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Monday, August 31, 2015

Movie Monthly: On The Beach

Edited by Robert Beach

August Apocalypse has been a slightly more sporadic Movie Monthly. That’s mainly owed to my own hectic schedule keeping me from getting to everything I hoped to touch on. I’m glad that things worked out for me to still be able to touch on the incredible under appreciated 1959 post-apocalyptic classic On The Beach. Directed by the great Stanley Kramer and starring treasured actor Gregory Peck, On The Beach is one of the absolute darkest, harshest and most realistic post-apocalyptic tales you’ll ever see. 

What’s so impressive about this, however, is On The Beach manages its chilling vision of a future after the fall of humanity,but not through the crushing melodrama of Walking Dead or the abject human ugliness of The Road. Instead the heartbreaking tragedy of the situation comes from the acknowledgement of a very simple, but affecting, anxiety at the heart of all post-apocalypse movies: inevitability.  

Grasping with the End 

On The Beach’s chosen apocalypse is a nuclear war that has covered the world in nuclear fallout. The main focus of the story is a small human colony in Australia where it’s far enough South that the fallout hasn’t quite reached them yet. There isn’t a whole ton of story to the film; it’s more about the Australian efforts to reduce nuclear fallout as well as the story of a US Nuclear submarine investigating possible survivors in California. Really though, the plot of On The Beach is relatively secondary. The real focus of the film and the real conflict is between the last few survivors and the creeping realization they can’t survive in this new world. The whole film is just an entire community’s slow march towards acceptance that there really is no way out of this situation.  The fallout is on its way, and there are no more shelters left to flee to; this really is it for them. 

Now, I admit that’s an incredibly dark focus for a film, but On The Beach manages to avoid feeling like a cynical or dark film so much as a harshly honest one. This is part of what’s always drawn me to On The Beach despite my aversion to some darker stories. One of the big reasons I don’t like apocalypse stories like The Road or The Walking Dead is they have this misguided need to be cruel because of their setting after the fall of civilization. While it’s not an unfair supposition that a world without societal control would fall into violent anarchy, it ends up something of a story crutch and an alienating one at that. Forcing as much violent inhumanity and cruelty into your post-apocalyptic story robs the violence of impact and emphasis. Suddenly, the point of it all stops being about imagining a dark, ruined future and more about testing the audience’s endurance. It also ends up making things feel more than a little repetitious and worst of all disingenuous.  

Rejection of Cynicism 

What’s most alienating about all these stories to me is the central cynical viewpoint that those who survive are the ones who are the least human. What I love about On The Beach is it sidesteps this ideology almost completely in a way that’s somehow both cynical and optimistic. This film could’ve easily just been 90 minutes of brutality and pain prior to the fallout just killing everyone, but it’s not. 

Instead, the death of mankind is met with peace, serenity, and unity found in our shared fate. That serenity and acceptance helps set On The Beach apart from most other post-apocalyptic films, especially during the film’s closing second act that explores the comforting artifice of the Australian community. We see the way the people surround themselves with ordinary and everyday, comforting constructions of the past and previous challenges that had defined their lives before the fall.

Humanity at its Best in the Face of the Worst

All of this is ultimately subservient to On The Beach’s greater thematic focus. Every post-apocalyptic story ultimately boils down to one of three focuses within the wasteland. Some, like Road Warrior, are about survival and what we’re willing to do to keep going after the end of man. Others like Last Man on Earth focus on rebuilding, seeing the beginnings of the new society that rises out of the ashes of our own. On The Beach is, at its core, about death. 

The whole point of the film explores personal agency in the face of the end. That’s the ultimate conflict of the film: how all these people will act at the end and about the different ways we, as people, might choose to die given its inevitability. That transparent human honesty is what makes On The Beach such an affecting post-apocalyptic tale, and why it resonates so strongly.  It’s a strange tale that’s so cynical it goes all the way around back to optimism, showcasing the unity, empathy, and humanity found in the face of inevitable oncoming extinction. 

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