On the Beach is a film from 1959 that takes place after a nuclear war has devastated and rendered uninhabitable the entire world, except for Australia, which managed to survive the nuclear holocaust by being too unimportant to bother nuking. Even Australia is not safe forever, though. At the beginning of the movie, it’s estimated that they have about five months before radioactive fallout begins to arrive from the rest of the world, and Australia, too, becomes poisoned and dead.
At first, Australia seems rather unbothered by the global war, though. An admiral has to worry about rationing petrol for the fleet, since most of the world’s oil comes from those nations that were attacked, but there’s not much mention of food imports, except for a throw-away line about bad coffee. Presumably they’ve been reduced to ersatz coffee or the instant stuff, what with everyone else dead. But people still go about and do their jobs. Really, just watching the people on the street, you’d have no idea that over 99% of humanity is dead. Seems like wearing a suit is a bit pointless at that point, wouldn’t you agree? The only big change is the lack of cars from the petrol rationing. Most people have switched to bicycles, horses, and carriages.
There are hints from the beginning that it may just be a psychological block, though. Understandably, some people have trouble accepting the reality of the situation. Even with Australia’s isolation, the background radiation is nine times what it was before the war. Everybody is doomed, in response to which one woman cries that, “There has to be hope.” Additionally, some individuals crave intimacy and affection, despite a reluctance to explicitly ask for it.
As the movie progresses, though, the facade begins to crack. One character obtains suicide pills to give to his wife before he departs on a long voyage. In the event of radiation poisoning, he wants her to be able to kill herself and their infant child painlessly and without suffering. She’s angry at the thought that he expects her to murder their child, and breaks down. Others are resentful that others have gotten to live full lives, while they themselves have not, and now, never will. One submariner chooses to die alone in a radioactive San Diego rather than return to Australia. He’s last seen fishing in the same spot he used to growing up, unable to accept that his childhood home is now ruins.
As the end approaches, it seems people become stricken with toska, a weary purposelessness. They race in dangerous car races, wasting precious petrol, and the spectators appear apathetic to fatal crashes. As the radiation levels increase, people begin growing more irrational. Radiation sickness begins spreading. People begin to commit suicide. An American submarine crew votes to return back to America, despite knowing it’s a dead, radioactive wasteland. They want to die at home.
The war itself is never described much. People don’t even know who started the war, even. One man blames machines, which indicates that automated defense systems, such as PERIMETR, might have played a large part in the conflict. Another man blames the scientists, who designed and created thermonuclear weapons. It’s pointed out, though, that since the creation of thermonuclear weapons, scientists have opposed them, including many who worked on the destroyers of humanity.
The movie does touch upon a few points I find interesting, though. One character, a soldier, talks about how he had gotten used to the idea of something happening to him while his family was safe at home, but the converse idea, that his family might be killed in war by thermonuclear bombs while he himself was safe in his submarine, that he had never considered and never accustomed himself to. Thermonuclear war is the only kind of war where the front lines are the safest place to be, and where generals are more likely to be attacked than privates. Population centers, capitals, military bases: all these are better targets for a thermonuclear weapon than the battlefield, where, after all, one’s own soldiers are, too.
One bitter soldier notes that the thermonuclear weapons outgrew mankind. We put our faith into weapons that couldn’t be used without committing suicide. The great danger of thermonuclear weapons makes hesitation fatal. He theorizes that the war began from a false positive on a radar screen, and a soldier, thinking that if he hesitated, his own country would be destroyed, gave the order to launch a full counter-attack, and humanity ended itself over an accident. Isn’t it bizarre to build such weapons that can destroy us all? What’s the benefit, in the end? The possible scenarios that come from having nuclear weapons are worse than those that come from not having them, from the perspective of humanity as a whole. But I suppose it’s too late for humanity to let go of the tiger of thermonuclear weapons, and we’re stuck riding it for the foreseeable future. Another character bewails how unfair it is. She never did anything, and no one she knows did anything, and yet everybody is going to die from radioactive fallout.
And it could really happen.
A thermonuclear war could begin tomorrow and before it’s over doom us all to early graves. It seems insane, doesn’t it? We’ve built a machine that can destroy humanity, and look at whom we gave the keys to. It’s terrifying if you really think about it. I suppose that’s why nobody does, to avoid living their lives in a state of terror. But I hope that, every so often, you’ll think about how casually and cruelly the entire human race might be destroyed because of war and because government leaders feel the need to threaten and attack other nations.