Friday, August 1, 2008

#34: On the Beach


On the Beach
Directed by Stanley Kramer
Written by John Paxton and James Lee Barrett (based on the novel by Nevil Shute)
Released December 17, 1959

"We're all doomed, you know. The whole silly drunken pathetic lot of us, doomed by the air we're about to breathe."

You know you're probably not in for a happy ending when a movie opens with "Waltzing Matilda," a classic old folk song about a poor man who steals a sheep for dinner and then commits suicide when the police arrive. His ghost goes on to haunt the camp site, just as this song threads throughout On the Beach, growing more sad as the film progresses.

I guess all the damned moroseness is to be expected when you discover pretty early on into the film that most of the world has been destroyed by nuclear war and the only people left -- Australia and a single U.S. submarine -- are simply waiting idly by for the cloud of radiation to come and kill them off.

To put it plain, On the Beach is just a god. damn. bummer. And this is coming from a near manic-depressive who loves to wallow in a good pool of sadness. This flick is over 2 hours of over-serious wet blanket-tude. It makes The Panic in Needle Park look like The Muppet Movie.

The first problem, as I hinted at earlier, is that the music is so incredibly maudlin. Also, it never stops. Simple conversations between characters are sometimes nearly drowned out by the constantly surging strings. By the time the viewer gets near the end of the movie, when "Waltzing Matilda" is being sung by those anticipating their inevitable end (a moment that should be the dramatic peak), you can't help but feel exhausted.

Most comical is the balance between silence and overbearing musical punctuation as Gregory Peck uses a periscope to search for life on the San Francisco shore. Every time the camera cuts to the shore, you're blasted with "DUN DUN DUUUUNNNN!" Then, a brief moment of quiet inside the sub, followed by another "DUN DUN DUUUUNNNN!!!"

Sometimes I have a real problem with this certain style of old school movie acting, where people over-emote with dramatic gestures as if they're stage actors. It's hard to explain without a visual aid, but I'm thinking of the kind of acting where people dramatically throw their forearms against their foreheads to express grief. You know, the way no one actually does in real life. On the Beach suffers a bit from this style of acting, especially in the performance of Anthony Perkins.

The real revelation, acting-wise, doesn't come from Gregory Peck or Ava Gardner, but from Fred Astaire. On the Beach was his first non-dancing/non-musical role, and he knocks it out of the park here as Julian Osborne, a scientist shouldering the blame for helping create the disaster that they and their comrades now face. Astaire gives the most natural, believable and touching performance in the film.

Don't get me wrong, I really do appreciate the message conveyed in On the Beach, and I know that, for the time it was released, it was truly heavy and profound. The movie goes further than your typical Cold War scare picture, touching on some truly frightening and humane themes (Perkins' dilemma of trying to teach his wife when and how to take the pills that will lead to the death of her and their child comes to mind).

Kramer's direction is great, although the pacing seems much too slow, much too often. By the end, I just felt... oppressed, like I was joining these characters on this sad slow decline of moping and loping towards the end. Even the scenes that are supposed to show these characters embracing their final moments, like Astaire driving his Jaguar in an explosive race or everyone gathering at the beach for a boat race, are just so damned agonizing. It's in these moments that the people are supposed to be overcoming the dread for a final taste of life. Instead, it tastes like sour grapes.

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel like taking a giant nap.

For more on On the Beach:
- A link to the movie's IMDB entry, and its Wikipedia entry
- The Wikipedia entry for Nevil Shute's book. For what it's worth, Shute was not entirely pleased with the film version of his novel. Gregory Peck also fought hard to keep some of Shute's original ideas in the movie, but Stanley Kramer won out.

A scene from On the Beach featuring Fred Astaire:

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