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On the Beach
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ON THE BEACH
!!!THE SCIENCE MOMENT!!!
ON THE BEACH - 1959
Stanley Kramer Productions, United Artists
Rating: No Rating

Want to see a magic trick? This is a pretty cool trick - it's almost alchemy! But instead of transforming lead into gold, I'm going to transform an anti-war movie into a pro-war movie. Ready? Here we go!

ON THE BEACH was directed by Stanley Kramer and written by John Paxton (INTERPOL), based on the novel by Nevil Shute. It opens aboard an American nuclear submarine captained by Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck: THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL). The sub surfaces as it's coming in to port in Australia. A lighthouse operator watches the sub go by and we hear on his radio that the "atomic war" is over and that no human life is believed to remain anywhere except Australia. The announcer also says no one knows yet when the radiation will arrive down under.

We cut to a jarringly calm family scene (given what we just heard about the bulk of humanity) as Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins: PSYCHO, FFOLKES, THE BLACK HOLE, PSYCHO II, PYSHCO III, DESTROYER, EDGE OF SANITY) prepares a bottle for his baby daughter. His lovely wife Mary (Donna Anderson) reminds him that he'll be late to meet the Admiral (Peter is in the Australian Navy) so off he goes. A calendar on the wall tells us this is January, 1964, five years in the future from the point of view of the moviemakers.

Peter arrives at Admiral Bridie's (John Tate: THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS) office and is informed about the arrival of the American submarine. He's assigned as the Australian liaison to the Americans, who are about to take a trip into the northern hemisphere to see just how bad the radiation is.

Peter's biggest concern is getting back to be with his wife and daughter before "it" gets here; "it" being the fallout that has already rendered most of the Earth uninhabitable. Australia has not been spared – they just have more time. The Admiral tells Peter that 5 months is the current estimate.

Peter introduces himself to Dwight, commander of the U.S.S. Swordfish, and invites him to a party. The get together at Peter's house makes Mary nervous, especially when she hears Dwight has (or rather, had) a wife and two kids in Connecticut. She is in denial about the world situation and doesn't want anyone talking about it at the party. Mary is terrified that Dwight will break down at the mention of his family.

Dwight holds it together and has a pretty good time, especially when he's introduced to fun alcoholic Moira (Ava Gardner: THE CASSANDRA CROSSING). The real troublemaker is scientist Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire: GHOST STORY) who ignores the ban on conversational topics and tells everyone that they're doomed. "The background radiation in this room is already nine times what it should be!" he says, sending Mary crying to her bedroom.

I never thought of Fred Astaire as a dramatic actor (most of his credits are for musicals) but this performance changed my mind. He's excellent as the sad and guilt-ridden scientist who feels at least a little responsible for the end of mankind. Being a scientist, he's frequently asked questions like "Who started it?" he never answers that one, blaming the destruction of civilization on "vacuum tubes and transistors."

The sub heads north and Julian is brought along as a science advisor. There is some hope that rain and snow in the northern hemisphere has cleaned out enough of the fallout that Australia may survive, but a single reading taken near Alaska dashes that hope. The air is quite deadly. All of humanity is doomed.

The sub heads back to Australia, but makes a couple stops along the way, including a cruise into San Francisco Bay. It's rumored that the film makers paid the guards on the Golden Gate bridge $500 to block traffic long enough so they could get a shot of the bridge empty. We see many shots of empty streets visible through the sub's periscope. The crew speculates that the lack of visible corpses is because people sickened by radiation would have mostly died at home, in bed.

Is this what the aftermath of WWIII would really be like? The only way to answer that is with a

!!!SCIENCE MOMENT!!!:
The short answer is no. Even if WWIII had happened in the 80's (before the Soviet attempt to match our Star Wars spending caused their collapse), the resulting fallout from a massive exchange (with thousands more nukes than they had in the 60's) would not have rendered the entire world uninhabitable as portrayed in the movie. Fallout is radioactive dust created from debris sucked up into the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion that gradually "falls out" of the atmosphere, covering the ground like deadly snow. Airbursts (nukes detonated in the air above their targets) produce almost no fallout. And just how deadly fallout is depends on the radioactive isotopes they contain are. Even for an all out nuclear exchange, it would be possible to survive in a basement shelter as long as you had 3 or 4 months of supplies (that sounds like a lot but if it was mostly dehydrated food it really wouldn't take up much room). After that the fallout would have decayed enough that it'd be safe to go outside again. So given that people in Australia had 5 months or more to prepare it would have been perfectly possible to survive.

But there is one other scenario.

Continued at SCIENCE MOMENT/OnTheBeach.

This still doesn't necessarily mean the end of mankind as portrayed in the movie, though. Shelters are much more difficult but not impossible. In the time they had left they could have built a well stocked underground shelter (perhaps with a nuclear reactor for power) and put enough people in it so that in 100 years or so when it was safe to come out they could have re-populated the Earth. The movie purposely overlooks this idea because it wants to send a message of hopelessness and doom regarding war. It does this very well and the ending is sad and disturbing, as intended.

And now for my magic trick: The anti-war message of the movie is a product of its era. A massive nuclear war seemed imminent to many people at the time and there was a great desire to avoid war at any cost. We live in a very different world since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. Russia still has lots of nukes (although it's doubtful that most of them work – nukes require maintenance and Russia is basically a big third world country) but we get along well. The massive exchange scenario is unlikely and most people don't worry about it. Our big worry these days is nuclear proliferation. Megalomaniac thugs like Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Kim Jong Il in North Korea desperately want the power and imagined invulnerability that goes along with being a member of the nuclear club.

Most Americans are lukewarm when it comes to going to war with Iraq (and maybe North Korea) to prevent them from having nukes. Some on the far left even argue that since we have nukes, who are we to tell another sovereign nation that they cannot? Even if Saddam had nukes, they say, surely he'd never use them on us. He'd have to be crazy!

Then they realize what they've just said and are quiet for a while.

My point is that allowing a crazy dictator to possess nuclear weapons isn't just bad policy and doesn't just run the risk of nuclear terrorism; it runs the risk of the extinction of humanity. If you can build fission bombs, then it's not a big leap to build fusion bombs and if you can build fusion ("H") bombs, you can build cobalt bombs and if you can build cobalt bombs you can make ON THE BEACH a true story. We must do anything, including war, to stop that from happening.

ON THE BEACH is a good story and still a meaningful one. I give it four shriek girls.

Shriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek Girls
This review copyright 2003 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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