On the Beach is a film that has lived in my mind for a long time. I picked up on its existence when I was young, perhaps on TV, but my parents were discussing it, and the premise made me sick to my stomach: The world has been destroyed by nuclear war, with only Australia surviving in the Southern Hemisphere.
As an Australian, hearing about this 1959 film felt uniquely engaging. Thanks to American pop-cultural hegemony, it’s weird to find Australia centered in anything dealing with Big Events (although Gundam often makes an exception to destroy us). The idea I could live in Australia, with the rest of the world dead, was a kind of existential horror for a child. As an adult, finally watching the film on Imprint’s worldwide Blu-ray debut, it’s good to know child Alex’s instincts were in the right place.
The all-star cast includes Gregory Peck as Towers, a United States submarine commander, Ava Gardner as his Australian love interest, Fred Astaire as an Australian scientist and Anthony Perkins as an Australian Navy officer. Towers has found sanctuary in Australia, but radioactive fallout will reach that continent, too, in six months. Thus, Towers undertakes a mission to the Northern Hemisphere to see if life has survived the fallout and the results are … well, not great.
On the Beach was based on an enormously popular novel of its time, informed by geopolitical reality but less by the public’s understanding of the scientifically accurate effects of radiation. Those discrepancies add to the horror of the film’s situation. It’s not a happy film. Characters contemplate, and commit, suicide, and that sick feeling in my stomach returned by the conclusion. It’s especially heartbreaking that Perkins’ character, and his young wife and daughter, face the horror of trying to live a normal life with a baby knowing that, in six months, it will likely all be over.
Although the film remains a difficult watch, it still feels essential lest those of us in the 21st century forget the real extinction-level threat posed by nuclear war. The final shot of the film, gazing over an eerily empty Melbourne, shows a banner reading: “There is still time…Brother!” Perhaps not for the characters of On the Beach but maybe still for us in the audience.
Imprint has spoiled fans with a 1080p Blu-ray presentation with a plethora of extras, including new audio commentary from film scholar Adrian Martin, video essays and a feature with the redoubtable film journalist Kim Newman (always a welcome presence on special features). The real extra is the 2013 documentary Fallout, packaged alongside the film in a handsome hardcase, which follows the story of the novel and making of the film to provide fascinating context. It’s as good a package as Imprint has put together, and they have a great track record. This is an important collection given the due it deserves.