On the Beach (1959): Stanley Kramer’s End of the World Tale, Starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner

Stanley Kramer produced and directed “On the Beach,” adapted to the screen by John Paxton and James Lee Barrett from a novel by Nevil Shute. 
On the Beach
Theatrical release poster by Nicola Simbari

This feature was one of Hollywood’s first “serious” efforts (read “message” movie) to deal with the Cold War and the threat of the end-of-the-world.  End result is an intelligent but high-minded film that is too verbose, replete with monologues and speeches, instead of genuinely structured dramatic scenes.


Set in Australia, in 1964, after a nuclear war has destructed life, the pessimistic (shot in black-and-white, apocalyptic drama centers on a group of people awaiting the nuclear fallout that will eventually eliminate them too.


As if to compensate for the narrative shortcomings, Kramer has assembled a top-notch cast, headed by Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, and including Fred Astaire (in his first dramatic, or nonmusical, role) and Anthony Hopkins, barely a tear before Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” which forever will change his career and screen image.


Gregory Peck plays Dwight Towers, commander of the submarine US Sawfish, who learns that the radio signal transmitted from San Diego is being produced by a soda bottle and that everyone there is dead.


Back in Australia, scientist Julian Osborn (Astaire) wins an auto race before asphyxiating himself, while naval officer Peter Holmes (Perkins) and his wife Mary (Donna Anderson) take the life of their child and then of their on.


Goodtime girl Moira (Gardner) turns to the bottle and to an affair with Towers, before the latter opts to die with his crew back home in California.


Despite the heavy-duty message and ultra-pessimistic tone, the film is well shot by the great Italian lenser Giuseppe Rotunno and Daniel Fapp, and well-acted by the entire ensemble, and the repeated playing of the Australian tune, “Waltzing Matilda,” is effectively used.


Five years later, Stanley Kubrick would treat the subject matter as a nihilistic, hilariously funny farce in “Dr. Strangelove.” (See my review).


Oscar Nominations: 2

Film Editing: Frederic Knudtson

Scoring (Dramatic or Comedy): Ernest Gold


Oscar Awards: None


Oscar Context:


Ben-Hur won 11 out of its 12 nominations, thus becoming the most honored film to date, including Oscars for Miklos Rozsa’s score and Ralph E. Winters and John D. Dunning for editing.  Significantly, the film lost the Screenplay Oscar due to debate about who wrote what; in his acceptance speech Best Actor Winner Charlton Heston thanked Christopher Frye, though, like other writers (Gore Vidal among them), he didn’t get credit. 


“Ben-Hur” won over Preminger’s courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder,” which lost in each of its 7 categories; the Holocaust drama, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which received 7 nominations and won 3; Fred Zinnemann’s morality tale “The Nine’s Story,” which also lost in each of its 7 nominations, and the superb British drama “Room at the Top,” which won 2 out of its 6 nominations.



Produced and directed by Stanley Kramer
Screenplay by John Paxton, based on On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Music by Ernest Gold
Cinematography Giuseppe Rotunno
Edited by Frederic Knudtson

Production company: Lomitas Productions Inc., Spinel Entertainment

Distributed by United Artists

Release date: December 17, 1959

Running time: 134 minutes
Budget $2.9 million