“On the Beach” is not so much about the end of the world, as it is about a large group of people who have to come to terms with the fact that they will die very soon. As most of the world has been destroyed by nuclear radiation, survivors have huddled in a small town in Australia far away from the fallout. But they soon learn it’s headed their way thanks to wind currents, and there’s no stopping it. We then view the requiem of mankind, as government officials continue to struggle to find a way to solve the problem, and then face that there’s simply no solution.
From there on, we follow a small group or characters that have managed to find a temporary safe haven from the radiation and rather than submit to panic and terror, they use their last days of sealing old scars, confronting old conflicts, and saying goodbye to the ones they love dear. Among a brilliant cast of performers like Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins, Donna Anderson, and more, Kramer visits various ideas about life’s regrets and unfulfilled potential we never reach thanks to death.
Most tragic of the dilemmas involves Peter Holmes who has a beautiful newborn daughter, and knows that she won’t be able to see it through a year. He and his wife Mary are constantly embroiled in the lingering reminder of apparent death, while Mary is in pure denial and is certain all is not lost, especially when a crew journeys into the city in a submarine to answer the Morse code SOS from an apparent survivor. The most interesting element of “On the Beach” is the idea of the inevitability of death, and how one must accept it as a phase of life whether it approaches sooner or later.
“On the Beach” is one of the few thrillers that never attempts to sugar coat what is inescapable, and Stanley Kramer further induces that theme as he features desolate cityscapes of the highly radiated San Diego void of any human life or corpses, as well as droves of people lining up at hospitals to receive their cyanide pills. Even moments of happiness like fishing and romance are blanketed with sheer dread. Director Kramer’s drama is a bleak and heart wrenching tale of the end of the world, and a beautiful masterpiece about humanity’s last days for better and for worse.