Classic Film Review: The Saddest Movie Ever Made? “On the Beach” (1959)

Most every cinema culture has produced movies guaranteed to make you cry — films about untimely death, a life that shrinks in old age, small tragedies and ones as great as the Holocaust.

But for sheer sadness, the deflating gloom of doom, you couldn’t beat “On the Beach” in 1959 and I dare say it’s never been topped since.

Whatever jauntiness enveloped the admittedly grim (when you think about it) Australian lament “Waltzing Matilda” pretty much vanishes for life once you’ve heard it as a funereal “dirge/waltz” in Stanley Kramer’s anti-nuclear war epic.

Whatever romance your inner survivalist sees in “last woman/man on Earth” fantasies withers into resignation.

Whatever parties Prince later suggested we throw in “1999” seem like gaiety through gritted teeth in this depiction of The End is Nigh.

Kramer, a socially-conscious filmmaker who pointed his camera at racism (“The Defiant Ones”), liberals forced to walk the walk after talking the talk (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”), fundamentalist backwardness (“Inherit the Wind”) and staring down fascism and holding Nazis accountable (“Judgement at Nuremberg”) didn’t set out to depict nuclear war during the era it seemed closest to happening. He told a story set after the apocalypse, as civilization winds down and death from radiation faces the last survivors.

Gregory Peck plays an American submarine commander, Dwight Towers, who brought his U.S.S. Sawfish to Australia after life in the northern hemisphere was wiped out. American expats and Aussies collaborate professionally and socialize after hours in a mostly-joyless “Keep calm and carry on” tradition.

Towers isn’t in denial over losing his entire family in the war. But he’s not over it, no matter how he carries on with the Live-for-Today free spirit ex-pat Moira (Ava Gardner).

Lt. Holmes (Anthony Perkins) has no break from hard decisions when he’s ashore. He’s married, and his wife (Donna Anderson) and daughter are with him. Any mission could be his last, but he and his boat could return and re-surface on an Australia that has succumbed to the radiation cloud that is slowly making its way Down Under. He’s on the market for suicide pills, not for himself, but to leave with his wife.

The nuclear-powered Sawfish — actually an Australian submarine, as the U.S. Navy wanted no part of a movie that depicts a world ended by military miscalculation — sets out on a fool’s errand, tracing a mysterious radio signal from the U.S. west coast. If nothing else, at least the crew will get to say goodbye to their home country.

One of the best scenes in the film is man after man in the crew peering through the periscope eyepiece, snapping its training handles shut after gazing on what empty, depopulated San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge look like.

One sailor resolves to go AWOL and die “at home,” and the viewer, the crew and even the captain come to accept that decision, and in that order.

Fred Astaire, playing a scientist determined to do himself in on an auto racing track on land, is on board to study and measure what they find, and explain to the crew how this could have happened.

“The war started when people accepted the idiotic principle that peace could be maintained – – by arranging to defend themselves with weapons they couldn’t possibly use – – without committing suicide.”

Kramer was never considered a top tier filmmaker, but his conscientious treatment of the hot button subjects of his day set him apart, and damned if his visually conservative, well-cast but somewhat stodgy civics lessons don’t hold up today. Most of them, anyway.

Casting is the key to “On the Beach.” Actors are who make us sad and cause us to cry. Peck was all stiff upper lip by this stage of his career and God help him when he tried to soften that into a man wracked by grief. Astaire toned down the debonair devil-may-care persona he had aged out of, and Perkins was plausibly emotional, but in a most military, reserved way.

And that’s all by design. These aren’t just mortal men, they’re professionals and nobody on that boat of that era is going to let down his mates by breaking down. Even the guy who goes AWOL does it on the sly.

Ashore should be another matter. But anybody expecting big, moving breakdowns, even from Perkins, is expecting in vain.

It is Gardner who makes the picture and who breaks your heart. Pushing 40 when the film came out, a brassy, world-weary beauty playing a childless party girl in a world with no prospects for survival, much less a more adult and well-rounded life, her resignation becomes our resignation.

 “There isn’t time. No time to love… nothing to remember… nothing worth remembering.”

And hers is the iconic image of a movie that wasn’t the greatest film of its era or even its year, but one that went on to become one of the most influential movies ever made, and the saddest. Every nuclear apocalypse tale that followed owes everything to “On the Beach.” Every filmmaker attempting to tell such a story sets out in search of the crippling, all-consuming grief contained in a single image, a solitary woman staring out to sea as her man and his submarine sets off on one final futile mission from which there will be no return.

Rating: approved

Cast: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Tony Perkins, Fred Astaire, Donna Anderson, John Tate and Harper McGuire

Credits: Directed by Stanley Kramer, scripted by John Paxton and Nevil Shute. A

Running time: 2:14

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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