On the Beach is a 1959 American post-apocalyptic science fiction drama film from United Artists, produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, that stars Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins.
This black-and-white film is based on Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel of the same name depicting the aftermath of a nuclear war. Unlike in the novel, no one is assigned blame for starting the war; the film hints that global annihilation may have arisen from an accident or misjudgement.
On the Beach was remade in 2000 as an Australian television film.
In 1964, World War III devastated the Northern Hemisphere, killing all humans due to nuclear fallout. The only habitable areas are in the far reaches of the Southern Hemisphere, but air currents are slowly carrying the fallout south.
Australian survivors detect an incomprehensible Morse code signal coming from the West Coast of the United States. The American nuclear submarine USS Sawfish, now under Royal Australian Navy command, is ordered to sail north and locate the source of the signal. The submarine is commanded by Captain Dwight Towers, who leaves behind a new friend, Moira Davidson.
A scientific theory postulates the radiation levels near the Arctic Ocean are lower than the mid-Northern Hemisphere, possibly indicating the radiation could disperse before reaching the Southern Hemisphere. Arriving at Point Barrow, Alaska, the submarine discovers radiation levels are inexplicably intensifying.
Sawfish arrives in the San Francisco Bay area; the crew find a city devoid of any signs of life. Ralph Swain, a crewman with family in San Francisco, deserts the submarine and swims ashore. Scientist Julian Osborn informs Captain Towers Swain’s contact with the radioactive environment will quickly make it impossible for him to return without killing everyone aboard.
The next morning, through the periscope, Captain Towers observes Swain fishing in the bay. He apologises for deserting, explaining he preferred to die in his hometown. Towers understands, bids him farewell, and departs for San Diego.
Near San Diego, communications officer Lieutenant Sunderstrom goes ashore wearing radiation and oxygen gear to search for the source of the signals. He has just one hour, and is alerted by a Sawfish horn blast every 15 minutes… and must return immediately upon hearing the third horn blast. At an electric station running on automatic control, he finds the telegraph, and discovers a tilted soda-pop bottle hanging by its neck from an open window shade’s pull cord; random ocean breezes bump the bottle against the live telegraph key, sending out random signals. Sunderstrom uses Morse code to send a message, describing the bleak situation. Before returning to Sawfish, Sunderstrom shuts down the power station’s generators.
The Sawfish crew return to Australia to enjoy what pleasures remain. While reuniting with Moira at her father’s farm, Towers hears all US Navy personnel stationed at their base in Brisbane are dead. Towers is promoted to Admiral of the remaining US Navy personnel in Australia. Osborn wins the Australian Grand Prix in which many racers, with nothing left to lose, die in various crashes.
With the fishing season starting sooner than normal, Towers and Moira begin a fishing trip. At a country stream, drunken revellers surround them. From their resort room, they can hear more boozy fishermen singing a version of “Waltzing Matilda”. Towers and Moira share a romantic interlude, while outside a gathering storm howls. The fishermen sing a beautiful a Capella rendition of the song’s foreboding final verse.
Returning to Melbourne, Towers learns one of his crew has radiation sickness; the deadly radiation is arrived. Osborn closes himself in a sealed garage with his championship racing car, electing to die from carbon monoxide poisoning as he revs the engine. Others queue to receive suicide pills issued by the Australian government agents.
Towers wants to stay with Moira, but many of his remaining crew want to head for home to die in the US; he chooses his duty over his love for Moira, and joins his crew as they attempt to make it back to a radioactive America. Moira watches the Sawfish leave Australia, and submerge for the final voyage home.
Within a few days, the last pockets of humanity are dead. The empty windblown streets of Melbourne are punctuated by the rise of dramatic, strident music over a single powerful image of a previously seen Salvation Army street banner: “There is still time .. Brother”.
- Gregory Peck as Commander Dwight Lionel Towers, USS Sawfish.
- Ava Gardner as Moira Davidson, Towers’ Australian love interest.
- Fred Astaire as Julian Osborn, Australian scientist.
- Anthony Perkins as Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes, Royal Australian Navy.
- Donna Anderson as Mary Holmes, Peter’s wife.
- John Tate as Admiral Bridie, Royal Australian Navy.
- Harp McGuire as Lieutenant Sunderstrom (ashore in San Diego).
- Lola Brooks as Lieutenant Hosgood, Bridie’s secretary.
- Ken Wayne as Lieutenant Benson.
- Guy Doleman as Lieutenant Commander Farrel.
- Richard Meikle as Davis.
- John Meillon as Sawfish crewman Ralph Swain (ashore in San Francisco).
- Joe McCormick as Ackerman, radiation sickness victim.
- Lou Vernon as Bill Davidson, Moira’s father.
- Kevin Brennan as Dr. King, radiation diagnosis doctor.
- Keith Eden as Dr. Fletcher (beach scene).
- Basil Buller-Murphy as Sir Douglas Froude.
- Brian James as Royal Australian Navy officer.
- John Casson as Salvation Army captain.
- Paddy Moran as Stevens (club wine steward).
- Grant Taylor as Morgan (Holmes party).
- George Fairfax (Holmes party guest).
- Earl Francis (Holmes party guest).
- Pat Port (Runner on Beach).
- Cary Peck (Gregory Peck’s son, uncredited).
As in the novel, much of On the Beach takes place in Melbourne, close to the southernmost part of the Australian mainland. Principal photography took place from mid-January to 27 March 1959 in Australia. Beach scenes were filmed at the foreshore of Mount Eliza. The film was shot in part in Berwick, then a suburb outside Melbourne and part in Frankston, also a Melbourne suburb. The well-known scene where Peck meets Gardner, who arrives from Melbourne by rail, was filmed on platform #1 of Frankston railway station, now rebuilt, and a subsequent scene where Peck and Gardner are transported off by horse and buggy, was filmed in Young Street, Frankston. Some streets which were being built at the time in Berwick were named after people involved in the film. Two examples are Shute Avenue (Nevil Shute) and Kramer Drive (Stanley Kramer).
The “Australian Grand Prix” in the novel had the racing sequences filmed at Riverside Raceway in California and at Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit, home to the present-day Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix, conveniently located near Cowes at Phillip Island. These scenes include an array of late-1950s sports cars, including examples of the Jaguar XK150 and Jaguar D-Type, Porsche 356, Mercedes-Benz 300 SL “Gullwing”, AC Ace, Chevrolet Corvette and prominent in sequences was the “Chuck Porter Special”, a customized Mercedes 300SL. Built by Hollywood body shop owner Chuck Porter and driven by a list of notable 1950s to 1960s west-coast racers, including Ken Miles and Chuck Stevenson, who purchased and successfully raced it in the early 1960s.
The US Department of Defence refused to cooperate in the production of the film, not allowing access to its nuclear-powered submarines. The British submarine HMS Andrew was used to portray the fictional US Navy nuclear-powered submarine USS Sawfish. Additional resources were supplied by the Royal Australian Navy, including the use of the aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne.
It has often been claimed that Ava Gardner described Melbourne as “the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world.” However, the purported quote was actually invented by journalist Neil Jillett, who was writing for The Sydney Morning Herald at the time. His original draft of a tongue-in-cheek piece about the making of the film said that he had not been able to confirm a third-party report that Ava Gardner had made this remark. The newspaper’s sub-editor changed it to read as a direct quotation from Gardner. It was published in that form and entered Melbourne folklore very quickly.
Frank Chacksfield’s orchestral performance of the love theme from On the Beach was released as a single in 1960, reaching #47 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Differences Between the Novel and Film
Nevil Shute was displeased with the final cut of the film, feeling that too many changes had been made at the expense of the story’s integrity. After initial collaboration with Kramer, it was obvious that Shute’s concerns were not being addressed; subsequently, he provided minimal assistance to the production. Gregory Peck agreed with Shute but, in the end, producer/director Stanley Kramer’s ideas won out. Shute felt that Captain Towers and Moira having a love affair ruined a central element of the novel, that is, Towers’ fidelity to his long-dead American wife.
In the novel it has been two years since the last nuclear attacks, and small pockets of human survivors are mentioned in several areas of the Southern Hemisphere. Australia is in radio contact with places such as Montevideo, on the east coast of South America, and Cape Town, on the southern tip of Africa. Commander Towers is in communication with the only other remaining active-duty US Navy vessel, another nuclear submarine, USS Swordfish, on duty in the Atlantic, which, at the end, is based in Montevideo. Melbourne, where much of the novel is set, is the southernmost major city in the world. It will be the last such to die, but people in New Zealand, Tierra del Fuego and other, more southerly points than Australia, are said to have a few additional weeks left to them. In the film an unidentified radio newscaster says that, as far as is known, Australia is home to the last human life on the planet. This to possibly build hope that the San Francisco expedition will result in the discovery of other survivors, adding a sense of urgency and importance to Melbourne’s survivors.
In the novel there is no USS Swordfish, only the submarine USS Scorpion. For the film, Scorpion is renamed Sawfish, and the sub comes to represent the last (known) hope for humanity. The film’s production crew was forced to use a non-nuclear, diesel-electric Royal Navy submarine, HMS Andrew, as a stand-in for the nuclear-powered Sawfish.
Several major and minor characters were altered, removed, or created specifically for the film adaptation. The novel’s Moira Davidson, a slender, petite pale blonde in her mid-twenties, was portrayed by the tall, curvaceous, 36-year-old brunette Ava Gardner. Nuclear scientist John Osborne, a 20-something bachelor in the novel, is portrayed in the film by 60-year-old Fred Astaire and is named Julian Osborn. Moira and John are cousins in the novel, while Moira and Julian are former lovers in the film.
Admiral Bridie and his secretary, Lieutenant Hosgood, are film characters not in the novel.
In the film random Morse code radio signals coming from San Diego give rise to hope that there are survivors on the US west coast. In the novel the signals are coming from a naval training base farther north, near Seattle. The idea of a survivor sending random signals is forthrightly dismissed in the novel as ridiculous. Towers says that even someone who did not know Morse code would sit there with a Morse book and send at about five words per minute. The film’s characters, however, hold out hope that there could be a person on the other end of the telegraph (this is possibly used as a plot device to build suspense and hope). The main reason in the novel for the expedition is to learn if there are indeed survivors. Rather than a telegraph operator, the characters hold out hope that, without the intercession of technicians and maintenance workers, the possibility of telegraph power being supplied after all that time would be remote at best. It turns out that, as in the film, the power station has been running on its own since the war, but it is beginning to break down from lack of maintenance, particularly the lubrication needed to prevent overheating. Just as in the film, the power station is shut down before the submarine sails for home.
During Lieutenant Sunderstrom’s search in the film for the signals’ author, he is given just one hour, while in the novel, he is given two hours to find the source. Just like the novel, Sunderstrom’s radiation suit doesn’t have a wrist watch to help him keep track of his time ashore, so the submarine crew alerts him with horn blasts every quarter of an hour. In the film, a single horn blast was given every fifteen minutes, and Sunderstrom is ordered to return immediately after hearing the third blast. In the novel, the submarine crew gives one horn blast for a quarter of an hour, two for half an hour, three for three quarters, and four for a whole hour. He is ordered to stop what he’s doing at five horn blasts (1 1/4 hours) and return at six horn blasts (1 1/2 hours). In the novel, Sunderstrom finds several bodies during his search, while in the film, there are no dead bodies at the power station. While Sunderstrom finds the source of the signals, he discovers in the novel that it’s a window shade cord caught on a telegraph key. In the film he finds it’s an overturned Coke bottle snagged in a window shade cord above the telegraph key. Ocean breezes, in both cases, are blowing through an open window making the window shade disturb the telegraph key. Sunderstrom sends a proper Morse message to describe how they have travelled all that way for nothing. In both the novel and the film, while Sunderstrom receives his return orders, the captain also warns him not to bring any souvenirs aboard, as they could be contaminated with radioactivity. In the novel, after Sunderstrom shuts off the power station, he explores a bit and defies his orders by bringing aboard three of the last printed issues of the Saturday Evening Post, so he catches up on a serial that was running when the war started. In the film, after Sunderstrom sends his message, he follows Tower’s orders to not bring aboard any souvenirs and is already en route to Sawfish when he hears the final horn blast.
In the film San Francisco’s buildings are completely undamaged, with one memorable shot occurring when Sawfish first passes under the intact Golden Gate Bridge. In the novel the city has been largely destroyed and the bridge has fallen into the bay.
In the novel the northernmost point of the submarine’s journey is the Gulf of Alaska, while the film uses Point Barrow.
Towers and Moira attend the Australian Grand Prix in the film. In the novel, they are vacationing in the mountains on the day of the race, and they hear a radio report of John Osborne’s first-place finish.
The novel ends with a dying Moira sitting in her car, having taken her suicide pills, while watching Scorpion head out to sea to be scuttled. Unlike the novel, no mention of scuttling the submarine is made in the film. Instead, Commander Towers’s crew asks that he attempt to take them back to the US, where they can die on their home soil. Although he realises that they probably will not survive a second passage north, he does as they request. In the film Ava Gardner is merely watching the submarine submerge and disappear beneath the sea and is not shown taking her suicide pills.
On the Beach premiered simultaneously in 18 theatres on all seven continents on 17 December 1959. The Hollywood premiere was attended by the film’s stars, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins, director Stanley Kramer, in addition to other celebrities, including Cary Grant. The New York premiere was attended by Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr.. The London premiere was attended by Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom Yakov Malik. Star Ava Gardner attended the Rome premiere. The Tokyo premiere was attended by members of the Japanese Imperial Family. The Stockholm premiere was attended by King Gustav VI Adolf. The Melbourne premiere was attended by Premier of Victoria Henry Bolte. Other premieres were held in West Berlin, Caracas, Chicago, Johannesburg, Lima, Paris, Toronto, Washington, D.C. and Zurich. The film was even screened in a theatre at the Little America base in Antarctica.
Although the film did not receive a commercial release in the Soviet Union, a special premiere was unprecedentedly arranged for that night in Moscow. Gregory Peck and his wife travelled to Russia for the screening, which was held at a workers’ club, with 1,200 Soviet dignitaries, the foreign press corps, and diplomats including US Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson attending.
On the Beach recorded a loss of $700,000. Despite this, the film was praised in its day and in later years. It also acquired a fan base that agreed on many of the issues presented.
Stanley Kramer won the 1960 BAFTA for best director and Ernest Gold won the 1960 Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Score. It was also nominated for Academy Awards in two categories:
- Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture: Ernest Gold (Nominated).
- Best Film Editing: Frederic Knudtson (Nominated).
On the Beach was remade in 2000 as an Australian television film by Southern Star Productions, directed by Russell Mulcahy and starring Armand Assante, Bryan Brown, and Rachel Ward. It was originally aired on Showtime. The remake of the 1959 film was also based on the 1957 novel by Nevil Shute, but updates the setting of the story to the film’s then-future of 2005, starting with placing the crew on the fictional Los Angeles-class USS Charleston (SSN-704) submarine and also changing the final actions of Towers.
The 2013 documentary Fallout by Melbourne filmmaker Lawrence Johnston explores Shute’s life and Kramer’s making of On the Beach, with interviews of Shute’s daughter, Kramer’s wife, Karen, and Donna Anderson, one of the film’s last surviving cast members. Fallout was produced by Peter Kaufmann.
- The movie was filmed in 1959. For one year (04 July 1959 to 04 July 1960) the US flag had 49 stars.
- In the opening scene a 49-star flag can be seen flying from the submarine.
- The movie was shot in part in Berwick, a (then) small town in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia.
- Some streets which were being established during this time were named after people involved in the film. Some examples are: Gardner Street (Ava Gardner), Shute Avenue (Nevil Shute) and Kramer Drive (Stanley Kramer).
- This was Hollywood’s first large-scale film to address the possibility of nuclear Armageddon.
- It was the first time an American film had had a premiere in the Soviet Union.
- For the final scene, director Stanley Kramer asked the population of the city to stay at home, so that the streets remained deserted.
- Kramer used radio and newspaper nets to get this request out.
- The movie is set in 1964.
- This is not a random year in the future.
- In 1914 WWI started, and after 25 years, in 1939, WWII started.
- If you add 1939 and 25 you get 1964.
Production & Filming Details
- Stanley Kramer.
- Stanley Kramer … producer.
- John Paxton (screenplay).
- Nevil Shute (novel).
- Ernest Gold.
- Giuseppe Rotunno.
- Frederic Knudtson.
- Stanley Kramer Productions (presents) (as Stanley Kramer).
- Lomitas Productions (as Lomitas Productions, Inc.).
- United Artists (1959) (USA) (theatrical).
- Kommunenes Filmcentral (KF) (1959) (Norway) (theatrical).
- United Artists (1959) (UK) (theatrical).
- United Artists (1959) (Sweden) (theatrical).
- United Artists (1959) (West Germany) (theatrical).
- United Artists (1960) (Argentina) (theatrical) (as Artistas Unidos).
- American Broadcasting Company (ABC) (1963) (USA) (TV).
- 20th Century Fox Video (1982) (USA) (VHS).
- CBS/Fox (1983) (USA) (video) (laserdisc).
- CBS/Fox (1984) (USA) (VHS) (For MGM/UA Home Entertainment).
- MGM/UA Home Video (1990) (USA) (VHS).
- Warner Home Video (1991) (USA) (VHS).
- Image Entertainment (1993) (USA) (video) (laserdisc).
- MGM/UA Home Entertainment (1996) (USA) (VHS).
- MGM Home Entertainment (2000) (USA) (DVD).
- MGM Home Entertainment (2001) (USA) (VHS).
- MGM Home Entertainment (2004) (Germany) (DVD).
- Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment (2005) (Netherlands) (DVD).
- Epoca (Argentina) (VHS).
- HanseSound (2019) (Germany) (DVD) (and Blu-ray).
- Kino Lorber (USA) (DVD) (dvdr).
- Studio Hamburg Enterprises (2019) (Germany) (DVD) (release through).
- Release Date: 17 December 1959 (Melbourne, Australia).
- Rating: A.
- Running Time: 134 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.