True film buffs will find it hard to believe that my wife and I were so reluctant to watch a movie that we let it sit around in its paper sleeve for a month while we worked up the nerve to stick it in the DVD player.  I’ll have to confess here that I’m old enough to have actually watched it when it was released, way back in 1959.  Revisiting it was something of a shock because some scenes from the film had stuck with me, haunted me over the years. It is one of those iconic films, like “Citizen Kane.”  Once you watch that, you never look at sleds in quite the same way.

This one is set in Melbourne, of all places.  As far as I know, it is the only big budget, Hollywood film ever made here. Every boomer worth his cinematic salt will have heard of it, of course.  It made headlines when it was released and has not yet been rendered irrelevant.  It is called “On the Beach.”  The premise is simple, and, unfortunately, still scary. It may have even more resonance now than it did then because the planet is imperiled in so many different ways. Global warming seems to have nudged nuclear war out of the headlines.

In the film, most of the planet has been obliterated.  One American submarine has escaped the holocaust and it pops up at the only land mass that has so far been spared– Australia.   Ironically, the submarine is powered by nuclear energy.  A radioactive cloud is making its way south, slowly.  No one knows for sure when it will arrive, but the continent of Australia is doomed.

The film was based on a book by the English/Australian author- Nevil Shute (Norway).  He was an aeronautical engineer and best-selling writer of pot boilers such as “A Town Like Alice.”   He was a lot better at working out the scientific details than coming up with a solid through-line for his characters.  Gregory Peck (the commander of the the sub), is given the curious task of testing a scientific theory about radioactivity in the arctic and investigating a mysterious signal emanating from San Diego.  The rest is soap opera with a very bitter twist.  It is the end of the world, after all.

Anthony Perkins plays Peck’s Australian subordinate.  He provides the American with an introduction to the “locals,” all played by Hollywood actors, of course– Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Donna Anderson.  Astaire is a revelation in this role.  He is a cynical, suicidal scientist who has the unenviable task of explaining to his fellows why defense department “eggheads” accepted ” the idiotic premise that peace could be maintained by organizing to defend themselves with weapons they couldn’t possibly use without committing suicide.”

In typical Hollywood tradition, there is a love story.  The way this was handled by Kramer’s screenwriter apparently incensed Shute.  In the movie, Peck’s wife is dead, of course, and he simply can’t face that fact.  Ava plays a woman who has chosen alcohol over happiness, and she sees in him a last chance at redemption.  The consummation of their affair is only implied in the film, but it was enough to create a serious rift between the director and the writer.  Peck thought it wrong for his character, too, but he was not going to do battle with his producer/director over it.  The actor simply wanted to get the movie’s message across to as many people as possible.

What is absolutely impossible to comprehend now is how Stanley Kramer managed to convince United Artists that they had to make a movie about the end of the world.  Maybe it is all in the book by Philip Davey, a local author who grew up in Melbourne and wrote a book about the production from which I have taken the title of this post.  You can order it directly from him.

The famous quote attributed to Ava Gardner about Melbourne being the “ideal place to make a film about the end of the world” was fabricated out of thin air by a frustrated journalist from Sydney.  Exasperated at being denied an interview with the Hollywood star, Neil Jillet invented the quote as a joke.  Considering the rivalry between the two cities, it was inspired, slighting both Melbourne and the the star’s standing in the City at the same time.

Gardner wasn’t thrilled with filming in Melbourne.  The townsfolk were smitten with the Hollywood celebrities and they made filming difficult.  And then, there were the flies, which threatened to ruin some of the lighter moments.  In Gardner’s words,  “And, naturally, we hit a heat wave when we were there, with temperatures regularly going over one hundred degrees. And I don’t have to be bashful about stating what every Aussie will agree to: that the drinking situation at that time was nearly as bad as it was back home during Prohibition. Joy left town every night at six P.M. sharp, as every pub on the continent closed. At restaurants, any wine you happened to be drinking with your meal was snatched from the table promptly at 9 P.M. and taken down and locked away with the rest of the forbidden fruit.

“As far as studio space went, Stanley also had to improvise. He got the use of the Royal Showgrounds, a massive establishment used most of the year for storing wool, of all things. His production office was in an auto showroom and his wardrobe department in a place that usually housed farm tools. None of the indoor facilities were properly soundproofed, and on days when things like Billy Graham revivals took place nearby, filming became awfully difficult.”

There are some odd anomalies in the movie.  The country is supposedly running out of petrol.  Ava comes to pick up Peck at the train station in a horse and buggy.  The street is crowded with bicycles and people on horseback commuting to work with briefcases.  But no one thinks twice about staging a huge car race, one of the set pieces of the film.  Some of the soap opera elements seem over the top now and “Waltzing Matilda” figures in a bit too insistently, but still….there are moments.

What haunted me from the first time I saw it was the cinematography.  Kramer hired Fellini’s director of photography to do the black and white shoot, and Rotunno certainly knew how to convey bleak.  When you’re feeling entirely too cheerful and need something to bring you down a bit, all right, quite a bit, put in your order on Quickflix or Netflix.  There’s one thing I can practically guarantee.  You won’t wait long.  It is far too frightening for the horror film fans.

Check it out.

On the Beach