Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Movie of the Week - On The Beach

There's nothing in the theater we want to see this week so I got some videos from the library. One was this classic from 1959.I last saw this movie when I was in 4th or 5th grade. That would have been in the early 1960s, probably in 1964, the year in which the movie is set. I was 12 years old. The Cold War was very much a reality and we were having air raid drills in grade school where we huddled under our desks waiting of the all clear siren. I didn't remember much about the movie beyond that it scared the crap out of me.

Major spoilers ahead.

The premise of the movie is simple. Captain Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) of the US nuclear submarine Swordfish is stationed in Melbourne Australia. As the movie opens, the Swordfish is returning after a reconnaissance mission. Why is the boat stationed in Australia? Because the rest of the world has been destroyed by a nuclear war. The Swordfish was out in the Pacific when the war broke out and was over before it could even get in the game.

This is basically a story of people going through the motions as they wait to die. They know that a cloud of radioactivity is heading their way. The story follows Towers as he slowly comes to grip with the fact that his family back in Connecticut really is dead and takes what short term comfort there is in the arms of Moria Davidson (Ava Gardiner). We also follow Lt. Peter Holmes (Tony Perkins), who is assigned to the Swordfish for one final mission, and his wife Mary and their baby. Mary cannot accept the coming doom and sinks into catatonia. One other major character is Julian Osbourn (Fred Astaire), a scientist who once worked on nuclear weapons. He also joins the Swordfish's last cruise to take atmosphere readings of radioactivity, readings that confirm Australia's doom. In his spare time he is rebuilding a Farrari, to drive in the last auto race in history.

It is doubtful that such a movie could be made today, even forgetting about the subject matter. The movie is driven by plot and dialogue. There is almost no action beyond the automobile race, where cars are crashing left and right while Osbourn, with grim determination, drives through the madness to win the race. It is also, at 2 hours and 14 minutes, a pretty long movie. There are not even any scenes of destruction. As the Swordfish sails into San Francisco Bay, the city is intact, no fires, no wrecked buildings. Just eerily empty.

Stanley Kubrick directed and does a great job of involving the audience in the story of the characters. I think, that ultimately, that's what scared me about this movie as a 12-year-old. As an adult, I still found it moving and terribly sad. You come to care about these characters, feel their despair, their courage, and then they all die. Osbourn goes out in his sealed up garage, with the Farrari engine running. Peter and Mary (in one last bout of clarity) take the suicide pills provided by the government. Moria stands on the beach as the Swordfish, commanded by Captain Towers, leaves the harbor to try to return to their home base in Connecticut, even though it is unlikely they will make it.

The last scene of the movie takes us back to a revival meeting where a large banner which reads "There is still time Brother" hangs over the meeting place. The first few times we see this, we understand it to mean that there is still time to repent your sins because doomsday, although close, hasn't happened yet. The final scene shows the area empty of people, trash blowing around, and the sign now is a message to the audience that the world doesn't have to end like this. It's a bit corny, perhaps even heavy handed but in 1959 many people believed that world could (maybe even would) come to an end this way.

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