said that he or she never managed to get the concern out of mind, but all agree that it wouldn't entirely go away. I believe we thought about it when we weren't "thinking about it" and that led to subliminal stress. It might have led to the rise of the Hippie movement: a reaction mechanism for something that we truly could not do anything about, that threatened to arrive at any moment, "With
warning. With no
warning," to completely delete the possibilities that we dreamed of.
And, yes, they made us watch Duck and Cover
in elementary school. And, yes, we did drills in the hallway and cafeteria and in our classrooms. Once in a creepy coincidence we had a school-wide fire drill at noon on the day the "air raid sirens" were tested. When they went off that day, with their blood-curdling moaning sounds, we were standing on the field outside the school, and I wonder how many of us kids, only a few miles away from the nation's major Strategic Air Command base had dreadful images of incoming Soviet ballistic missiles in our heads.
The film is set five years into the future (1964 for the 1959 release), so it's far enough away to not really be "now," but close enough that it seems creepily soon.
Here are some aspects of the film and whether I like them or don't care for them:
Given that On the Beach
is a movie about the fictional, but literal
end of the human world Stanley Kramer must be applauded for not conjuring up some "out" for the world on the screen. He actually kills off everyone. I bought the DVD mainly to see if he actually did that. Yet, the last shot provides a kind of ersatz Hollywood ending. That very last shot of the film, no matter how heavy-handed the things that have come before might be, no matter how heavy-handed the music over the last shot...it's just so cool with irony, that it's quite clever. And, despite the proclamation of my once English teacher, it does hold out hope ... for the viewer. You'll understand what I mean if you give it a watch. That is, the whole movie, not simply the final shot.
The film portrays the lingering sense of morality that accompanies a sudden loss of spouse or any other loved one. Especially if you are absent to the actual loss. He/she is still alive in your head and heart. It is difficult to grasp death in absentia
. I think the film makes an attempt at examining that idea, but the novel does it quite well.
A change in plot made in the film concerning Dwight and Moira is too Hollywood. In the novel Dwight Tower holds onto his commitment in marriage to his wife. He knows she is dead, but she lives in his heart. As corny as that sounds, it is actually one of the stronger threads of the novel. Only two years passed between publication and film release, so it wasn't a passage of time or a change of mores that led the filmmakers to allow Dwight and Moira to have a sexual fling. In the novel Dwight goes only so far as to kiss Moira. She admits that she is chasing him, but tells Mary that she won't catch him.
Giuseppe Rotunno's lighting schemes and the photographic compositions make the film visually rich. The lack of color makes the characterizations and the themes matter. There is, of course, a lot of talking in this movie. The photography helps make it seem less drawing room.
A few years after helming production of On the Beach
, Stanley Kramer directed one of the funniest and most bizarre comedies I have ever seen: It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
. His range as a director is amazing. And he didn't strip away all the potentially humorous moments from On the Beach
. In fact, there is a great deal of natural humor in the film. Come to think of it, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
is as fatalistic in its own, silly way as the nuclear war film is.
Okay, it's a product of its times. The 1950s were a moralizing time. So this is a moralizing film. It not only intends to stimulate you to think about some issues you might normally avoid, but it wants you to reach a certain conclusion when you get done thinking.
Having written that, I'm not so certain that my sense that the film is trying to tell me what I should think, is entirely correct. I might be wrong. It's difficult to tell about films of this time. What would have appeared very open-ended at the time might come across as didactic now. But it might have seemed scandalously relativistic in the day.
These people just go on as usual
following the nuclear war. For months. Sure, the war was a world away. For two years
! Meanwhile, the radiation approaches at a frustratingly slow pace. Could anyone really
do that? In the novel, they continually make adjustments as the radioactive fallout grows near. A few are shown to be worried in the movie (Mary Peters, for example won't allow anyone to talk about the inevitable, but that is largely true in the novel). But most "just carry on." Maybe this is a British thing, or something that was thought to be back in the day. I can't lay this cinematic misfire at the feet of Paxton or Kramer, though. Nevil Shute is known for writing books about characters who keep their emotions low-key. That aspect is present, but less obvious in the novel, because we are inside the minds of the characters. We know that they think
about the dark side of the situation, but they rarely share it with others. When we stand outside them, as in the movie, it seems less authentic.
Another change from the novel galls me a bit. The characters in the novel are much younger, by at least ten years, and in one case forty years younger than their screen counterparts. In one of the essays I explain that Shute probably chose those ages for a reason, to make his major characters young when they face the end of humankind. The filmmakers go for box office, of course, and the capable players chosen are older. Some might find a bit of irony in 60-year old Dr. Julian Osborne doing many of the things that the late 20-something Dr. John Osborne of the novel does. But I just find it dumb. Not that Fred Astaire isn't good in the part he plays.
The last point actually became fodder for one of the essays in this Rematch.
I am simply not going to be able to tell you whether either of these films is "good" or not. I find them both enchanting because they show me something I am unlikely ever to experience, and in doing so they naturally whip up my intellectual fervor to speculate what I think I would do if I were in similar circumstances. Which I know I will never be. So it's all safe. And I probably wouldn't
act the way I think I would. At least not entirely.
On the Beach
preserves many of the humorous characters from Shute's novel. There is the old fellow at the men's club who is concerned that there are so many bottles of excellent port wine left to consume, and that there may not be enough time to drink it all. John Osborne (Julian in the film) gives into his obsession with racing, so much so that he buys a Ferrari from a local widow, and races it in the final Australian Grand Prix of 1964.
If you hate didactic movies, then the 1959 film isn't going to be one of your favorites. If you recognize that even a didactic
film cannot tell
you what to do (at most it can make suggestions), then you can treat it as any other fiction film. This is one guy's idea of what would happen and what it might mean to someone like you. Any uneasiness you have might be due to internal confusion, which is understandable. We don't often address these questions because...we will never ever have to in real life. Probably.
But we will all have to face the end of life. And it may not be by a piano falling on us as we stroll unawares down the boulevard. We may have a long while to contemplate the finality of some type of cancer. That would be similar to hearing radio reports of how close a radioactive cloud has come, and wondering if it will really
come all the way to us. As always, the end would be far away, and would seem far away until it was right there. And then, there would be no avoiding it. If you take the film as a metaphor for that experience, then (except for those of us who die by way of plummeting musical instruments, or similar events) we will face what these characters face.
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On the Beach (1959)
On the Beach (1959 film)
. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. "On the Beach is a 1959 American post-apocalyptic science fiction drama film from United Artists, produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins."
. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. "Despite mixed critical reception, both then and now, the film industry heavily promoted Kramer's work with numerous awards. His films received 16 Academy Awards and 80 nominations, and he was nominated nine times as either producer or director."
On the Beach (1959)
The Day After
. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. "The Day After
is an American television film that first aired on November 20, 1983, on the ABC television network. It was seen by more than 100 million people during its initial broadcast is currently the highest-rated television film in history." I honestly think that the discussion group after the film might have had something to do with the end of the Cold War, at least with the US acceptance of glasnost
in the moribund Soviet Union.
. Image source.
. Image source.
. Image not used. Interesting.
. gizmag.com. "US Atomic Energy Commission 14 kT Bunker Charlie test - October 30, 1951"
Duck and Cover Redux: Bulletproof Blankets for Kids
. From Reading the Pictures. "When “the Bodyguard” is actual [sic] worn, these things also remind me of a kimono. But that photo of the children on the floor makes me think about how children of the ’50’s, when there [sic] class day wasn’t disturbed by an attack drill, might have been otherwise unconcerned at school, and even feeling relatively unburdened walking to and from."
Image source. From Atom Anxious America
. Caption reads, "A Californian schoolboy obeys the signal to 'Drop.' But he was just buying an ice-cream, and goes on eating, though it is against the rules."
Pinterest. "Duck and cover and don't look at the blast -School nuclear bomb drill"
. twitchfilm.com. Image source.