On the intense and tragic film that couldn’t compete with historic fears.
1959, the same year as the original Gidget movie about which I blogged yesterday, also saw the release of a very, very different beach film: On the Beach. Based on British-Australian writer Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel, the film featured an all-star cast (including Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire) as the sailors, scientists, and their friends and loved ones dealing with a post-apocalyptic world. It’s 1964, World War III has taken place, and the resulting radiation is slowly taking over the world and destroying its remaining inhabitants. Mostly set on or around Peck’s submarine, the film uses that setting to create a broadly claustrophobic tone, portraying a world in which likely slow death by radiation poisoning or the humane but absolute alternative of suicide pills seem to be the only possible futures. It’s unrelenting and uncompromising, and deserves to be much better remembered than it is.
While that’s true of the film on its own artistic merits, it’s even more true in terms of what the film reveals about the Cold War’s threats and fears. When I think of World War III scenarios in popular films, I tend to think of over-the-top dramatics of one kind or another: the ridiculous satire of Dr. Strangelove (1964); the teenage humor and heroics of War Games (1983) and The Manhattan Project (1986); the flag-waving jingoism of Red Dawn (1984). All of those films can illustrate certain important aspects of the period, but all feel, again, exaggerated in one way or another, extreme in both their plots and tones. Whereas On the Beach, to this AmericanStudier at least, feels profoundly grounded, offers a socially and psychologically realistic depiction not just of the potential aftermath of a nuclear war, but also and even more tellingly of the period’s collective fears about what such a war would mean and do. Seeing [SPOILER ALERT] Fred Astaire kill himself rather than face imminent radiation poisoning—well, that feels deeply representative of the moment’s worst fears.
You’d think that such fears might have led to more widespread opposition to the Cold War’s arms race and military industrial complex—and indeed the U.S. military must have thought so too, as they denied the filmmakers permission to use a submarine or any other official materials. But I would argue that whatever possible influence such fears might have had was far outweighed by a different set of fears, ones exemplified by October 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis: fears not of nuclear war and its aftermath per se, but rather of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, and what would happen if America’s did not match and even exceed that opposing threat. Whereas On the Beach portrayed the horrific results of a nuclear war, the Missile Crisis reflected and amplified fears that the U.S. was potentially unprepared for such a war, one that our enemy was willing and able to bring to our very doorstep. Perhaps no film, not even one as compelling and convincing as On the Beach, could compete with such historic threats—and so the arms race and the Cold War only deepened in the 1960s and beyond.
Last beach context tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think?
I taught _On The Beach_ this past school year for the first time. The students didn't really like it because it's a very un-American post-apocalyptic story. There are no zombies, there are no riots or hoarding (well a little on gas but that never leads to violence) and there's no intense last gasp of breath at the end. In a way it's a great deal like _The Road_ but no where near as stark.ReplyDelete
After getting through the book, which I loved, I asked the students why they really hated it so much. They found it entirely unrealistic. And so I asked them to write about it. The answers I got back were amazing and really upsetting. According to my students that while facing death people will resort to their worst, basest, selves. That we will devolve into a group of blood-thirsty flesh-eating rapists who travel in packs devouring each other. That we, as a species, would never face the end with dignity or peace. I think there's an age gap when reading this book. I'm old, they are young. I think Red Dawn is fun and silly, and each summer I watch it in my backyard and have great time enjoying it in an ironic sense. They honestly believe that North Korea invading is a potentiality, even after the countless documentaries that I try to use to education that NK couldn't invade a tacobell in Rhode Island. (I actually only watch the original... I'm old!)
I like the idea that when death comes we face it with quiet dignity and respect. That we go out doing the things we love. Dwight and his men choose to die aboard their ship with the intention of getting as close to US as possible; Peter decides to die with his wife and baby even though he was in a stage of false-recovery; Moira dies waiting for Dwight; Osborne, failing to die in a smash-up commits suicide in his race car. My students, youth, couldn't get past the "there's no point in fighting" mentality. I might be morbid but the book was actually very comforting in it's approach to death. I don't have to run and hide; there are no zombies or cannibals. I can just commune with the people I care about and focus on building better relationships, and in Obsorne's case, commit to doing something that I've wanted to.
I hope when I it's my time I'm sitting on the back porch drinking my own brewed hard cider, watching LOTR and watching my cat chase birds. And if not... AVENGE ME!!!
Because, get it, that's the line that dad said from Red Dawn... yeah I'm old.
Really interesting to hear about those student responses, AnneMarie. Given how much more possible/seemingly imminent the apocalypse was in the late 1950s than it is in our current moment, it's fair to say that we have pretty different cultural takes on such an event.ReplyDelete