Thursday, August 21, 2008

The other Fred Astaire movie

Last Friday, I mentioned Flying Down to Rio as one of the Fred Astaire movies I can recommend for being different from his normal movie. There's another type; the movie in which he doesn't dance at all. That Fred Astaire movie would be On the Beach, airing tonight at 10:00 PM ET on TCM.

Based on a novel by Nevil Shute, On the Beach tells a post-apocalyptic story of the few remaining survivors of nuclear war. They've all made their way to Australia, the only place that hasn't been affected by the fallout. However, they all know that eventually -- and it's not too far in coming -- the fallout is going to come their way too, dooming them to a horrible death. The cast is full of stars: Gregory Peck plays an American submarine commander; Anthony Perkins plays a junior officer in the Australian navy; Ava Gardner plays an Australian woman with whom Peck enjoys a brief, ill-fated romance; and Astaire plays a cynical scientist who knew that this is what the a-bomb was going to come to.

Although everybody knows that the end is near, there's a split of opinion as to what to do. The military types are still trying to look for a way out of the situation, leading to Peck's taking his submarine back to the US West coast in order to see investigate a radio signal coming from San Diego. Even though all we see is desolation, there are still some pretty uncomfortable scenes, proving once again that you don't need to show blood and guts to have a good fright. In contrast to the military, there are a lot of civilians who just want to live out their final days in comfort, enjoying the things they used to know, as shown in a very sad sequence involving people fishing while singing "Waltzing Matilda", and a car race in which Astaire takes part. The most chilling of these sequences, however, is when Perkins realizes what the radiation sickness is going to do to his wife and young daughter, and tries to leave cyanide capsules for his wife to administer to herself and the baby should the radiation sickness come when he's not around.

Perkins might be the weakest of the major stars, because he was still fairly young and not yet up to the task of playing an Aussie; indeed, he looks like an American fish out of water, even though he's trying hard. Peck and Gardner are quite good, but Astaire really shines. Who ever knew that he could do such serious stuff? As a whole, On the Beach is very good, too, although it runs a little long. We know that the end is near, but director Stanley Kramer tries to draw this end out by showing the world be increasingly less populated, in the form of a "repent now"-style religious revival. The intended message, that nuclear weapons are bad, is fairly blunt, but at the time, the moviemakers had no idea that the theory of mutually assured destruction might actually be a correct one and that it was the presence of nuclear weapons which was preventing another European war. (Of course, one could argue that the Great Powers simply decided to use Vietnam as a proxy instead.)

Politics aside, On the Beach is a well-told, visually engaging movie, with an outstanding performance from Fred Astaire. It's available on DVD, too, so you can still watch it even if you miss TCM's showing tonight.

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