The movie opens with a shot of Cmdr. Dwight Lionel Towers (Gregory Peck) peering through a periscope. He orders his nuclear submarine, the USS Sawfish, to surface, which it does after a series of check offs, operations and subcommands. As the surfaced sub cruises toward a lighthouse guarded coast, the credits roll and the strains of “Waltzing Matilda” (a melody and song which I have always very much enjoyed) take over the soundtrack. As the sub heads into port, we also hear a radio broadcast which talks of the recently ended “atomic war” and no proof of life surviving “anywhere but here,” here being Australia.
The scene shifts to the private residence of Lt. Cmdr. Peter Holmes (a very young Anthony Perkins) of the Australian Navy, where he is warming a bottle for his infant daughter. Peter delivers the bottle before waking his beautiful young wife Mary (Donna Anderson). She hungrily kisses him, but he has an appointment in Melbourne with his naval superiors.
The scene changes to a busy Melbourne street crowded with pedestrians, bikes, electric trolleys and horses; but no operative private automobiles (no “petrol”). Peter arrives at the Dept of Navy building in his dress whites and is announced by Lt. Hosgood (Lola Brooks) to Admiral Bridie (John Tate). The admiral gives Peter his new assignment as liaison officer aboard the Sawfish. He’ll be on the assignment for four months, so he will be back with his family before the radioactivity in the atmosphere of the northern hemisphere is expected to spread to the south in five months.
Later at the naval docks as Peter and the American submarine commander Dwight Towers discuss the coming cruise, they discover than neither of them yet know for certain what the assignment will encompass. The scene shifts again to a beach, where Peter and Mary are enjoying the day with their young child. Peter mentions to Mary that he has invited Dwight to spend the weekend. They plan a party and discuss pairing Dwight with one of their female friends. When Dwight arrives in town for the weekend via electric train he is met at the station by an attractive brunette, Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner) who brings him to Peter and Mary’s party in a horse and buggy.
The party has an interesting mix of people, which includes nuclear scientist Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire, in his first true dramatic screen role), who discusses how the war was probably a mistake, likely caused by “vacuum tubes and transistors.” However, one of the other guests (who sounds a bit like he might be a politician), blames the scientists who built the nuclear devices. Julian responds that scientists warned of consequences of the use of nuclear weapons and petitioned for nuclear disarmament, but those efforts had no positive results. His accuser states the other side “pushed us too far, they didn’t think we’d fight no matter what they did.” Julian responds that they were wrong and now all are doomed from the levels of radiation. Mary Holmes interrupts saying there is always hope (which is one of the major themes of the movie).
Next, the nature of the submarine’s assignment is outlined as a search for more information on the levels of atmospheric radioactivity in the northern hemisphere. A respected scientist has a new theory that weather patterns may have flushed the radiation from the atmosphere, thereby possibly saving the southern hemisphere. There is also news of a strange radio signal coming from San Diego. The submarine and its crew are tasked with discovering more information. Perhaps there is reason for hope.
Stanley Kramer is well-known as a producer/director who made films with a significant degree of social and political relevance. On The Beach is solidly in that category, being the first movie that made a real impact in showing what consequences of nuclear war might be. It also shows how individuals may differ in facing the end of their lives, but still maintain courage in the face of death. The performances are all outstanding. The soundtrack is very good (especially for those who like "Waltzing Matilda"), and the script is very well done, based on Nevil Shute’s classic novel. War alone is a horrifying prospect, but nuclear war is really beyond most people’s imagination. On The Beach paints a still mostly relevant picture of what life might be like for “survivors” of such a cataclysm.