On the Beach (1959 film)

On the Beach is a 1959 American post-apocalyptic science fiction drama film from United Artists, produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, that stars Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins.[2] This black-and-white film is based on Nevil Shute's 1957 novel of the same name depicting the aftermath of a nuclear war.[3] Unlike the novel, no one is assigned blame for starting the war; the film hints that global annihilation may have arisen from an accident or misjudgment.

On the Beach
Directed byStanley Kramer
Produced byStanley Kramer
Screenplay byJohn Paxton
Based onOn the Beach
by Nevil Shute
StarringGregory Peck
Ava Gardner
Fred Astaire
Anthony Perkins
Music byErnest Gold
CinematographyGiuseppe Rotunno
Edited byFrederic Knudtson
Lomitas Productions, Inc.
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • December 17, 1959 (1959-12-17)
Running time
134 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2.9 million[1]


In early 1964 (five years in the future), in the months following World War III, the conflict has devastated the Northern Hemisphere, killing all humans after polluting the atmosphere with nuclear fallout. Air currents are slowly carrying the fallout south; the only areas still habitable are in the far reaches of the Southern Hemisphere.

Australian survivors detect an incomprehensible Morse code signal coming from the presumed dead West Coast of the United States. The American nuclear submarine, USS Sawfish, now under Royal Australian Navy command, is ordered to sail north and make contact with the sender of the Morse signal. The submarine is commanded by Capt. Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), who leaves behind a new friend, the alcoholic Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner).

The Australian government arranges for its citizens to receive suicide pills or prepared injections so they may end their lives quickly before there is prolonged suffering from radiation sickness. An Australian naval officer, Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) and his wife, Mary, who is in denial about the impending disaster, have a baby daughter. Assigned to travel with the American sub for several weeks, Peter tries to explain to Mary how to euthanize their baby and then herself, should he not have returned when the end comes; Mary reacts very emotionally to this prospect.

A scientific theory has the radiation level near the Arctic Ocean lower than the levels found at the mid-Northern Hemisphere, possibly indicating the radiation could disperse before reaching the Southern Hemisphere. The theory is to be explored as part of Sawfish's journey north. Arriving at Point Barrow, Alaska, the submarine discovers that the radiation levels are, in fact, intensifying.

Later, when Sawfish arrives in the San Francisco Bay area, the crew find a city devoid of any signs of life. Ralph Swain, a crewman who had family in San Francisco, deserts the submarine and swims ashore. Scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire) informs Capt. Towers that Swain's contact with the radioactive environment will quickly make it impossible for him to return without killing everyone aboard.

The next morning, through the periscope, Capt. Towers observes Swain fishing in the bay and broadcasts an intercom greeting. Swain has found his parents dead and confirms that no one has survived. He apologizes for deserting, explaining that he preferred to die in his hometown rather on the other side of the world. Towers understands Swain's feelings, bids him farewell, and departs for San Diego.

Near San Diego, communications officer Lt. Sunderstrom goes ashore wearing radiation and oxygen gear to search out the source of the signals. He has just one hour and is alerted by a Sawfish horn blast every 15 minutes and must return immediately upon hearing the third horn blast. While exploring a power station that's still running on automatic control (it is only a matter of time before it fails from lack of repairs). He finds the telegraph and discovers no survivor, just a tilted Coca-Cola bottle hanging by its neck from an open window shade's pull cord; random ocean breezes bump the bottle against the "live" telegraph key, sending out the random signals. Sunderstrom stands the bottle upright and uses real Morse code to send a message, describing the bleak situation. On his way back to "Sawfish", Sunderstrom goes through the power station and shuts down the generators.

Sawfish and its crew return to Australia to enjoy what pleasures remain to them before the end. While reuniting with Moira at her father's farm, Towers hears that all US Navy personnel stationed at their base in Brisbane have died (hinting that the radiation has arrived in the northern parts of Australia). Towers is promoted to Admiral of the remaining US Navy personnel in Australia. Osborn wins the Australian Grand Prix in which many racers, with nothing left to lose, die in various crashes.

With the fishing season starting sooner than normal (radiation is now heading further south), Towers and Moira begin a planned fishing trip. In a country stream while fishing, drunken revelers surround them. Retreating to their resort room, more boozy fishermen can be heard yodeling out a version of "Waltzing Matilda". Towers and Moira share a romantic interlude, while outside a gathering storm howls. The fishermans' singing transforms into a beautiful a capella solo rendition on the song's foreboding final verse.

Returning to Melbourne, Towers learns one of his crew has developed radiation sickness; the deadly radiation has arrived in Melbourne and soon the symptoms will spread.

Osborn closes himself in a sealed garage with his championship racing car, electing to die from carbon monoxide poisoning as he repeatedly revs the engine. Others line up to receive their suicide pills. Mary Holmes becomes emotionally unbalanced and must be sedated. She later regains lucidity in time for her, Peter, and their baby daughter to consume the drug (off-screen).

Towers wants to stay with Moira, but many of his remaining crew want to head for home to die in the U.S.; he chooses his duty over his love for Moira and joins his crew as they attempt to make it back to a radioactive America. Orchestral strains of "Waltzing Matilda" are heard while Moira watches Sawfish leave Australian territorial waters and submerge for the final voyage home.

Within a few days, the last pockets of humanity are dead. The empty, windblown streets of Melbourne are punctuated by the rise of dramatic, strident music over a single powerful image of a previously seen Salvation Army street banner: "There is still time...Brother".


  • Gregory Peck as Commander Dwight Lionel Towers, USS Sawfish
  • Ava Gardner as Moira Davidson, Towers' Australian love interest
  • Fred Astaire as Julian Osborn, Australian scientist
  • Anthony Perkins as Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes, Royal Australian Navy
  • Donna Anderson as Mary Holmes, Peter's wife
  • John Tate as Admiral Bridie, Royal Australian Navy
  • Harp McGuire as Lieutenant Sunderstrom (ashore in San Diego)
  • Lola Brooks as Lieutenant Hosgood, Bridie's secretary
  • Ken Wayne as Lieutenant Benson
  • Guy Doleman as Lieutenant Commander Farrel
  • Richard Meikle as Davis
  • John Meillon as Sawfish crewman Ralph Swain (ashore in San Francisco)
  • Joe McCormick as Ackerman, radiation sickness victim
  • Lou Vernon as Bill Davidson, Moira's father
  • Kevin Brennan as Dr. King, radiation diagnosis doctor
  • Keith Eden as Dr. Fletcher (beach scene)
  • Basil Buller-Murphy as Sir Douglas Froude
  • Brian James as Royal Australian Navy officer
  • John Casson as Salvation Army captain
  • Paddy Moran as Stevens (club wine steward)
  • Grant Taylor as Morgan (Holmes party)
  • George Fairfax (Holmes party guest)
  • Earl Francis (Holmes party guest)
  • Pat Port (Runner on Beach)
  • Cary Peck (uncredited)[Note 1]


As in the novel, much of On the Beach takes place in Melbourne, close to the southernmost part of the Australian mainland. Principal photography took place from mid-January to March 27, 1959 in Australia.[5] Beach scenes were filmed at the foreshore of Cowes on Phillip Island. The film was shot in part in Berwick, then a suburb outside Melbourne and part in Frankston, also a Melbourne suburb. The well-known scene where Peck meets Gardner, who arrives from Melbourne by rail, was filmed on platform #1 of Frankston railway station, now rebuilt, and a subsequent scene where Peck and Gardner are transported off by horse and buggy, was filmed in Young Street, Frankston. Some streets which were being built at the time in Berwick were named after people involved in the film. Two examples are Shute Avenue (Nevil Shute) and Kramer Drive (Stanley Kramer).[6][Note 2]

The "Australian Grand Prix" in the novel had the racing sequences filmed at Riverside Raceway in California and at Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit, home to the present-day Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix, conveniently located near Cowes at Phillip Island. These scenes include an array of late-1950s sports cars, including examples of the Jaguar XK150 and Jaguar D-Type, Porsche 356, Mercedes-Benz 300 SL "Gullwing", AC Ace, Chevrolet Corvette and prominent in sequences was the "Chuck Porter Special", a customized Mercedes 300SL. Built by Hollywood body shop owner Chuck Porter and driven by a list of notable 1950s to 1960s west-coast racers, including Ken Miles and Chuck Stevenson, who purchased and successfully raced it in the early 1960s.[7]

The U.S. Department of Defense refused to cooperate in the production of the film, not allowing access to its nuclear-powered submarines.[Note 3] Additional resources were supplied by the Royal Australian Navy, including the use of the aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne.[9][10]

It has often been claimed that Ava Gardner described Melbourne as "the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world."[11] However, the purported quote was actually invented by journalist Neil Jillett, who was writing for The Sydney Morning Herald at the time. His original draft of a tongue-in-cheek piece about the making of the film said that he had not been able to confirm a third-party report that Ava Gardner had made this remark. The newspaper's sub-editor changed it to read as a direct quotation from Gardner. It was published in that form and entered Melbourne folklore very quickly.[12]

Frank Chacksfield's orchestral performance of the love theme from On the Beach was released as a single in 1960, reaching #47 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Differences between the novel and film

Nevil Shute was displeased with the final cut of the film, feeling that too many changes had been made at the expense of the story's integrity. After initial collaboration with Kramer, it was obvious that Shute's concerns were not being addressed; subsequently, he provided minimal assistance to the production.[13] Gregory Peck agreed with Shute but, in the end, producer/director Stanley Kramer's ideas won out. Shute felt that Captain Towers and Moira having a love affair ruined a central element of the novel, that is, Towers' fidelity to his long-dead American wife.[14]

In the novel it has been two years since the last nuclear attacks, and small pockets of human survivors are mentioned in several areas of the Southern Hemisphere. Australia is in radio contact with places such as Montevideo, on the east coast of South America, and Cape Town, on the southern tip of Africa. Commander Towers is in communication with the only other remaining active-duty US Navy vessel, another nuclear submarine, USS Swordfish, on duty in the Atlantic, which, at the end, is based in Montevideo. Melbourne, where much of the novel is set, is the southernmost major city in the world. It will be the last such to die, but people in New Zealand, Tierra del Fuego and other, more southerly points than Australia, are said to have a few additional weeks left to them.[15] In the film an unidentified radio newscaster says that, as far as is known, Australia is home to the last human life on the planet. This to possibly to build hope that the San Francisco expedition will result in the discovery of other survivors, adding a sense of urgency and importance to Melbourne's survivors.

In the novel there is no USS Swordfish, only the submarine USS Scorpion. For the film, Scorpion is renamed Sawfish, and the sub comes to represent the last (known) hope for humanity. The film's production crew was forced to use a non-nuclear, diesel-electric Royal Navy submarine, HMS Andrew, as a stand-in for the nuclear-powered Sawfish.[8]

Several major and minor characters were altered, removed, or created specifically for the film adaptation. The novel's Moira Davidson, a slender, petite pale blonde in her mid-twenties, was portrayed by the tall, curvaceous, 36-year-old brunette Ava Gardner.[16] Nuclear scientist John Osborne, a 20-something bachelor in the novel, is portrayed in the film by 60-year-old Fred Astaire and is named Julian Osborn. Moira and John are cousins in the novel, while Moira and Julian are former lovers in the film.

Admiral Bridie and his secretary, Lieutenant Hosgood, are film characters not in the novel.[17]

In the film random Morse code radio signals coming from San Diego give rise to hope that there are survivors on the U.S. west coast. In the novel the signals are coming from a naval training base farther north, near Seattle. The idea of a survivor sending random signals is forthrightly dismissed in the novel as ridiculous. Towers says that even someone who didn't know Morse code would sit there with a Morse book and send at about five words per minute. The film's characters, however, hold out hope that there could be a person on the other end of the telegraph (this is possibly used as a plot device to build suspense and hope). The main reason in the novel for the expedition is to learn if there are indeed survivors. Rather than a telegraph operator, the characters hold out hope that, without the intercession of technicians and maintenance workers, the possibility of telegraph power being supplied after all that time would be remote at best. It turns out that, as in the film, the power station has been running on its own since the war, but it is beginning to break down from lack of maintenance, particularly the lubrication needed to prevent overheating. Just as in the film, the power station is shut down before the submarine sails for home.

During Lt. Sunderstrom's search in the film for the signals' author, he is given just one hour, while in the novel, he is given two hours to find the source. Just like the novel, Sunderstrom's radiation suit doesn't have a wrist watch to help him keep track of his time ashore, so the submarine crew alerts him with horn blasts every quarter of an hour. In the film, a single horn blast was given every fifteen minutes, and Sunderstrom is ordered to return immediately after hearing the third blast. In the novel, the submarine crew gives one horn blast for a quarter of an hour, two for half an hour, three for three quarters, and four for a whole hour. He's ordered to stop what he's doing at five horn blasts (1 1/4 hours) and return at six horn blasts (1 1/2 hours). In the novel, Sunderstrom finds several bodies during his search, while in the film, there are no dead bodies at the power station. While Sunderstrom finds the source of the signals, he discovers in the novel that it's a window shade cord caught on a telegraph key. In the film he finds it's an overturned Coke bottle snagged in a window shade cord above the telegraph key. Ocean breezes, in both cases, are blowing through an open window making the window shade disturb the telegraph key. Sunderstrom sends a proper Morse message to describe how they have traveled all that way for nothing. In both the novel and the film, while Sunderstrom receives his return orders, the captain also warns him not to bring any souvenirs aboard, as they could be contaminated with radioactivity. In the novel, after Sunderstrom shuts off the power station, he explores a bit and defies his orders by bringing aboard three of the last printed issues of the Saturday Evening Post, so he catches up on a serial that was running when the war started. In the film, after Sunderstrom sends his message, he follows Tower's orders to not bring aboard any souvenirs and is already en route to Sawfish when he hears the final horn blast.

In the film San Francisco's buildings are completely undamaged, with one memorable shot occurring when Sawfish first passes under the intact Golden Gate Bridge. In the novel the city has been largely destroyed and the bridge has fallen into the bay.

In the novel the northernmost point of the submarine's journey is the Gulf of Alaska, while the film uses Point Barrow.[18]

Towers and Moira attend the Australian Grand Prix in the film. In the novel, they are vacationing in the mountains on the day of the race, and they hear a radio report of John Osborne's first-place finish.

The novel ends with a dying Moira sitting in her car, having taken her suicide pills, while watching Scorpion head out to sea to be scuttled. Unlike the novel, no mention of scuttling the submarine is made in the film. Instead, Commander Towers's crew asks that he attempt to take them back to the U.S., where they can die on their home soil. Although he realizes that they probably will not survive a second passage north, he does as they request. In the film Ava Gardner is merely watching the submarine submerge and disappear beneath the sea and is not shown taking her suicide pills.[19]

Release and reception

On the Beach premiered simultaneously in 18 theaters on all seven continents on December 17, 1959. The Hollywood premiere was attended by the film's stars, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins, director Stanley Kramer, in addition to other celebrities, including Cary Grant. The New York premiere was attended by Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr.. The London premiere was attended by Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom Yakov Malik. Star Ava Gardner attended the Rome premiere. The Tokyo premiere was attended by members of the Japanese Imperial Family. The Stockholm premiere was attended by King Gustav VI Adolf. The Melbourne premiere was attended by Premier of Victoria Henry Bolte. Other premieres were held in West Berlin, Caracas, Chicago, Johannesburg, Lima, Paris, Toronto, Washington, D.C. and Zurich[20] The film was even screened in a theater at the Little America base in Antarctica.

Although the film did not receive a commercial release in the Soviet Union, a special premiere was unprecedentedly arranged for that night in Moscow. Gregory Peck and his wife traveled to Russia for the screening, which was held at a workers' club, with 1,200 Soviet dignitaries, the foreign press corps, and diplomats including U.S. Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson attending.[21]

On the Beach recorded a loss of $700,000.[1] Despite this, the film was praised in its day and in later years. It also acquired a fan base that agreed on many of the issues presented. Bosley Crowther in his contemporary review in The New York Times saw the film as delivering a powerful message.

In putting this fanciful but arresting story of Mr. Shute on the screen, Mr. Kramer and his assistants have most forcibly emphasized this point: life is a beautiful treasure and man should do all he can to save it from annihilation, while there is still time.

To this end, he has accomplished some vivid and trenchant images that subtly fill the mind of the viewer with a strong appreciation of his theme.[22]

The review in Variety was not as positive: "On the Beach is a solid film of considerable emotional, as well as cerebral, content. But the fact remains that the final impact is as heavy as a leaden shroud. The spectator is left with the sick feeling that he's had a preview of Armageddon, in which all contestants lost."[23]

Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic wrote- 'When the film hews close to its theme, it is effective and valuable; when it deals with its characters as characters,it is often phony. Just as we are gripped by horror, along comes a pure Hollywood touch to remind us that what we are watching is only a movie'.[24]

In a later appraisal of both novel and film, historian Paul Brians (Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1964 (1987)) considered the novel "inferior" to the film. His contention was that the portrayal of nuclear annihilation was more accurate as it was clear that the world was coming to an end.[25]


Stanley Kramer won the 1960 BAFTA for best director and Ernest Gold won the 1960 Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Score. It was also nominated for Academy Awards in two categories:

Category Person
Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture Ernest Gold
Best Film Editing Frederic Knudtson


On the Beach was remade in 2000 as an Australian television film by Southern Star Productions, directed by Russell Mulcahy and starring Armand Assante, Bryan Brown, and Rachel Ward.[26] It was originally aired on Showtime.[27] The remake of the 1959 film was also based on the 1957 novel by Nevil Shute, but updates the setting of the story to the film's then-future of 2005, starting with placing the crew on the fictional Los Angeles-class USS Charleston (SSN-704) submarine[28] and also changing the final actions of Towers.


The 2013 documentary Fallout by Melbourne filmmaker Lawrence Johnston explores Shute's life and Kramer's making of On the Beach, with interviews of Shute's daughter, Kramer's wife, Karen, and Donna Anderson, one of the film's last surviving cast members. Fallout was produced by Peter Kaufmann.[29][30]

See also



  1. Gregory Peck's son, Cary, had a cameo in the film.[4]
  2. An additional scene was shot in the Melbourne nightclub Ciro's. Among the audience in the scene were several popular Melbourne television personalities, most notably Graham Kennedy. The scene was not used in the cinema release of the film, and does not feature in the various DVD releases; it is not known if the scene was included in any released version of the film.
  3. Researcher Andrew Bartlett noted: "The American government complained of Kramer's On the Beach (1959) that it inaccurately presented the threat of extinction from nuclear war because there were not then enough weapons to cause extinction."[8]


  1. Balio 1987 p. 144.
  2. Mitchell 2001, pp. 177–183.
  3. Weaver 2011, pp. 62–71.
  4. Mitchell 2001, p. 182.
  5. "Original print information: On the Beach (1959)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: January 1, 2015.
  6. "Melbourne: Melway street map". Melway, 1969. Retrieved: January 1, 2015.
  7. "On the Beach, Movie, 1959." Internet Movie Cars Database, May 26, 2010. Retrieved: January 1, 2015.
  8. Bartlett, Andrew. "Nuclear Warfare in the Movies". Anthropoetics, Volume 10, Issue 1, 2004. ISSN 1083-7264.
  9. Lind 1986, p. 237.
  10. Gillett 1980, p. 29.
  11. Thompson, Nathaniel. "Articles: On the Beach (1959)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: January 1, 2015.
  12. "Review" (lift-out magazine). The Weekend Australian, December 18–19, 1999.
  13. Mitchell 2001, p. 181.
  14. Dawson-Taylor, David. "On the Beach." Nevilshute.org. Retrieved: January 1, 2015.
  15. Shute 1957, p. 117.
  16. Shute 1957, p. 23.
  17. Lindsey, D. "“Book vs. Film: On the Beach.” themotionpictures.net, August 7, 2013.
  18. Shute 1957, pp. 144–157.
  19. "On The Beach (1959, Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck)." Youtube. Retrieved: January 1, 2015.
  20. Fishgall 2002, p. 208.
  21. Fishgall 2002, p. 211.
  22. Crowther, Bosley. "On the Beach (1959)." The New York Times, December 18, 1959.
  23. "On the Beach." Variety, December 31, 1958.
  24. Kauffmann, Stanley (1968). A world on Film. Delta Books. p. 11.
  25. Weaver 2011, p. 64.
  26. Turegano, Preston. "Beach's passion doesn't run deep, as radioactive love boat founders." The San Diego Union-Tribune, May 28, 2000, p. TV3.
  27. Moliltorisz, Sacha. "TV & Radio: On the Beach." The Sydney Morning Herald, April 19, 2007. Retrieved: January 11, 2015.
  28. Kronke, David. "'Beach': It's the end of the world as we know it." Los Angeles Daily News, May 28, 2000. Retrieved: January 11, 2015.
  29. Luke Buckmaster, Fallout movie review: science to art and back again Crikey, July 28, 2013. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  30. Philippa Hawker, Fallout endures from '50s classic Sydney Morning Herald, October 31, 2013. Retrieved August 17, 2015.


  • Balio, Tino. United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987. ISBN 978-0-29911-440-4.
  • Fishgall, Gary. Gregory Peck: A Biography. New York: Scribner, 2002. ISBN 978-1-45169-849-7.
  • Gillett, Ross. HMAS Melbourne: 25 Years. Sydney, NSW: Nautical Press, 1980. ISBN 0-949756-00-8.
  • Lind, Lew. The Royal Australian Navy: Historic Naval Events Year by Year (2nd ed.). Frenchs Forest, NSW: Reed Books 1986, First edition 1982. ISBN 0-7301-0071-5.
  • Mitchell, Charles P. "On the Beach (1959)." A Guide to Apocalyptic Cinema. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0-31331-527-5.
  • Shute, Nevil. On The Beach. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1957.
  • Warren, Bill. Keep Watching The Skies, American Science Fiction Movies of the 1950s, Vol II: 1958 - 1962. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1982. ISBN 0-89950-032-3.
  • Weaver, Roslyn. "Nevil Schute: On the Beach (1957)." Apocalypse in Australian Fiction and Film: A Critical Study. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7864-6051-9.
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