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Thursday, May 27, 2021

May 27, 2021: American Beaches: On the Beach

[The approach to Memorial Day weekend means many things—some of them far more serious, as I’ll get to in next week’s series—but one of them is most definitely the beach. Whatever this summer looks like for all of us, I sure hope it can include some beach trips, so to prime that pump here’s a series on the histories and stories of American beaches!]

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 lead 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 BeachStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other beach histories or stories you’d highlight?

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