On the Beach, United Artists, 1959
Sixty years ago, as the Cold War intensified, the end of the world seemed much too close for comfort. The threat of nuclear destruction, implicit in the newspaper headlines of the day, naturally leached into popular culture. The first filmmakers to incorporate the potential for global apocalypse into their work were the makers of low-budget horror flicks, like 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and 1954’s Godzilla. Such movies both shocked and titillated young audiences by positing that nuclear tests had unleashed huge, fearsome monsters that—metaphorically standing in for the Bomb itself—could not be contained.
While teenagers were at the movies, their parents were building backyard fallout shelters in hopes of surviving the coming nuclear holocaust. Then suddenly a book appeared that spoke on an adult level to the futility of bomb shelters and the era’s duck-and-cover drills. This was On the Beach, published in 1957 by a British-born aeronautical engineer. Nevil Shute, who had once worked on the first British airship, spent much of World War II helping the Royal Navy develop experimental weapons in preparation for the D-Day invasion. By the time Shute transplanted his family to Melbourne, Australia, he had already begun publishing a long string of adventure novels. But in the post-war years, he felt a special need to convince the public of the dangers posed by nuclear proliferation. Through the character of Julian, he acknowledged the complicity of the scientists who had helped create weapons of mass destruction. In many ways, Shute personally identified with Julian, who must admit that “the devices outgrew us, we couldn’t control them. I know. … I helped build them, God help me.”
This dialogue comes from the 1959 film version. Shute’s On the Beach had quickly become a worldwide sensation. In its first six weeks, the American edition of the book sold 100,000 copies, dislodging the steamyPeyton Place from its top spot on the nation’s bestseller lists. Of course a cinematic adaptation was inevitable, and the socially aware Stanley Kramer (whose just-released prior film, The Defiant Ones, had tackled racial prejudice in the Deep South) quickly bought the movie rights. He cast major Hollywood stars in the central roles and moved his company to Melbourne to shoot one of the first feature-length Hollywood movies ever to be made on Australian soil.
The plotline of On the Beach is simple but powerful. Somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, some kind of horrible misunderstanding has launched a nuclear war, quickly wiping out most of the world. As one character in the book puts it: “No, it wasn’t an accident, I didn’t say that. It was carefully planned, down to the tiniest mechanical and emotional detail. But it was a mistake.” Though Australia and a few other countries at the far reaches of the Southern Hemisphere have remained untouched, its citizens must now await the coming of the radiation that is sure to kill them all.