On the Beach
book: Nevil Shute, 1957
movie: Stanley Kramer and John Paxton, 1959
The place: Melbourne, Australia. The year: 1963 ('64 in the movie), a year
and a half after a nuclear war wiped out the Northern Hemisphere. Gradually
the fallout is creeping southward. It'll reach Melbourne, the world's
southernmost major city, around September, and kill everyone. There is
nothing that can be done about this.
Evaluation and commentary
This was not assigned in my apocalypse class — possibly because it's an
American Studies class, and On the Beach is set in Australia —
but it kept getting mentioned in the essays in the course reader, so I decided
to read it. The Berkeley Public Library had the DVD, so I checked that out as
The book is pretty good. There's not really a lot going on in terms of plot,
but it's interesting to read about how Melbourne deals with its impending
demise. Shute was an ex-pat from Britain and most of his characters keep stiff
upper lips about the whole thing. The conceit of the novel is that while everyone
accepts that there's not much time left, people act as if they had futures, because
the routine keeps them sane. So while college students drop out immediately after
the war, they eventually re-enroll, knowing they will never get their degrees; people
have babies, knowing they will never grow up; they plant gardens, knowing they will
never bloom. When the time comes, they open the fishing season a bit early and
hold a car race, and when the radiation sickness is firmly established, everyone
takes a suicide pill, and that's that. Says one character to her husband before
downing her pill, "I've had a lovely time since we got married. Thank you for
everything." Sigh. Women, always so sentimental.
The movie is more conventional and twists a couple of the relationships
from the book into standard Hollywood fare. One thread from the book is that an
American submarine has survived the war and turned up in Australia, and an
Australian naval officer hooks the captain up with a family friend to keep his
mind off of things. In the book, she's one of those on-hiatus college students,
while he's thirty and has just lost his wife, his ten-year-old son and his
six-year-old daughter. (Interesting that her early life has been warped by
WWIII, his by WWII: World War Two made the age of first marriage plunge.)
One of the melancholy aspects of the book is that it is clear that if not for
the radiation, the two of them would have married after he had had time to grieve,
both of them still young enough to start a family of their own... but since he
knows he's going to be joining his wife and kids in a few months, he stays locked
into them and the poor Australian girl doesn't stand a chance. In the movie, they
are played by Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, both of them fortyish, and Greg forgets
his family by the end of the third reel. Many smooches ensue.
Another pair of important characters in the book are the Australian naval officer
and his wife, adult suburbanites with a baby daughter (whom they have given the
newfangled name "Jennifer"). These are the ones with the bland "I've had a grand
time" speeches at the end. But in the movie, they're played by Anthony Perkins
— who at least tries an Australian accent for his first scene before
discarding it, which is more than any of the other American actors can say —
and this total hottie named Donna Anderson, neither of whom seems much
over nineteen. Their final scene is very different from in the book: they're
kids in love. Poor kids.
(Also, the twentysomething, jovial nerd scientist in the book is played in the
movie by a very bitter sixty-year-old Fred Astaire. He doesn't dance.)
I guess I would recommend the book to those who find the premise intriguing.
I can't really recommend the movie unless you want to just gaze at Donna
Anderson. It is pretty much torpedoed by the music, which really beats you
over the head when On the Beach is supposed to be an understated
piece. BE SAD! the violins wail. BE SCARED! the trumpets
shriek. Awful. Also, there were so many renditions of Waltzing Matilda
that by the end I was looking for my suicide pill.
The Last Man on Earth
Ubaldo Ragona, Sidney Salkow, Richard Matheson, et al, 1964
Vincent Price battles the world's least competent vampires.
Evaluation and commentary
I have to assume that this was a mixup and that Jennifer's Netflix Arranger
sent this stinkbomb to my apocalypse class by mistake. Start with Vincent
Price as your protagonist, probably pissed that he didn't pass the Plan
Nine audition. Then have him spend a long hour and a half fighting
either vampires who think they're zombies or zombies who think they're
vampires. I mean, Vincent Price calls them vampires, and he
fights them as if they were vampires, but they shuffle around like
zombies and say things like "Uhhh! Whurr gunnuh kill yoo, Morgan!" like
zombies. The film has a hard time establishing the zombies and/or vampires
as especially menacing when every time they surround Vincent Price he just
elbows them aside. Seriously. These vampires are vulnerable to wooden
stakes, iron stakes, daylight, crosses, mirrors, garlic, and shoving.
Oh, I forgot to mention that they carry two-by-fours around as weapons,
because, y'know, vampire = not scary, but vampire with two-by-four =
very scary. Also, in one scene they realize they can't beat Vincent
Price, so they vandalize his car. So he goes and gets a new car. Man, you
can practically hear the wisecracking robots, can't you?
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