One of my favorite films of all time is On the Beach from 1959. Much of it takes place in Melbourne where the last people on Earth live out their last few days as the radiation cloud slowly approaches.
Gregory Peck stars as the US Navy atomic submarine captain who is in Australia with his crew. The rest of humanity has taken the big leap into the churchyard grass but he maintains the fiction that his family is home waiting for him. Ok Greg, simmer down.
He ends up being friends with a character played by Ava Gardner and in spite of the heat between them, they really are just friends because he doesn’t want to be disloyal. Silly boy. Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins are in the picture as well. It seems Fred’s character drinks too much (everyone else is constantly hammered too) and he also organizes a car race where the safely rules don’t apply. The filmmakers actually wreck a good many 1950s Porches, Ferraris and a Gull Wing Mercedes.
These cars are worth millions today but this was long before they became ‘vintage’ vehicles and besides it was the end of the world.
In any case, Ava is earnestly trying to unpants the good captain when the Navy receives a strange garbled signal from San Diego. Since Peck and his crew are all that remains of the US Navy and they decide to sail underwater first to Alaska and down the coast down to San Diego. They dip into San Francisco Bay and come to a stop near Pier 39 when a sailor, who is from that city, goes out an escape hatch and swims to shore.
He walks home and finds his decaying parents in bed having now become ancestors. The sailor returns to the dock with his fishing gear and talks to the captain over the intercom. He says he’d rather stay in San Francisco until the radiation gets him, which would be in a day or two. The captain and crew wish him good luck (such as it is) and set off for San Diego to see who’s sending the jumbled code and to lecture the sender on proper Morse code etiquette. I don’t want to spoil the scene if you are going to see this excellent film as it is one of the top 20 movie scenes of all time according to me.
I will spoil the ending of the film. The submarine sails back to Australia where people are picnicking and drinking a tremendous amount (this is Australia after all). Then the Geiger counters start ticking and most people take poison and everyone dies. Did Greg lose his pants, you’re asking? Well, it is the end of the world after all.
Stanley Kramer the producer/director wanted to use an American submarine but when the military read the script they nixed it as it was the military that killed everyone and they thought it made them look bad. Also the author of the book wasn’t happy that Greg’s character was eventually unfaithful to his deceased wife and Gregory Peck, the actor, felt this as well. Remember he was the lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird and he thought that cheating on his late wife would tarnish his image as if being the commander of a hydrogen bomb laden military vessel in WWIII would be OK. In the end the crew votes to go back to the USA to die and Greg has to go with them leaving Ava ‘On the Beach.’
The movie didn’t get good reviews like this one in Variety—“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.” Yeah, well the end of the world is a huge bummer. My one criticism is that they shot the entire film, from a lighting standpoint, too dark to reflect it’s mood but still way-to-dark.
The movie was seen by a good many government folks and although it wasn’t released in the Soviet Union, Gregory Peck introduced it to an audience of 1,200 top Soviet officials at a special screening. The film is said to have had a sobering effect on many world leaders so even though it bombed (a rare opportunity to be meaningfully punful) it has long been an influential work of social commentary. Plus Greg looks fan-damn-tastic in his uniform.
The film was made in the era of serious filmmaking: Ben Hur, the Brothers Karamazov and Anatomy of a Murder. The Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello beach (yum beach) movies came later in the mid 60s, a good era tarnished in the mid 60s by the war in Viet Nam. Did you know that the US government didn’t want to call it a war so they called it a “police action” because it didn’t fit the Constitutional definition of a war? Truman pulled this same stunt with the Korean War so he didn’t have ask Congress to declare war.
Anyway, in 1989 I met Gregory Peck in an elevator. Greg, as I later came to call him, looked at me eye-to-eye (we are both being quite tall) in this very tiny elevator and said, “Bonjour.” I returned his Bonjour casually as we descended our noses nearly touching. No begging for an autograph, no, “I love your work” just a couple of classy guys.
We were at the Hotel du Cap near Cannes and Greg was there for the film festival with Jane Fonda (or Jane as I came to call her) who he greeted in the lobby. They were in town to premiere their film The Old Gringo. This was a movie about Ambrose Bierce who was from San Francisco. My son’s apartment does not appear in this film.
Years later I was in that same elevator with my classy friend Jim, and Harvey Weinstein was in the lobby. Not a classy guy.
I never saw Greg or Jane again.