Any fears that Lawrence Johnston's documentary on the making of Stanley Kramer's 1959 film On the Beach would be something of a parochial, introspective effort were instantly dis-spelled with footage of President John F. Kennedy giving a speech likening the threat of nuclear annihilation as being a Sword of Damocles hanging over the whole world's population.
On the Beach, the apocalyptic story of the world coming to an end following a northern hemisphere war in which the use of cobalt bombs brought about inevitable mutual self- destruction was penned by Nevil Shute in 1957. As the radioactive fallout heads south on the Trade Winds killing all life in its path, the Australian city of Melbourne is the last major centre on earth to be left standing, its population going about its daily business with stoic phlegm, law and order prevailing. The documentary explained that Shute based this on the reaction he witnessed of Londoners during the blitz of 1940.
Shute sold the film rights to Hollywood for 80,000 pounds and the then very dull and isolated Anglo-Celtic enclave of Melbourne went agog with excitement as screen royalty – Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and the up and coming Anthony Perkins – arrived to shoot the adaptation of the international best-seller.
This meticulously researched, superbly produced and always fascinating documentary swept along with seamless segues as it detailed Nevil Shute's life and career, his fractious relationship with Stanley Kramer and the politics behind the film – both internal and external. All this was set in the context of the time when people the world over were coming to terms with the realisation that Man had invented a weapon that could see everyone wiped out at a near instant.
Nevil Shute was extremely wealthy through his 'hobby' writing. However, he considered himself first and foremost an aeronautical engineer and, as his daughter advised in the film, considered writing a 'nancy' occupation. The documentary also detailed how Shute left Britain for Australia soon after the Second World War due to punitive taxation from the Labour Government. But this I think only told half the story. Shute was an extremely conservative man – both with a big and small C – something which so often comes through in his work. He only left Britain in 1950 after Attlee's Socialist administration had been re-elected and despondently he believed that the country was now well and truly finished. In his 1953 novel, In the Wet, Shute gives a prophetic vision of 30 years hence. Britain is governed by ill-educated Welsh miners and in terminal decline. Australia and Canada are paragons of private enterprise, prosperous and free of state regulation. HM The Queen decamps for Canberra leaving the United Kingdom under the control of a Governor-General.
But when it came to the threat of nuclear war, Shute identified strongly with those, mainly on the left, who thought the whole concept total madness. As Fallout clearly detailed, it was Conservative forces which were uncomfortable with the film's premise and put barriers up to frustrate its production.
Fallout is choc a bloc with interesting facts and vignettes. There are interviews with Donna Anderson, the only star from the film still alive; Shute's daughter; Kramer's widow Karen together with contributions from historians, journalists and an incredibly lucid photographer who was at Hiroshima immediately after its bombing and who was subsequently chosen to produce the stills for On the Beach.
All this was interspersed with clips from the film, a fleeting history of the development of nuclear bombs and a social history of Melbourne with relevant archive footage to accompany. It should be of interest to anyone who wants to get a feel of what the world was like in the Cold War days of the 1950s.
One of the last words went to author and journalist Gideon Haigh who wondered why the threat of nuclear destruction is no longer the social issue it once was when it is probably more likely now then ever before. He suggested the world was now an ammunition dump which one stray spark could set off. With nuclear proliferation now so prevalent and suicide bombers seemingly happy to achieve immortality, he opined that it was highly feasible two volatile states could go to war , or some fanatic detonate a nuclear device in a major world city.
This was thought provoking. Why so many are expending energy on the rather abstract idea of climate change that may cause major problems in 50, or 100, years time when a far more devastating event could happen at any time is strange indeed.
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