By Brian Martin
Responding to my post about ‘On The Beach”
Thanks for your reflections on On the Beach. They greatly interested me because, like you, I recently reread the book and watched the film. That was in late 2020 for my book Truth Tactics (free at https://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/21tt/), one chapter of which is a reflection on sources of information that affected my understanding of the effects of nuclear war.
You were surprised that in the book and film, there were no riots or civil unrest. Actually, studies of disasters show most people behave rationally.
Nevil Shute’s scenario was explosion of cobalt bombs, which would have caused death by radiation with relatively little physical destruction, and certainly no damage far from the explosions. So that aspect is realistic. What is unrealistic is the whole scenario, because cobalt bombs were never built and, even if they had been, the radiation wouldn’t have gradually moved south as in Shute’s novel.
For those with a great interest in On the Beach, I append my notes on both the novel and the film, and you can read what I say about it in Truth Tactics.
Nevil Shute, On the Beach (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1957)
Aside from the scenario, this novel is about people’s ordinary lives. It’s set in Melbourne in 1963, in the aftermath of a global nuclear war in the northern hemisphere in which thousands of cobalt bombs are used, leading to massive radioactive contamination of the atmosphere and land, killing everyone in the northern hemisphere. Gradually the radioactivity is moving south, killing everyone in its path. Melbourne is the largest city in the southernmost parts of the world. The premise is that everyone knows, or should know, that they are all going to die within a few months.
The narrative follows a small number of individuals. Peter Holmes is an Australian naval lieutenant-commander. He and his wife Mary have a baby daughter, Jennifer. They have a friend, Moira, a 24-year-old who drinks heavily. Dwight Towers is the captain of a US nuclear submarine that was at sea and avoided immediate death. Dwight’s wife Sharon and their two daughters were in Connecticut and hence presumed dead. John Osborne is a scientist.
The story revolves around two angles. One is two trips by the sub, one to northern Australia, to look for life, and the other to the west coast of North America, with the same aim. Shute provides lots of detail about the trips, much of it through the eyes of Dwight, Peter and John, sometimes via their briefings with senior figures.
There’s a scientist, Jorgenson, not introduced as a character, who says, contrary to other scientific opinion, that the radiation levels may be declining at high latitudes. [He is a precursor of present-day scientist dissidents.] In terms of the plot, Jorgenson provides a rationale for the sub trip to North America.
Back home, Peter and Mary pursue domestic and social activities. They invite Moira to join them and divert Dwight from his sorrow, leading to a romantic relationship between Moira and Dwight.
Several of the characters deny reality in various ways. Mary makes all sorts of plans for a garden and outdoor furniture, as if they will be alive to enjoy them. Similarly, various neighbours make plans as if they are going to be around. Dwight seemingly cannot accept that his family is dead, and buys gifts for them all. Initially Moira cannot understand this, but then decides to humour Dwight’s delusion. She also accepts that Dwight is not ready for anything more than friendship given his commitment to his (late) wife Sharon. This relationship between Moira and Dwight provides the main emotional anchor for the book.
Around them, many activities are shutting down. Some people keep working, and it’s convenient for the plot that electricity and food remain available. People stop caring about being paid; shops don’t worry about payment.
Meanwhile, John has a passion for car racing, having purchased a Ferrari. He and others scrounge petrol (which is scarce) and join in racing. John, though inexperienced, comes second in a preliminary race, and wins the Grand Prix. Many drivers are killed or injured, seemingly not caring much about the risks because they are going to die anyway.
Chemists provide tablets for ending one’s life peacefully, to avoid dying from radiation poisoning. Mary is initially horrified at killing their daughter but after they all come down with radiation sickness, she asks Peter to help Jennifer die. Peter, who is sick but could live another week or so, decides to die along with Mary.
John sees his mother die. He decides to take a tablet while sitting in his racing car.
Dwight, who has become commander of the US Navy (a total of two ships by this time) decides to scuttle his sub and go down with it. He refuses Moira’s request to join him. She drives to the coast where she can see the sub one more time, and takes a tablet.
The ending of the novel is the most powerful part of the book. The end of human life on earth, portrayed via the end of the lives of ordinary people in such ordinary ways, is moving.
Much of the rest of the novel is fairly pedestrian, especially the details of the submarine trips and the car-racing. Aside from the Moira-Dwight romance, which is very slow-moving, not much happens. The driver behind the novel is the knowledge that everyone will die. Most of the characters keep doing ordinary things, except for the car-racers. Due to her care for Dwight, Moira seems to reform from being an alcoholic to taking a shorthand and typing class. Dwight remains attached to his naval duties to the end, despite their rationale having been removed.
Shute has the characters often smoking and drinking.
On the beach, film, 1959, directed and produced by Stanley Kramer, screenplay by John Paxton, with Gregory Peck (Dwight), Ava Gardner (Moira), Fred Astaire (John, called Julian in the film), Anthony Perkins (Peter) and Donna Anderson (Mary), 129m, black and white
The film follows the novel to a large degree, with some differences.
• The film opens in January 1964, a year later than in the novel.
• The first sub trip is omitted.
• In the sub trip to San Francisco, a sailor leaves unauthorised and swims to shore, where he stays. Then the sub goes to San Diego where a sailor, in protective gear, finds the source of the mysterious messages to be a coke bottle leaning on the Morse code tapper, being lifted and let down by movements of a window shade pull. The sailor’s run/walk to find this apparatus is an extended scene.
• There is only one race, won by Julian.
• The cause of the war is not explained in the film, nor are cobalt bombs mentioned. Nothing is said about the plausibility of the radiation gradually moving south in either the book or the film.
• The film has more moralising about the stupidity of humans to make destructive weapons. Julian feels responsible since he participated in the bomb making; I don’t remember John having any direct role in bomb making.
• Julian ends his life sitting in his racing car, not by taking a tablet but by gassing himself. The scene about him seeing his mother is omitted.
• Dwight expresses his love for Moira. It is implied that their love is consummated, unlike in the novel. In the novel, a key romantic theme is that Moira is reformed by her love and respect for Dwight, including accepting that he will remain committed to his wife. This is turned into a more traditional love story in the film.
• Many of the delusions are left out: Mary’s, the extent of Dwight’s, etc.
• Gregory Peck (43) and Ava Gardner (37) are older than the characters Dwight (33) and Moira (24) in the novel.
• “Waltzing Matilda” is played throughout the film (at least the Australian scenes, which are the majority), in a delightful number of variations.
• Towards the end, there’s a scene of a Salvation Army rally; later, the same scene is shown, deserted of people. None of this is in the book.
• While the sub is in San Francisco harbour, Dwight looks at the city for an extended period. It’s intact but devoid of people or activity. The other sailors also have a look. This was only covered indirectly in the novel, via discussions after returning.
• As in the novel, Dwight chooses duty over love, taking the sub to sea to be scuttled. Likewise, Moira is on the coast watching, but we don’t see her taking a tablet.
• There’s a scene showing dispensing of suicide tablets to a queue of people a block long. This wasn’t in the novel, where it was the local chemist who provided the tablets.
• As in the novel, Mary has great trouble accepting that their lives will end, but does at the end. Peter’s decision to end his life along with Mary’s and Jennifer’s — in the novel he had perhaps another week to live, but hid this from Mary — is not articulated.
• The role of Jorgenson is the same: a reason for the sub trip to the north.
• In the novel, Jennifer would have to be euthanised by injection. In the film, the implication is that she would get a tablet like adults.