Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Book Review

On the Beach

On The Beach - The Film and The Actors' Perspectives


The most widely read and arguably the most controversial book written by Nevil Shute was On The Beach. Its fame and notoriety were both enhanced when Stanley Kramer produced and directed the famous film by the same name. Both the book and the film have received wide credit for encouraging the anti-nuclear weapons movement of the 60's, and for helping to end the nuclear arms race.

Nevil despised the film because Kramer elected to show a consummated love affair between the American submarine captain Dwight Towers, and the Australian beauty Moira. In the book, Nevil kept their relationship pure because of Dwight's fidelity to his dead wife.

Interestingly, this argument was addressed by Gregory Peck, the actor who portrayed Dwight Towers. He favored keeping the relationship chaste, but Kramer overruled him.

The following is quoted verbatim from Ava, My Story, by Ava Gardner with Alan Burgess. It is posted on the web site with the permission of Random House, Inc., who holds the sole copyright thereto. For on line information about other Random House,Inc. books and authors, see the Internet Web Site at

Beginning on page 265 and ending on page 269 (Ava Gardner's comments):

I didn't have to find my first script as a free agent; it found me. Producer-director Stanley Kramer had bought the rights to On the Beach, Nevil Shute's novel about the end of the world, and he wanted me to play the heroine of the piece, the heavy-drinking, disillusioned but still vulnerable Moira Davidson. I'd read the book and liked it, so I thought, Honey, maybe this time you can make yourself some real money.

I was still working on The Naked Maja in Rome when the thing came up, and Stanley agreed to fly across to discuss the project. I set up a dinner with a few friends and he, very sweetly, brought me a gift of half a dozen flamenco records. Of course, I had to play them, and, of course, I had to dance to them as well, so naturally the party went on into the wee hours.

The next morning I said to David Hanna, who was my manager at the time, "What's the matter with Stanley? I set aside all last evening to get to know him and discuss the picture, and he didn't even bring the subject up.

David smiled at that. "Ava," he said, "I just got the same message from Stanley. He asked me, 'How do you do business with her? I've only got forty-eight hours.'"

Once Stanley and I did get together, things went smoothly. Shooting was to begin in January 1959 and I ended up with a salary of four hundred thousand dollars, happy to finally have the money for my services go to me instead of the damn studio. And I was delighted that Stanley was able to secure the services of Giuseppe Rotunno as cinematographer, not to mention a cast that included my old pal Greg Peck, Fred Astaire in his first straight dramatic role as a disillusioned scientist, and a young newcomer named Anthony Perkins as an Australian naval officer.

Though I'd read the book, Stanley's script made me weep. You couldn't say it was marvelous--that was somehow the wrong word. It was compelling, tragic, moving, chilling...I don't know what expression you can use about the end of the world. Stanley liked to call it "the biggest story of our time," and who could disagree?" It was a fictional scenario, but my God, everyone in the cast and crew knew it could happen. And that added a dimension of reality to the unreal world of film making that none of us had experienced before.

The film was set in 1964, five years in the future. A nuclear war, precipitated by a small unnamed country, has ended all human life in the Northern Hemisphere, and the southern half of the world is only given four more months to survive. The Australian city of Melbourne, at the most southern tip of that continent, will survive the longest, but even for the people there, it's just a matter of time.

Into Melbourne harbor comes a U.S. nuclear submarine which survived the war intact only because it was submerged when the bombs went off. Its captain, Dwight Lionel Towers, lost his wife Sharon and their two children. As played by Greg Peck, Towers is a model of decency, trying to put the best face on things and do his duty in a society in which people are preparing for the inevitable end by handing out poison pills to all and sundry.

Inevitably, Captain Towers falls in love with my character, the cynical, boozy but very human Moria Davison. It's a tough relationship because he is still very much in love with his wife as well, and at times confuses her with me. And both of us can't flee from the knowledge of how finite our span on earth is. "If Sharon were alive," I tell a pal, "I'd do any mean trick to get him. There isn't time. No time to love."

One thing I definitely didn't love was being on location in Melbourne. Not that the Australian people weren't wonderful individually; they were down-to-earth, gutsy, and awfully friendly. In groups, however, they seemed overwhelmed by the idea of being the location for a Hollywood movie, something that had never happened to the city before. There were crowds everywhere, and everything we did seemed to cause controversy. When we had to cordon off a city block on a Sunday morning, for instance one of the country's leading churchmen lambasted Stanley for interfering with "one of the fundamental freedoms, freedom of worship" because a church happened to be on the block.

And, naturally, we hit a heat wave when we were there, with temperatures regularly going over one hundred degrees. And I don't have to be bashful about stating what every Aussie will agree to: that the drinking situation at that time was nearly as bad as it was back home during Prohibition. Joy left town every night at six P.M. sharp, as every pub on the continent closed. At restaurants, any wine you happened to be drinking with your meal was snatched from the table promptly at 9 P.M. and taken down and locked away with the rest of the forbidden fruit.

Fortunately, Greg Peck and his wife Veronique had not only rented a huge old Victorian house, they'd had the foresight to bring their own French chef with them. The Pecks' place became a second home for me, Fred, Stanley and Anthony Perkins, who was shy about everything but attacking his plate.

And poor Stanley, used to the good things of Hollywood, found to his chagrin that he had to ship a great deal of equipment and props from America, including a pair of mobile generators and a mobile dressing room. The Australian navy helped him out with the temporary loan of an aircraft carrier, and the Royal Navy pitched in with one of their submarines, HMS Andrew.

As far as studio space went, Stanley also had to improvise. He got the use of the Royal Showgrounds, a massive establishment used most of the year for storing wool, of all things. His production office was in an auto showroom and his wardrobe department in a place that usually housed farm tools. None of the indoor facilities were properly soundproofed, and on days when things like Billy Graham revivals took place nearby, filming became awfully difficult. Still, despite all these troubles, On the Beach contains some fine technical achievements, most of them due to the genius of Pepe Rotunno. One scene had Greg and me kissing in front of a campfire as the camera circles us from a distance and does a beautiful three-hundred-and-sixty-degree turn that the other technicians kept telling Pepe wasn't possible. By the time the camera was finished circling, it might have qualified for the longest kiss in screen history, but Jesus Christ, hanging in there for almost two minutes was very exhausting.

The film ends with Captain Tower bowing to his men's wishes and taking his ship back to the States so they can die near their loved ones. I was saying goodbye to him forever. He was leaving forever. As I run toward him on the dock, you can just see our two profiles come together as the sun sets between our lips. It was a shot that once again everyone said was impossible, because Pepe was shooting straight into the sun, but he made it work, and I personally think it's one of the greatest in cinema history. You know some shots will live in your memory forever, and that one always will in mine.

On the Beach premiered simultaneously in eighteen of the world's most important cities on December 17, 1959. The idea was to position it as a film you had to see if you never saw another one as long as you lived, and because of its subject matter, the film quickly moved off the movie page and onto the front page. The New York Journal-American, for instance, headlined "'On the Beach' Hits Like an Atom Bomb."

Everywhere the film opened, controversy went with it. The New York Daily News ran an editorial calling it "a defeatist movie" and insisting that "the thinking it represents points the way toward eventual enslavement of the entire human race." Even as patrician an observer as Steward Alsop was moved to comment that "it is simply not true that a nuclear war would mean 'everybody killed in the world and nothing left at all, like On the Beach.'"

As for my performance, the critics couldn't seem to decide what was more surprising: how well I acted or how unglamorous I looked. Newsweek was typical, deciding that "Miss Gardner has never looked worse or been more effective." Frankly, I didn't care what the hell they thought. I was proud of being part of this film, proud of what it said.

End of Ava's Comments...

Beginning on page 275 and ending on page 276 (Gregory Peck's comments):

Stanley Kramer, who produced and directed On the Beach, is a film maker who, whether the subject is racial prejudice or nuclear arms race, very much wants to say something about crucial matters of world importance. He seized on Nevil Shute's book and said, "I'm going to make a picture and perhaps I can have some effect on people's attitude, perhaps I can change their mindset about the dangers of nuclear buildup." I think we all became somewhat imbued with Stanley's mission, we all wanted to help him do it, including Ava. I believe that she felt good about being in that picture. It did turn into quite an adventure, however. Terribly hot. There was a spell where the temperature was over one hundred degrees. Ava and I, our characters having become lovers, were trying to play a light-hearted romantic scene on a beach. But the air was so thick with flies they almost blackened the skies. There would be thousands of flies crawling on Ava's forehead and in her hair, and the effects men would rush in with a smoke gun and blow smoke in our faces. That would get rid of the flies for a minute or two and allow us to say a few lines before they settled in again.

I have worked with a few actresses, who will remain nameless, who would just not work under those conditions. But Ava was never, never the kind of actress who would complain about her working conditions. She just took it like a trouper and we just kept plugging away despite everything until we got the scene.

In Nevil Shute's novel, my character determined that since he was going to die, he would die faithful and true to the wife whom he loved. This in spite of being terribly attracted to Ava's character and it being obvious that they were meant to be lovers. But he resisted the temptation, and she understood that. So when they parted, when his submarine steamed out of Melbourne harbor and she stood on the point waving to him, it was a love that had not been consummated. That's what Nevil Shute wrote.

Stanley Kramer, however, decided that the audience just wouldn't accept that a man like me would be able to resist a beautiful, willing woman who was in love with him. 'We have to give them some sex,' he said. "This is a serious picture, it's about the death of the world, and we have to give them some romance and sex." I told Stanley he was wrong, that he was corrupting my character and Ava's character, that self-denial on the matter of principle was romantic. But he didn't agree. And Nevil Shute always hated that scene.

End of Gregory Peck's comments