Monday, March 3, 2008

On the Beach

On Saturday night Jenn and I watched On the Beach on Turner Classic Movies. I had read the book long ago, but didn’t remember much about it, except that it was set in Australia, where survivors of a global nuclear war are waiting for the fallout to reach them. The movie was extraordinarily powerful but never sensational. Though the premise is the complete annihilation of humanity, you don’t see even a single dead body throughout the film. On the Beach stars Gregory Peck, as an American submarine captain stationed in Australia. His wife and two children died while he was at sea, a fact he hasn’t been able to accept. Peck falls for an aging but attractive Ava Gardner, whose weakness for alcohol has been reinforced by the approaching end of the world. Anthony Perkins is a young Australian naval officer (his light accent seems to come and go) married to a high-strung wife. Fred Astaire, in his first nonmusical role, plays a brooding, lonely scientist who shows enthusiasm only for his Italian sports car. It’s a longish movie without much action, which leaves the viewer to think about what is going to happen to these characters. The American sub sets on a mission to the north to sample the air in hopes that the intensity of the fallout has diminished. It hasn’t. On the way back, the sub stops at the deserted port of San Francisco, where the view from the periscope shows nothing living on the hilly streets. A sailor whose home was San Francisco deserts the sub and swims ashore, knowing he will have only a few days to live. Next morning, in a weirdly funny scene, the sub raises its periscope a few feet away from the dock where the sailor is peacefully fishing. Captain Peck has a brief, friendly conversation with the deserter before the submarine cruises away. The most striking thing about On the Beach may be the calmness with which the characters face the end. They go to their jobs, throw parties, take care of their families, go fishing, and even have love affairs. They may argue a little about whose fault it was that the bombs fell, but the arguments peter out pretty soon. There’s no longer any point to arguing. My limited experience with disaster leads me to think this is just how people would react. I once took off on a flight from Los Angeles that circled a couple of times over the ocean, then returned to the airport for an emergency landing. The cabin attendant repeated the emergency landing instructions with her voice cracking. I’m sure many of us thought these were our last moments, but nobody yelled or screamed or carried on. With the end of the cold war, people stopped worrying about this kind of global catastrophe. But with poorly guarded nuclear devices and materials scattered around the world, each of us is in at least as much danger from a smaller attack that could still erase a city and render vast territories uninhabitable for generations. It’s not a cheery subject for the campaign trail, but I hope the presidential candidates have given some thought to it.

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