It was bound to happen. The East and West have a nuclear conflict of some sort. Deadly fallout is traveling around the globe, killing life as it goes. Australia is one of the last places alive, and time is running out.
An American submarine arrives in Melbourne, captained by Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), who picks up supplies and a junior officer, Lt Commander Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins), for a reconnaissance mission. Holmes’ marriage is unraveling as his wife Mary, a new mother, distressingly deals with the impending end of the world. Towers arrives and is taken under the wing of Holmes, who fixes him up with a woman, Moira (Ava Gardner), who has a reputation of being a drunk and a party girl, her way of dealing with what is left of life. Towers and Moira hit it off. Towers has lost his family, a wife and two kids in America, where there is no life.
Towers’ submarine has no home, neither does Towers, who still talks of his family as if they are alive. In the meantime, life goes on in Australia, but they are running out of fuel, so there are a lot of horses and bicycles being used. Coffee grounds are reused, but there is plenty of liquor, thankfully.
Fred Astaire plays Julian Osborn, an opinionated playboy, who has a sports car in his garage that he is repairing to drive, maybe his final drive. He is a scientist, and science has gotten them to the verge of destruction. He has been assigned to go on the mission.
Moira falls for Towers, she needs warmth and companionship, but he offers more than she is used to. She used to be in love with Julian, but he was like the others, and is more of a friend now. She cries about Towers, who is in love with a wife that no longer exists.
Towers’ submarine is sent as far north as possible to sample radiation, as they have no way of knowing how fast the fallout will arrive. Moira arrives at the submarine, in full view of all the sailors. She confesses that her job was to seduce him, but he was a gentleman and put her to bed, and went back to his ship.
The Australians have picked up a message from San Diego, some sort of Morse Code message that they can’t figure out. Towers’ submarine is sent there to investigate.
In the meantime, before they sail, Towers and Moira spend a lot of time together. They are behaving like two kids in love, but reality tends to creep in. They are trying to start something that has no future. He lives with the guilt that in a war, his family should have been safe, that he was vulnerable, not the other way around. Moira allows him to be vulnerable with her.
Holmes asks about the availability of pills that will be dispensed when people are dying of radiation. The government will provide them so people won’t suffer. Holmes keeps trying to get the pills before he goes on the submarine. He’s afraid he won’t be back in time and he doesn’t want Mary to suffer. He gets the pills and explains when to use them to his wife. She reacts badly when he tells her there is one for their daughter. She doesn’t want to believe the fallout will arrive.
On their mission, radiation is very high, higher than they expected. Then onward to San Francisco, before going to San Diego. There is no visible life in San Francisco. A sailor, who used to live in San Francisco, escapes from the submarine, he wants to go home. They have to let him go.
Astaire delivers a fine dramatic performance, a scientist who can’t come to grips with what is happening. He is asked to explain why a war happened, to provide logic to an unthinkable situation.
Arriving in the San Diego, they send a sailor into the city to investigate the radio message. The city is empty. At a power plant, he discovers the source of a message. A generator has been left on, and the radio is being activated by the wind and a window shade, with a Coke bottle activating the transmitter. No one is left.
Towers returns to Australia and Moira’s arms. He seems more content with the situation. Meanwhile Mary is growing more depressed. Julian has his sports car running now. He plans to enter a race, where he drives like there is no tomorrow, at least not many left, as fellow racers crash all around him, exploding in fire.
Towers is promoted to head all naval forces under the Australian command. The world is shrinking.
Australia’s trout season is normally later, but is moved up. Fishermen are out in force, as it will be the last time. It is more like a drunken party. Alone at the hotel, during a storm, Towers and Moira embrace with extreme passion.
One of Towers’ sailors is now sick. The government begins dispensing the pills. Towers allows his crew to decide what they want to do, they would like to head back to America. The radiation has reached Australia. People begin to settle their affairs. Mary is losing her grip. Julian kills himself by carbon monoxide poisoning by his sports car.
Holmes and Mary reminiscence about when they first met, it was on the beach. It was their beginning. She realizes they must use the pills.
Towers and Moira meet one last time, he tells her he is leaving. He chooses his duty over his own needs, even though he is sailing back to nothing. From the beach, she watches the submarine sail away.
On the Beach was based on a 1957 book by Nevil Shute, and adapted by John Paxton for the screen. Produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, the film received no assistance from the U.S. Navy, so the Australian Navy provided a diesel-powered submarine to stand in for a nuclear sub.
Kramer was generally known for socially conscious films like The Defiant Ones, Judgement at Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Ship of Fools. He also directed the farce, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
On the Beach lost money on release. Despite the very downbeat subject matter, it has powerful and thoughtful performances. It is beautifully photographed, especially the scenes with Peck and Gardner. They give off their own radiance. A doomed love affair, they made the most of their time, and yes, they spend multiple nights together. Shocking for 1959.
Great performances from Peck, and surprisingly, from Gardner who never really called herself an actress. She throws herself into a boozy, love-starved performance, her specialty. Fred Astaire, is a jaded and angry scientist, he doesn’t need to dance. Perkins gives a thoughtful performance, he doesn’t know how to take the sadness and fear from his wife. There are many fine character actors who play naval and local leaders, with their stoic resolve.
You won’t find this film unless you look for it. Waltzing Matilda says, see it.