I recently re read Nevil Shute’s 1957 post-apocalyptical novel On the Beach, and watched the 1959 movie of the same name. I last read the book 50 years ago. The story details the responses of a diverse set of characters living in Melbourne as deadly radiation from a northern hemisphere nuclear war approaches – with death the only plausible scenario.
At the time of its publication during the cold war the novel was considered ground-breaking and had quite an impact. It was accessible literature and led many people to consider the dangers of a nuclear war for the first time.
Is the book still relevant?
On one level, yes. The war in Ukraine has put the very real possibility of a nuclear confrontation back on the agenda. It has forced us to look again at the atomic threat after it had slipped out of sight. The apparent end of the cold war, the climate crisis, the relative stability of the world economy over the last 30 years and the affluence of western populations led us to downplay nuclear war. Now we face the return of the repressed, so to speak.
On the other hand, the book – and certainly the film – feel a little dated now. The characters are very restrained in that cliched 1950s mode. There are no riots or social unrest, as one might expect in a post disaster world. By and large everybody behaves pretty decently under the circumstances. They are all rather stoic. And we don’t read about or see much in the way of physical destruction that such a war must surely bring. This is especially true of the film. In the book we do learn about the deaths of the characters. We read about how and when they die. If we have invested in them at all, we feel moved and saddened. In the film we see no destruction and no deaths. It is implied but not shown. It seemed to me that a Hollywood film starring Gregory Peck ( as a submarine captain) could not allow itself to confront the likely reality of a nuclear war head on, but only by allusion. Compare this with Threads (UK) or The Day After (US), which do show us, to some degree, the inevitable destruction and suffering.
In On the Beach, it is the idea of war and death that haunts. Today we want to see and experience a more dramatic and confrontational aesthetic. We tend to think that the latter is more realistic. I think that it not so much a matter of realism but of aesthetic expectation. The impact of a novel or film depends a great deal on what the audience brings to it. On the Beach was effective in its day. Less so now. Perhaps we now need a new way to keep us on our toes. To remind and warn us that nuclear war and annihilation remain possible.
I was born in the 50s. I bloomed in the 60s and 70s. Now I feel like a wilted flower. The times they are a changing … but not for the better. I fear a new dark ages. A nuclear winter. A climate catastrophe. Helter skelter…. Down we go…
On The Beach reminds us of the horror we are capable of. Of what is possible.
When I was younger, I felt I could act and help to ‘save the world’. Now I feel powerless.
So it goes…
 A line repeated over and over in Kurt Vonegut’s Slaughter House Five, a book based in part on the WW2 bombing of Dresden.