You know, when I started writing up these suggestions for my Post-Apocalyptic Movie Club a couple of years back, I looked back on films about the nuclear holocaust with a mix of relief and nostalgia. In the early 1980’s it felt likely – inevitable, almost – that’d we’d all disappear in a white hot radioactive haze at some point. And then things felt like they’d somewhat improved, that we’d stepped back from the brink. Over the last ten years or so, the threat of terrorism seemed to me to make the global situation feel inherently more unpredictable, and yet the possibility of large-scale, international conflict still felt relatively distant. Am I alone in feeling the global mood begin to change again? Of course I’m not. It’s just that, for a little while at least, I think we were distracted. The reality remains: self-serving, gob-shite liars are still in charge wherever you look, working towards their own agendas at the expense of everyone and everything else. It seems that the chasm-like disconnect between leaders and the people they purport to lead is growing wider every day. As Jarvis Cocker so eloquently put it, c**ts are still running the world. Scary.
I recently re-watched ON THE BEACH. Though dated (it was made in 1959), it was interesting to watch it again recently in light of current global tensions. It’s a film that makes you think. It’s a film that, to me, perfectly encapsulates the inevitable futility of nuclear war, and one which illustrates how defenceless we all are individually in the overall scheme of things. If our elected representatives decide to fight, it is they who take that decision. It’ll be you, me and everyone else who has to deal with the consequences.
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Based on the 1957 novel by Nevil Shute, the story tells of a world which has been all but destroyed by a nuclear war, involving all the major players but largely confined to the northern hemisphere. Only Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and parts of South America remain habitable, but only temporarily as a vast cloud of radiation is drifting steadily southwards. It’s clear from the outset that there’s next to no hope. All the people in the southern hemisphere can do is wait…
That’s a startling simple premise for a story, and one which works wonderfully. I’ve said many times that I consider myself a ‘people watcher’ (which isn’t as bad as it sounds… I’m interested in the way people interact and react with each other, how and why they get on or not, and how they work together to fulfil their individual and group responsibilities and needs). Putting people in an apocalyptic situation is interesting in that regard, because many of the layers of bullshit and manners imposed on us by society get stripped away in such circumstances, leaving people with little option but to act instinctively and honestly (for once). The situation faced by the characters in ON THE BEACH is even more difficult. Whilst they all know their deaths are imminent, until the radiation cloud reaches them they’re able to live relatively normal lives. It’s the inevitability that these people will soon lose that normality which, for me, makes the story so powerful.
The 1959 movie remains effective, and there’s also a decent US miniseries remake from 2000 (directed by Russell Mulcahy of HIGHLANDER fame) that’s worth digging out as, of course, is Shute’s original novel. However you chose to experience it, I very much recommend you do check out ON THE BEACH if you haven’t already. Powerful, thought-provoking and ultimately heart-breaking.