On the Beach

From Academic Kids

On the Beach is a post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world novel written by British author Nevil Shute after he had emigrated to Australia.

The novel was adapted for the screenplay of a 1959 movie featuring Gregory Peck (USS Swordfish captain Dwight Lionel Towers), Ava Gardner (Moira Davidson), Fred Astaire (scientist Julian Osborne) and Anthony Perkins (Australian sailor Peter Holmes). It was directed by Stanley Kramer, who won the 1960 BAFTA for best director. Ernest Gold won the 1960 Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Score.

There was also a 2000 television movie featuring Armand Assante, Bryan Brown, Rachel Ward and directed by Russell Mulcahy.


The story is set in what was then the near-term future (1964, in the earlier movie, 1963 in the book) some time after World War III has devastated the northern hemisphere, polluting the atmosphere with nuclear fallout, which is gradually being carried south by the global air currents. The only part of the planet still inhabitable is the far south of the globe, specifically Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and the southern parts of South America.

From here, survivors detect a mysterious gibberish Morse code radio signal emitted from the United States. With hope that some life has remained in the contaminated regions, huypothesized by what is called the "Jorgensen Theory", one of the last American nuclear submarines, the Scorpion, sails north from its port of refuge in Australia to try to contact whomever is sending the signal. Captain Dwight Towers leads the operation, leaving behind him a woman of recent acquaintance, Moira Davidson, whom he's fallen in love with despite his feelings of guilt with respect to the death of his wife and children.

After sailing almost to the Arctic Circle the expedition determines that radiation levels are not diminishing, but intensifying, and discovers that the emitted signal is in fact the result of a broken window frame that is moved by the wind. The submarine crew return to Australia to live the little time that remains before the radioactive air arrives and kills everyone.

Despite their best efforts to enjoy their last remaining time while they may, the characters descend into frustration born of inability to put the past behind them, even to the point of fulfilling duties which, if momentarily contemplated, are ridiculous. This is best exemplified by Captain Towers, rather than remaining with Moira, choosing to lead his crew in taking their submarine out beyond the twelve mile limit and scuttle her on the open seas, rather than have her rattle about, unsecured, in a foreign port - this despite the obvious observation that everyone will be dead anyway, so why should this matter? Most of the Australians opt for the government-promoted alternative of suicide by cyanide pills, rather than waiting to die from the radiation. Another interesting aspect of the plot, commented upon by the characters, is that in Shute's world for the most part people do not flee southward as refugees but rather seem to accept their fate once the lethal radiation levels reach the latitude where they live.

The incident which is stated in the book, though not mentioned in the film, to have begun the war is the bombing of the US by Egyptians. The aircraft specified were obtained from the Soviets. It seems to refer to the contemporary Suez crisis.

Much of the novel's action takes place in Melbourne, as the southernmost part of the Australian mainland. Shute is said to have despised the first movie version, which was released little more than a year prior to his death, feeling that his characters had been altered too greatly.

The film shoot in and around Melbourne was a great novelty for that city at the time. Ava Gardner was claimed to have described the city as 'the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world'; the purported quote was actually invented by journalist Neil Jillett.

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