Posted by: Christine Johnson | February 2, 2007

There’s Two Hours I’ll Never See Again!

UPDATE: Most of the content of the review below is now posted at IMDb.

When I was in college, I remember hearing about a book (also movie) called On the Beach. The movie has Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astair, Anthony Perkins (young enough that I can almost see freckles on his cheeks!)…and I’d heard it was good.

I really need to try to remember which movies are recommended by college profs in the future.

The movie was long, meandering, depressing (though there was some dark humor in it), and, overall, pointless.

Can I give you a spoiler? If you really want to see the movie (which I don’t recommend unless you’re looking for a penance so you can have steak for dinner tonight), skip the rest of this review.

When the movie opens, nuclear war has already occurred. (The movie was made in 1959 but takes place in early 1964.) The entire Northern Hemisphere has been nuked, and everyone is dead. Not a soul alive anywhere. (Why this happened is apprently explained in the book, though it’s never clearly explained in the movie.) A lone nuclear-powered US sub shows up in Australia, the only place on earth where people are still alive. Gregory Peck is the captain who comes ashore to find out what’s happening there and to see if there is anything he can do to help Australia’s navy.

Well, people Down Under are now traveling mostly by bicycle and horse, unless they take the electric train or occasionally (if they are wealthy enough to be able to find petrol) a car. Some people have taken to being drunk all the time. It seems strange, and a cloud hangs over everyone’s activities.

Turns out that they are expecting to get the fallout from the nuclear war within five months, and so everyone is pretty much living in their last days. Gregory Peck’s character is the target of Ava Gardener’s. She plays a woman who never settled down, and suddenly she wants to with Peck. Problem is, he’s married with two children, and talks as though they are all still alive. He cannot deal with them being gone and him being left. In one of the few vaguely touching moments, he admits that he’d always been prepared for his own death, leaving his family behind. He can’t deal with them being gone and him being alive instead. Unfortunately, his “choking back tears” thing looked a bit more like “holding back chunks.” Really. He looked kind of nauseous. Anthony Perkins and his young wife have a baby girl, and he worries about how soon the radiation will come and kill them all. The acting for both of them was old-fashioned wooden stuff. The kind that made me dislike old movies for a long time. Astair’s character had worked on the Bomb, helped to build it. His guilt is overwhelming. But he’d always wanted to race, and in yet another what-has-this-to-do-with-the-story scene, he races in a Grand Prix with a Ferrari he picked up for “a hundred quid.” He wins, but there is – I kid you not – zero emotion from him throughout the entire scene.

A strange Morse Code message is picked up and estimated to be from around San Diego, but it is gibberish. As a last-ditch, the US sub (the only nuclear powered sub around now) is commissioned to go see who is alive and sending this garbled tapping. The sub makes rounds first to test the radiation in the air, discovering that it’s far too high for human life to be sustainable. Then the sub surfaces near San Francisco. Beautiful town. Big bridge, trolley cars, pretty row houses…really. After a nuclear war. Lots of loud and suspensful music, too, in between absolute silence.

One guy jumps ship, literally. His family was there, and he swims ashore so he can die there, too. He’s left behind.

The sub moves on to San Diego. They suit up one guy and send him out to try to figure out who’s sending Morse Code out. They chance it and stop near a refinery. After a bit of searching, he discovers the source of the Code. A Coke bottle has fallen down, catching in the rope-pull of a window shade. The wind is blowing occasionally, creating the tapping sound.

Another pointless occurance.

They head back, and everyone goes back to “life.” Gregory Peck (I guess) comes to terms with the complete annihilation of his family and moves in with Ava Gardner. They do all kinds of stuff on her little farm. More meandering.

Finally, someone comes up sick. The radiation is here, and it’s earlier than thought. And now comes the creepy part.

The disturbing thing, truly disturbing, is that everyone is planning to commit suicide. The government is readying pills for everyone to take to kill themselves. Parents plan the murder of their own children. And everyone lines up to get their little pills while (in the only appearance of faith of any kind in the movie comes up) the Salvation Army Band plays under a big banner that reads


Some preacher from the Salvation Army goes on about people turning to God, looking for answers as to why we did this to ourselves, etc. No real answers are given, no real theology is even touched.

We see absolutely NO other religion of any kind in the movie. All I can think of is getting to a priest for Confession!

So we see Anthony Perkins and his movie-wife sitting down for tea, small pillbox on hand. They talk about how they met, etc. They are not even sick. They feel fine, show no symptoms.

We move on, and the sub crew is approached by Peck, their captain, and they decide that they’d like to go back to the US to die there. In spite of being in love with Gardner, Peck goes. And, in spite of being on a non-existant mission towards death, he just flat leaves her. “I love you, but I have to go with them. They want to go.” Yeah, whatever.

So he sails off as she stands crying and watching him go away forever.

Fred Astair clims into his Ferrari in the garage and kills himself without the help of a pill. Happy smiles for ol’ Fred as he revs up the engine on his beautiful hot rod.

And then we are treated to scenes of empty streets. Papers blowing in the wind. Tables from the pill stations still there, now unmanned. Every human being on earth is either dead or on his way to death.

And the last thing we see is the banner blowing in the breeze.


Oh! I get it now! It’s a CAUTIONARY TALE! (Actually, you do get that from Fred Astair’s little speech a few days before he kills himself. But you need the big banner, too, ‘cuz we’re not as smart as the Hollywood set, you know.)

No wonder my liberal college professor loved this movie.

Depressing, pointless…just the thing for the guilt-laden Left-wing liberal.

As for me, all I can say is that I’ll never get those two hours back again. Phooey. I did discover that Hollywood started heading down the path it’s on now way back 50 years ago. I guess that’s one lesson I can take from this.


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