One of the first mainstream nuclear doomsday pictures, set five years in the future (1964).

Captain Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), in charge of the US submarine Sawfish, finds himself in Melbourne, as news heads southwards that the drifting radioactive fallout arising from an atomic war in the northern hemisphere is killing everything in its path, and will soon enough arrive in the remote, isolated, end of the earth city of Melbourne.

Peck takes the Sawfish on a mission to see if the approaching radiation cloud has weakened, but the news is grim. He and four others, naval officer Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) and his wife Mary (Donna Anderson), Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), who is in love with Towers, and Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire), a conscience-stricken scientist with a love of fast cars, await their inevitable fate.

Osborn decides to fulfil his fantasy of driving in the world's last Grand Prix event in Australia, and after winning the event, heads off the garage and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Moira reaches out for love with Peck, but he decides to head back to the United States with his crew. As the others adjust to the end of their world, suicide pills nearby, the end of the world approaches, Melbourne's streets empty, the city falls silent, and a banner "There Is Still Time Brother" flutters outside the state library in Swanston street…


Production Details

A United States film partly manufactured in Australia

Production company: Lomitas Productions

Budget: c. US$3,000,000

Locations: In and around Melbourne and suburbs, over forty exteriors, Berwick, Geelong, Canadian Bay, Marysville, Port Phillip Bay, Frankston, Cowes, Phillip Island, Riverside Raceway California for racing scenes, Melbourne night-club 'Ciro's'

Filmed: began January 1959, ten week shoot, with additional shooting in the United States, including the car-racing sequence.

Australian distributor: United Artists

Australian release:  Melbourne 17 December 1959, in what was a simultaneous premiere in seventeen cities world-wide, including Moscow and New York.

Rating: NSC 

35mm       black and white      widescreen 1.66:1                                                                                                       

Running time: 134 mins (Oxford)

Region four DVD time: 2'08"57

Box office: domestic n/a, US box office reportedly c. US$5.5 million. The film did respectable business in Australia but it was not a block buster. It was a gloomy message to sell during the Christmas New Year holiday season. Given the size of the budget, the US BO could be called a bare pass, just above a flop.

Opinion

Awards

1959 Academy Awards

Nominated, Best Editing (Frederick Knudtson)

Nominated, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture (Ernest Gold)

1960 BAFTA Awards

Winner, Best Director (Stanley Kubrick)

1960 Golden Globes

Winner, Best Motion Picture Score (Ernest Gold)

 

Availability

The film has been released by MGM in many territories, and is widely available on DVD. The image quality is good, as is the sound,  handy for a film which set the pace for post-apocalypse movies - in Melbourne at least - and worth seeing at least once.

The story was re-made as an Australian miniseries by Southern Star in 2000, starring Bryan Brown, with the same title, and this is also available on DVD. The miniseries might be truer to the book, but the feature is stronger.

1. Source:

The film is based on a novel by British Australian novelist Nevil Shute 1899-1960), first published by Heinemann in Australia in 1957 (William Morrow in New York in 1957), and paperback film-tie ins were released to coincide with the film's exhibition. Shute had already made an impact in the world of film with his novel A Town Like Alice providing the basis for a box office hit.

The ADB has a biography of Nevil Shute Norway here.

Kramer was reported (in The Australian Womens' Weekly 30th October 1957) to have paid Shute US$100,000 (£44,867/3/11) and a percentage for the screen rights.

The screen adaptation was done by John Paxton, an American scriptwriter who has a brief wiki here. Paxton is perhaps best known for Crossfire, which earned him an Academy nomination in 1947.

His screenplay - no doubt prompted by director Kramer - tended to emphasise all the romantic sub-plots and entanglements in the story, rather than follow the technical details that Shute presented in his novel to give credibility to his theme that a nuclear war could result in apocalyptic destruction.

Shute was also irritated by the love scene between Ava Gardiner and Gregory Peck - in the novel Peck stays faithful to the memory of his wife. Kramer also fudged the death of Gardiner. In the book she takes suicide pills as Peck's submarine heads out to sea, while in the film she simply watches it go.

Shute refused to attend the premiere of the film, announcing his decision by way of a letter from his solicitor, because he disagreed with Stanley Kramer's interpretation of the novel. (see the wiki for a list of differences between film and novel here).

However he didn't object to the film tie-in boosting sales:

2. Production:

The making of the film was an overnight sensation in staid conservative Melbourne, with much effort expended by authorities to assist the production.

The Royal Australian Navy provided an aircraft carrier and three submarines, in contrast to the the US Navy and the US Department of Defence, meaning that Gregory Peck and his crew were forced into a diesel-electric rather than nuclear sub, the H.M.S. Andrew.

The Melbourne City Council closed off main streets for use by the film crew, producing shots of a silent, empty desolate city (a few wags wondered if any help was needed to produce this effect).

The city also helped arrange luxury accommodation for key cast and director Kramer. In Berwick, then a developing outer suburb, residents can still reside in Kramer Drive and Shute Avenue, in memory of the novelist and the director.

3. Release:

The decision to release the film simultaneously in seventeen different major cities, including Melbourne, was part of Stanley Kramer's apocalyptic, "if you only see one film this year" marketing style. It made a big splash in Australia, but the film opened rather softly during the holiday season.

4. Melbourne as the end of the world:

The film also incidentally became famous for Ava Gardner's alleged remark when answering a question as to why On the Beach was being filmed in Melbourne: Well, she replied (according to Mr. Christopher Reed in his San Francisco News Diary) this film is about the end of the world.

Journalist and film reviewer Neil Jillett subsequently disputed these events in a story published in The Age in January 1982, but now relegated to a Google cache record:

When Kramer and Co. arrived here I was working as a reporter in the Melbourne office of the 'Sydney Morning Herald' and its Sunday newspaper, the 'Sun-Herald'. It was a time when, in the wake of the success of the Melbourne Olympics and because of Henry Bolte's frequent appearance in national headlines, old Melbourne-Sydney rivalries had been renewed with some bitterness.

The editor of the 'Sun-Herald' told me to write an article about the filming of 'On the Beach'. I was to interview Miss Gardner and obtain, along with "details of her latest romance", some comments about Melbourne.

Well, there was not much to write. The film people did not want to be interviewed. The only information about Miss Gardner was a list of the number of bottles of Scotch and cartons of cigarettes delivered to her flat in South Yarra.

But I managed to concoct some waffle about locations for the film, the stars appearing in it and so forth. This article duly appeared in the 'Sun-Herald', complete with what I modestly believe to be its immortal last paragraph:—

Miss Gardner said: "'On the Beach' is a story about the end of the world, and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it."

This quotation was immediately repeated by newspapers around the world, not to denigrate Australia so much as to provide evidence of Miss Gardner's hitherto unsuspected qualities as a gag-writer. It also became obligatory for writers to include the comment in any article about Melbourne or even Australia.

Although my name was not on the original piece in the 'Sun-Herald', I did not disclaim authorship. I was the envy of my colleagues for having obtained one of the century's, or one of that week's, definitive quotations.

At the time there was some muted muttering from Miss Gardner's quarters to the effect that she was not pleased by the twist that had been given to her fame or notoriety; she preferred to be known (in the nicest possible way, of course) as a sex symbol rather than as a woman of rapier wit.

A few years ago, when she was out here on a private visit, Miss Gardner was asked by a television interviewer about the 'On the Beach' quotation. As far as I recall, her reply went: "At the time I was rather annoyed because I didn't think I said it. Now I can't remember exactly what happened. But it's a funny quote and I'm quite happy to be given the credit."

That prompted me to write an account of what really happened. I submitted it to my editor (I was not then working on 'The Age'), but he rejected it "because it doesn't do any good to let people know newspapers make mistakes".

So here goes for a version of 'We Were Wrong', because although 'The Age' did not make the original mistake, it has reprinted many times (in its correct and incorrect form) the comment purportedly made by Ava Gardner.

Ava Gardner never said: "'On the Beach' is a story about the end of the world, and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it."

The remark originally appeared as the last paragraph of a news item written by Neil Jillett and sent by teleprinter from Melbourne to the 'Sun-Herald', Sydney. The last paragraph read: "It has not been confirmed that Miss Gardner, as has been rumored at third hand from a usually unreliable source, if given the chance, would seriously consider whether, if she managed to think of it, would like to have put on the record that she said: 'On the Beach' is a story about the end of the world, and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it'."

In his youthful innocence Mr Jillett assumed that his superiors at the 'Sun-Herald' would appreciate that the last paragraph was a hoax and remove it before publishing the article. But they just thought he was being his usual wordy self. They reduced the preamble to "Miss Gardner said" and retained the quotation.

I should end this confession with an apology to Miss Gardner, and I do offer her one. But my most sincere regret is that in 30 years of working for newspapers I have only once written anything worth repeating — and it has been attributed to someone else.


Jillett turned into a savage, often condescending film reviewer at The Age, so it's pleasing to record his ability as a journalist to make stuff up.