Stanley Kramer’s ‘On the Beach’: A Most Persuasive Cautioning Tale if We Ever Saw One

If you’re going to make a film about the end of the world, a Sydney Sun journalist called Neil Jillet allegedly said, Australia’s the place to do it. When Stanley Kramer took his crew and cast to Australia in order to film his adaptation of Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel, it was literally a collision of two vastly different worlds. Since Australia at the time had practically none of big film studios, Kramer was forced to build the facilities from scratch, hauling tons of equipment by ships to the remote continent. The heat was almost unbearable, working conditions were harsh, and not all on Kramer’s team found it easy to adjust to their new environment. But luckily enough, Australia realized what it could gain by providing home to such a stellar crew, by adopting such an ambitious and ultimately successful project. With On the Beach, which Ridley Scott mentioned in the recent ‘Ridley Scott’s top 5 sci-fi films of all time’ video, world cinema received its first serious, high-budget, star-ridden film about the nuclear apocalypse. Much more than the topic itself, what impresses in this picture is the wonderful way it was handled. Instead of filming an action/horror film, with plenty of special effects, uncountable explosions and a definite political statement ingrained between the lines of the script, Shute and Kramer, alongside the screenwriters John Paxton and (uncredited) James Lee Barrett, made a slow-moving drama utterly concentrated on the people. In the immediate wake of a devastating nuclear showdown, Australia is left as the only place on Earth where people survived. However, the winds will bring over nuclear fallout in a matter of weeks. This gives the authors the opportunity not only to explore the emotions of people helplessly awaiting their death, but to use those emotions—sadness, love, loneliness, joy, longing for life—as a tool for delivering the most important message of all: life is worth living, it is worth saving, it is worth protecting. There are so many beautiful things in one’s life that go unappreciated and taken for granted, it’s a crying shame it takes a catastrophe of unimaginable destructive power for those little things to be seen and cherished.

It is perhaps this tenderly pointed out thought that makes us love this underseen film so much. But there are plenty of other reasons to enjoy it. Fred Astaire in his first non-musical role, which he nails with ease and confidence. A young Anthony Perkins as a happily married man brought to the verge of killing his beloved family to save them from inevitable suffering. Heartbreaking role from Gregory Peck as a captain who misses his family so much it tears him apart. On the Beach is a beautiful ode to mankind, and a most persuasive cautioning tale if we ever saw one. It’s a film that deserves every single compliment it ever received, and a film we should never stop recommending to our friends, neighbors, random people on the street. For as long as we keep struggling to spread this word, there’s still hope that On the Beach’s reality won’t become our own reality some day.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read John Paxton’s screenplay for On the Beach [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 

APOCALYPSE THEN: ‘ON THE BEACH’ AND THE MAKING OF A LOST CLASSIC

In the late fifties Hollywood came to Melbourne in the form of producer/director Stanley Kramer’s haunting post apocalyptic classic On The Beach starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins and Donna Anderson. That collision is now the stuff of legend… —The making of a lost classic, The Barrelhouse

A new documentary Fallout takes a behind the scenes look at the making of the 1959 Stanley Kramer film On The Beach. It also looks at the life and work of author Nevil Shute who wrote the book.

 

‘ON THE BEACH’: FILMING THE 1959 FEATURE FILM

In the scorching heat of January 1959, amateur filmmaker R Goslin braved the heat in Melbourne’s beachside suburb of Frankston to record, in colour, behind the scenes images of Stanley Kramer’s Hollywood feature film On the Beach. Complete with Hawaiian music, voice-over narration and opening titles, this is a behind the scenes look at filmmaking, an enthusiastic home movie, and a little bit of ‘star spotting’ rolled into one. Footage includes candid scenes of Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins on and off the set. Courtesy of Australia’s audiovisual heritage online; National Film and Sound Archive. Curator’s notes by Poppy De Souza.

The opening titles against the soft waves of Hawaiian instrumental music introduce the context for this home movie, which shows day one of filming On the Beach in the waters of Canadian Bay in Mount Eliza, Victoria. The informative but light-hearted voice-over explains some of the technicalities of filmmaking, while the actors film a scene on the water. At the end of the day’s shoot, Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner walk up to their car and drive off for a well-earned break.

 
Fred Astaire, Donna Anderson and Anthony Perkins sign autographs for patients from the Frankston Orthopaedic Hospital. Below them, on the beach, actors Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck are filming scenes with director Stanley Kramer. Goslin’s camera pans across the set from a high angle, capturing the cast, crew and facilities. A voice-over explains the intricacies of recording live synchronised sound, and the expense of using film. The voice-over mentions temperatures soared to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, which is around 40 degrees Celsius, difficult conditions under normal circumstances, not to mention filming take after take under hot lights.

 
Returning after a break, the unit shoot more takes of a scene between Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner on the beach. Commencing with take number seven, Peck chases Gardner along the shoreline with an oar after which they ‘fight.’ The camera films the crew, the lights on the beach, and the public watching from the cliff tops above. To contrast the many takes needed for the Peck/Gardner scene, Goslin compares it to Fred Astaire’s scene, which only needs to be filmed once.

 
In surveying his nearly 60-year career, Giuseppe Rotunno likes to say that he has created a great deal out of very little; he points out that just as music has only seven basic notes, cinematography has only three lights: “You’ve got the key light, fill light, and back light, out of which comes an infinity of results. The light is like a kaleidoscope, but those three lights mixed together are more touchy than the kaleidoscope. It’s difficult to ask a painter, ‘How did you paint the picture?’ I go with my eyes and intuition. I like so much to light, and I cannot stop. When I was shooting with Fellini, I was always lighting the next shot, because I was afraid to lose the idea of the light.” —Giuseppe Rotunno, Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers

A centennial video tribute to Produce-Director, Stanley Kramer (1913-2001) in celebration of his life and legacy. Featuring comments by Tom Brokaw, Steven Spielberg, Karen Sharpe Kramer, and audio of Stanley himself. With selected clips from his classic films. The video was produced by Karen Sharpe Kramer and Gary Takesian for the Stanley Kramer Centennial Celebration.

One of our great filmmakers, not just for the art
and passion he put on screen, but for the impact
he has made on the conscience of the world.
Steven Spielberg

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach, on location in Australia. Still photographer: Wayne Miller © Stanley Kramer Productions, United Artists. Courtesy of Magnum Photos; The Karen Sharpe Kramer Private Collection incorporating the Stanley Kramer Collection at UCLA. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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