John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Film/TV
Stanley Kramer's On the Beach (1959) is a film about humankind learning to accept, with some measure of grace, the end of everything. In this grim adaptation of Nevil Shute's 1957 novel about nuclear war and aftermath, radioactive dust is systematically ending all human life on Earth. There are no places to hide, no higher forces to appeal to, and no do-overs. This is a world without hope, but in the final analysis, one not without some measure of dignity.
That's cold comfort, however, given what mankind stands to lose.
And that's really what On the Beach proves such a wonderful reminder of: all those wondrous things about living on this beautiful green planet. Like being a father and a husband. Like falling in love. Choosing to live how you wish to live, and with whom. Getting drunk, even. All these human activities shall disappear forever, as the last survivors of humankind succumb to an atmosphere that he himself has poisoned.
As we see at point-blank range, and frequently in intense, emotional close-ups, the survivors wish for more time. They wish for a future. They desire a happy ending. They just want hope. But the movie's most effective and impressive point -- pushed quietly if deftly -- is that all those wishes died when the bombs fell. The time for good wishes would have been before man set about to annihilate his brothers.
One difficult-to-accept aspect of this, for the survivors, is that they didn't launch the war. They didn't press the red button. But they will die -- the human race itself, will die -- because someone else did. In a way, On the Beach concerns the ultimate form of tyranny: the recognition of the fact that a few old men, in seats of power around the world, could kill billions in an instant because of a simple difference in ideological beliefs. Individual liberty is nothing but a convenient illusion so long as nuclear weapons exist, because such weapons can destroy not just those deemed responsible for crimes, but whole populations; innocent and guilty alike.
Produced more than fifty years ago, On the Beach remains incredibly haunting today, almost paralyzing even, in its unblinking intensity. It's a serious, artfully-crafted piece of work, and it suggests something very important, as New York Times critic Bosley Crowther observed: "life is a beautiful treasure and man should do all he can to save it from annihilation, while there is still time."
Or, as the stirring, tragic final image of the film reminds those of us, explicitly, in the audience: "there is still time, brother." Time enough for man to avoid the mistakes we see played out so dramatically in this impressive and deeply sad post-apocalyptic effort.
We've successfully heeded that message for half-a-century since On the Beach, and for all our sakes, I hope we continue to do so. But On the Beach should be required viewing for every politician who takes an oath of office, the globe around, just to be certain. Read More