I have been reading several cold war novels from the late 1950s and early 1960s, and then Katie and I have been watching related movies. This period was the most intense portion of the cold war, after
had developed its own arsenal of nuclear weapons. Those of us who were in
school way back then remember the numerous Civil Defense recommendations,
especially bomb shelters of both public and private types. In essence all of
these programs were psychological propaganda to give the public a feel that if atomic
war happened there was hope, if they were prepared. Two examples are shown
below. A poster telling you what to do if a bomb suddenly flashed in the sky
was an example of this propaganda. In the Midwestern schools I went to, we had
frequent preparedness drills, particularly “Duck and Cover,” as per the first photo. The “Duck and Cover” drill was also essentially practice for tornado
warnings, where it actually made some sense.
I recently finished reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. Shute was an Englishman who had successful careers as an aeronautical engineer (using his full name of Nevil Shute
Norway) and as an author. He wrote
more than 20 novels and was an extremely popular author during the years after
WWII. Not surprisingly, many of his novels had aviation aspects. Distressed
with the way things were evolving in England
after the war, he moved his family to Australia in 1950. In Australia he
also had a brief career racing sports cars. He died, a victim of a stroke, in
1960 at age 60.
On the Beach was published in 1957 by Heinemann in the
UK, and also by William Morrow in the US. First
editions of both versions are not difficult to find; however, condition is
often an issue and higher prices ($100 to $300) usually are asked for copies
that have survived in Very Good to Fine condition (although, as is sadly
typical, prices on the internet are all over the place). The book spent 29
weeks on the New York Times best seller list reaching the number 2 spot, but
never quite making it to the top. The copy shown below is a UK first
The story takes place mostly in
during the 1960s, following a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere, where
nuclear blasts and radiation have obliterated civilization. Shute avoids
directly accusing the two nuclear super-powers of starting this war (he has it
begin with an unlikely exchange of atomic attacks between Italy and Albania), however all atomic
nations quickly joined the exchanges. Post-war radiation levels are extreme and
are gradually circulating on the winds into the southern hemisphere. Radiation
sickness is progressing southward, as evidenced by sequential losses of
communications from northern cities. Melbourne
is the southernmost major city in the world, and this is where Shute lived and
where he set much of On the Beach.
The story follows five people as they face the end of the world and their own deaths. This was a grim story for grim, frightening times. Peter Holmes, an officer in the Australian Navy, and his wife Mary (they have an infant daughter) live outside of Melbourne, and he commutes back and forth to the Naval yards as best he can (petrol is extremely scarce and folks are getting around mainly by horse or bicycle).
Commander Dwight Towers
has piloted his US nuclear
submarine to Australia
after surviving the war, which occurred during an extended cruise. He has put
his submarine at the beck and call of the Australian Navy, since there is no
longer a US Navy. Moira Davidson, a young woman whom the Holmes introduced to
Towers, has become his nearly constant companion, but not lover. Moira is
trying to cope with the approach of death by drinking heavily at every
opportunity. Dwight is coping by holding delusions that all is well with his
family back in the states, and that he’ll see them again.
The Australian Navy sends Towers on a short voyage to search for life in
Australia’s northern cities. Peter
Holmes is assigned to the submarine as Australian Navy liaison, and a young
scientist, John Osborne, is also sent along to monitor radiation levels. The
voyage reveals no indications of life in northern Australia. Towers is next asked to
cruise as far north in the Pacific as possible, again searching for indications
of survivors. He is also ordered to investigate strange, intermittent radio
signals coming from near Seattle.
The results of this long voyage are the same. One crew member of the sub
abandons ship near Seattle
and rows away to see his home town. He must stay ashore because of the
radiation, but he does report to Towers from a fishing boat that everyone is
dead or gone.
The sub returns to Melbourne and the rest of the story focuses on the final activities of the five key characters. As radiation levels increase, the government provides suicide pills, or injections, for those who want them. There is sports car racing, as enthusiasts who had saved petrol stashes hold a final Australian Gran Prix. The scientist, John Osborne, races his prized Ferrari and wins the final race. There is an amusing dilemma posed for Australian bureaucrats – should trout fishing season be opened early? Eventually Dwight and Moira go off on a chaste, fishing junket in the mountains. During the final few days, the principals use the suicide pills, except for Towers and a small crew. They sail the
US submarine to
international waters and scuttle the ship, going down with her. This is the way
the world ends. On the Beach is a
serious read, and my main reflection is that it was essentially a miracle that
the world survived the era of mutual destruction strategies.
The movie version of On the Beach was released in 1959. The screenplay was written by John Paxton and the film was directed by Stanley Kramer. The main players were: Gregory Peck (
Ava Gardner (Moira Davidson), Anthony Perkins (Peter Holmes), Fred Astaire
(John Osborne, but called Julian Osborn in the film), and character actress
Donna Anderson in her first film appearance (Mary Holmes). We thought he film
was quite well done, especially considering it is a story of the end of the
world. The black and white was especially appropriate. The casting was,
however, a bit “off” regarding two characters. Moira was a young woman in her
middle 20s in the book, but Dwight Towers Gardner
was nearly 40 when the film was shot. Osbourne was a young scientist, but
Astaire, in his first dramatic role, was 60 years old when he acted in this
film. The screenplay by Paxton made many changes from the details of Shute’s
story. Among others: in the movie Towers and his crew decide to return to their
home base and are seen cruising away from Australia at the end of the movie; in
the movie the mysterious radio signal is coming from an oil refinery along the
coast near San Diego, rather than from somewhere near Seattle. However, the
most substantial change that Kramer and Paxton made was that Towers and Moira
obviously become lovers near the end of the film. This enraged Shute and Peck
also argued against the change. From http://www.nevilshute.org/
In spite of its many accolades, Nevil Shute hated the film. He was enraged by its production to the extent that Shirley Norway believes his anger over the film hastened his death.
Like all his best stories, "On The Beach" was about ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances, rising to the occasion, and behaving very well. The problem was that Nevil felt behaving very well included remaining true to one's dead spouse. In the book,
refused to give in
to his passion for the Australian beauty Moira, and she was above trying to
seduce him into betraying his dead wife. In the film, Towers, played by Gregory
Peck, and Moira, played by Ava Gardner, left no doubt about whether or not
their relationship was consummated. Nevil felt that this destroyed the central
message of the book. Captain Dwight
Notwithstanding Nevil's dislike of the film, it is a classic, and the power of its message is as strong today as it ever was.
The Nevil Shute web site also has perspectives on the movie from Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck – see the “Flimography” section.
Finally, the US Department of Defense and the Navy refused to cooperate with Kramer during the filming. The submarine used in the movie is a British, Royal Navy, non-nuclear vessel. Our Defense department felt that the movie was too negative, and that the existing nuclear arsenals of the
were not large enough to result in complete destruction if there were a war.