Retro SciFi Film of the Week…
On the Beach (1959)
Just a happy-go-lucky nuclear Armageddon film…
Three years before the Cuban Missile Crisis and about a decade and a half after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this film presented its story about the aftermath of global nuclear war. There were a couple of other movies made earlier in the 50s about nuclear war, and of course all those goofy scifi’s about giant insects, but this was the first major film. It starred Gregory Peck, Eva Gardner, Anthony Hopkins, and Fred Astaire, who were all big movie stars at the time. It was kind of a big deal when it came out.
News coverage of the bombings of Japan were highly censored as to the most gruesome parts of the bombings. Film and photographs produced immediately after the bombings by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey were classified until the late 60s, so although people had heard about radiation burns and radiation sickness, most people had not seen any graphic images.
The US didn't want people to understand just how horrible those bombings were, but they wanted to inform people about the possibility of all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union, which, with certain types of thermonuclear weapons, had the potential to kill most or all of the world’s population.
The result was this film, On the Beach (1959) which showed no dead bodies at all, it showed no destruction, no burned and leveled buildings, nothing. There's only one guy in the film who was shown to be sick in the entire movie and he was smiling or flirting with the nurse throughout the 45 seconds that he was on the screen. Everyone was almost always shown with smiling faces and having fun and the score was upbeat or silly most of time.
I think if you changed about a half dozen lines in the film, removed five minutes of the guy walking around in a hazmat suit, and adjusted a minute or two of score, people would think it was a romantic drama.
Contrast this with the TV movie The Day After (1983), which was released 24 years later, which showed shocking graphic images of just how horrible nuclear war could be.
The clips from the film that I’ve attached to this toot show just a few of the many upbeat scenes from the film. All the characters in the film knew from the beginning that a nuclear war had happened and that the deadly radiation was heading to where they were in Australia, but they just acted happy and didn’t appear to care at all. Very weird.
(fair use video clips)
Sorry, I messed up the aspect ratio on this video and cut off a little bit on the bottom.
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accessible video description:
Video opens with a submarine in the ocean with a number on the side that says 623, then a man in a lighthouse makes a phone call as a radio announcer talks about the nuclear war, then it shows a man and a woman on a bed talking, then it shows two military guys talking about a country club, then people on a beach where a man flicks a woman in the butt with a towel, then it shows Peck and Gardner talking and smiling, then sailors ogling at a pretty woman (Gardner) as she walks near their ship, then people dancing, then Peck and Gardner walking as she talks, then a bucolic scene of a horse in a field as the horse does a trick for a sugar cube, then a guy pretending to be sick lying in bed smiling and flirting with the male nurse with Peck and Dr. King giving him false hope, finally the closing title over an image of the same submarine moving on the surface of the ocean.
Spoilers: On the Beach, Twilight Zone, Patsplaining
***** Spoilers *****
On the Beach and Twilight Zone...
The acting in this film, On the Beach (1959), was superb. Everyone gave great performances, with this dialogue that was very difficult. Fred Astaire, whom I didn't include in the trailer, was known for his dancing but in this film confirmed his acting talent. He was one of the greatest dancers on the big screen, perhaps second only to Ginger Rogers, who could dance as well as Fred Astaire, except backwards and in high heels.
Ironically, all of the actors in the film have died except for Donna Anderson, who played Mary Holmes (the one who got hit with the towel on the beach). She's the sole survivor.
In the film, which takes place after World War III, it's presumed that everybody is dead from radiation poisoning except for the people who live in Australia, and that there's intense radiation fallout in the upper atmosphere that is circling the globe and slowly making its way to the southern hemisphere to eventually wipe out all of humanity.
In actuality, fallout in the upper atmosphere from thermonuclear weapons would have a short half-life and within five months would not likely be producing enough radiation to cause acute radiation poisoning, although it would increase the cancer rate. However, a salted thermonuclear weapon could be produced with fallout that has a longer half-life. In this story I think it was a cobalt bomb, but such weapons have not ever been produced.
I mentioned that this was the first major film about nuclear armageddon but there was a Twilight Zone episode about a nuclear apocalypse that came out just one month before this film was released. That Twilight Zone episode was titled “Time Enough at Last”. It’s a very well-known episode about a bookworm who works at a bank and ends up accidentally surviving World War III while seeking solitude during his lunch break in the bank vault. That Twilight Zone episode starred Burgess Meredith.
Several other TZ episodes had themes about nuclear annihilation.
In a previous Retro SciFi of the Week for the movie Her (https://qoto.org/@Pat/110317806170452959) I mentioned a technique that pro-racist Hollywood uses to marginalize black people. That technique is to only show black people at the beginning (or end) of a film, which is what that film did.
Well in this film, On The Beach, they did it too. There is only one black actor in the movie, an extra, who appears in the beginning of the film on the submarine, but he is not shown in the movie again (even though he is a member of the submarine crew!) This situation is quite different, however, from the movie Her because in the 1950s black people were almost always excluded from mainstream Hollywood movies. Intentionally excluding black people in movies in the 21st century is not acceptable.
In that other review for Her I guessed that that technique of only putting black people at the beginning of a movie was used at least since the 1980s, but here is evidence that it started much earlier -- at least since 1959.
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