A worldly, dark-haired, and attractive woman is sent to pick up a tall handsome stranger arriving by train. They meet cute and flirt lightly back and forth before climbing together into her horse-drawn buggy. With a crack of her whip, they take off on their way to his destination in this strange land. The woman is the beguiling Ava Gardner, and the man is the incomparable Gregory Peck. However, despite the description the movie is not a Western, but rather Stanley Kramer’s beautiful and heartbreaking melodrama about the last months of the last survivors of World War III, “On the Beach” (1959), featured this September on MGM HD.
Based on Neville Shute’s novel, “On the Beach” is a cautionary tale of dangers of full-scale atomic war. Southern Australia, where the movie was set and filmed, is one of the few places untouched by a global nuclear war that has left no survivors in the Northern hemisphere. Peck plays American Naval Commander Dwight Towers, who has navigated his submarine to Melbourne for shelter and to offer whatever help he can. It turns out there’s not much to do but wait until air currents that will bring the nuclear fallout south. If this sounds serious it’s because it is, but that doesn’t mean the movie is altogether grim. “On the Beach” is a global drama told on a human scale with complex characters and a sense of compassion.
With their days numbered, Gardner and Peck’s characters embark on an ill-fated affair. This relationship is as realistic and heartfelt a depiction of adult romance as any captured on film. Both actors exude movie-star charm, but they also convey a sadness that makes their every moment together more meaningful. The supporting cast is outstanding as well. Anthony Perkins plays Lt. Pete Holmes with his usual intelligence and underplayed emotion as a young husband trying to persevere. Movie legend Fred Astaire, in a rare non-dancing part, brings a sophistication to his role as the scientist Julian Osborne.
What makes “On the Beach” memorable are the moments it captures on film as these doomed characters grab and hold onto the life they know won’t last. A montage, set to “Waltzing Matilda,” chronicles the Peck and Gardner’s attempt at a romantic getaway that cleverly depicts the entire arc of a courtship with both humor and melancholy. There’s a go-for-broke car race, featuring Fred Astaire’s Osborne and his prize Ferrari, that achieves a kind of beauty as the drivers strive to achieve escape velocity.
“On the Beach” has its share of genuine emotion, wit, and sly humor. Director Stanley Kramer was a politically minded filmmaker who often made “message films” including “The Defiant Ones” (1958), “Inherit the Wind” (1960) and “Judgement at Nuremberg” (1961), but he also made “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963) – all of which can be found in the MGM vault. Besides its obvious anti-war message, “On the Beach” is also, surprisingly, a celebration of life.
Watch “On the Beach” featured this October on MGM HD.