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On the Beach and Humanist Cinema




By Christopher Sharrett.

Any attempt at a reevaluation of Stanley Kramer must confront some critical resistances about this director. The common wisdom has it that he was a heavy-handed maker of “message” films (immediately summoning Samuel Goldwyn’s rather repugnant quote about messages and Western Union), guilty of misjudgments, and representative of the excesses of Hollywood liberalism. There is no question that the first two points are at times reasonable in criticizing Kramer.

At his worst he is embarrassing, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? may be his worst. The best one can say about this film is that Kramer’s heart is in the right place. Outside of this, what can one say about a film praising racial integration and interracial marriage that asks the black man (Sidney Poitier) to have a mammoth raft of professional credentials, perfect bearing (as a way of telling us he is nearly white) and immaculate behavior before he can pass muster with the aged bourgeois liberal couple (Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, for God’s sake!) and the Church (Cecil Kellaway). What we end up with is the classic issue of a work partaking of that which it wants to criticize—black people have a place in white society only when whites say they have a place.

At his best, Kramer was a presence for which we need to be grateful. Inherit the Wind (1960) may be more useful to our current moment than its own, with states mandating the teaching of “creationism,” thus attacking science and the worth of authentic knowledge. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), the first Hollywood narrative film to take seriously the Nazi genocide, contains consistently superb performances (especially Maximilian Schell as the defense counsel), marred by its notion of the “good German” troubled by conscience. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), the only “epic” comedy, probably needs its excess, its length and crowd of comedians, for Kramer to keep driving home his point about the trouble the bourgeoisie will endure to get some free money.

Kramer’s missteps can be glaring. There are a number in the film I want to discuss here, On the Beach (1959), perhaps his most significant achievement. The cocktail party speechifying by scientist Julian Osborn (Fred Astaire) can be excused because the character is an angry drunk, but it is one of those moments when Kramer thinks he needs to slam the point home at least twice so we don’t miss it. In the area of careless glitches, what are we to make of Julian’s suicide by carbon monoxide in his garage, with blankets stuffed under the garage door although it is plainly porous, daylight streaming through to our point of view?

On the issue of Kramer’s liberalism, it is often true that his sermonizing can seem naïve and condescending, but the dismissal of Kramer may be as much about the dismissal of liberalism itself in the present epoch. We can take a lesson from the many comments describing Oliver Stone (when he still mattered) as “the new Stanley Kramer.” Is it Kramer who is despised or what he represents? And we are indeed speaking here about liberalism, with all its limitations, not radicalism, which one can hardly imagine even being considered in the current climate.

Looking back, one gets the sense that the 1950s were actually more open, more tolerant of political expression (perhaps precisely because of the challenges of the Cold War) than the postmodern era that sees all battles as having been fought, so that the revisiting of politics is a hopeless bore (of course I have no illusions about the 1950s). Kramer’s “message” pictures are condemned more now than then.

In his moment, Kramer accomplished much. His production High Noon (1952), always unfavorably compared to the film made in reaction to it, Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), is a singular accomplishment—of course most of the credit goes to Carl Foreman and Fred Zinnemann. John Wayne hated High Noon because Gary Cooper throws his badge in the dirt at the end, thus defiling state power. Hawks hated the notion of the lawman hero asking “unprofessional” townspeople for help (as if posses and lynch mobs haven’t been made up of the citizenry throughout U.S. history—Kramer’s The Defiant Ones makes the point efficiently). The Hawks film has its charms, but mainly for its gay aesthetic (let’s dispense with notions of this film’s “gay subtext”), the camera leisurely lingering on the three male heroes as they amble back and forth, from hotel to jail and back again. Can we take seriously the idea that the town is besieged by a genuine threat? Hawks is concerned in Rio Bravo solely with male love (here, in The Thing from Another World, The Big Sky, Hatari, El Dorado, and much of his work, the “Hawksian woman” a decoration, both phallicized and marginalized), a laudable interest, but one he tries to repress and marshal in service of violence.

High Noon is more than a parable of the HUAC persecutions; it is difficult to watch this bleak film and not see it as an utter dismissal of the small town, and by extension, American society itself. The idea is demonstrated in many scenes, but most particularly when the judge (Otto Kruger, often cast as a villain) packs up the scales of justice and the U.S. flag as he prepares to leave town. A truly staggering moment is the speech by the town madam (Katy Jurado in a remarkable performance) to Will Kane’s (Gary Cooper) young wife (Grace Kelly), in which she essentially describes the town as the real whorehouse. Gary Cooper offers one of his important renderings of masculinity—his Will Kane is at wit’s end, shaken emotionally and almost broken physically, the performance all the more compelling when one knows that Cooper was in pain at the time.

Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958) is usually compared to Huckleberry Finn (as are so many American works of fiction), but the association is too easy and not very reasonable. The Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis characters not only learn to depend on each other, but also share each other’s hate, at last focusing it on forces outside of themselves. The film proposes a union of the poor white and the poor black, a bond that would surely spell trouble for white patriarchal capitalist society, and precisely the bond that has not happened and perhaps never will—but Kramer’s “message” is to advocate for it.

In the film’s astonishing ending, the Tony Curtis character prefers Sidney Poitier over the young, frustrated woman who tries to seduce him. Is the film, which contains two male pietas, finally about the archetypal “magic” of the black man’s humanity (see Krin Gabbard’s masterful book Black Magic) or simply male love? It is a remarkable essay on both male love and race in 1950s America, and we might also note that it was Kramer who helped put Sidney Poitier, one of the finest actors of our age, on center stage. Tony Curtis, whose performance here and in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) established him also as a formidable actor, needs reevaluation as a major presence of the postwar American cinema.

On the Beach is the first important narrative film about nuclear war, outside of sci-fi or “instruction” films subsidized by the American government. At least one recent video guide calls it a “post-apocalypse” film. Nothing could be further from the truth. The post-apocalypse genre of the last thirty years either sees prospects in rubble (the Mad Max films) or simply wallows in the spectacle of destruction before it asks us to acquiesce in alienation—the impulse is basic to capitalism in any case. At its worst, the post-apocalypse film is the cinematic equivalent of a cranky child smashing up his/her toys. The genre accepts the destruction of humanity as a given, and so much the better. There is no pyrotechnic spectacle in On the Beach, unless one counts the auto race, to which I shall return. The film is about adults coming to terms with why they live, how they can best use the last hours of their lives as radiation from a nuclear war drifts south to the last outpost of humanity, Australia. This is above all a humanist film that takes seriously drama as a means of investigating why human beings are important in the first place, why they live and what they should live for (the issues Robin Wood borrows from Leavis). Its questions are in other words basic, to a point that one can put aside the nuclear war story and look at the way Kramer appreciates human beings. He cares about the love, anger, bitterness, sense of betrayal, and lost joy of humanity.

This would seem very prosaic—doesn’t all drama focus on such concerns? Cinema did deal with these issues, but I am not sure about the present. What can one say about Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (or any of his films), or Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, or the (slightly better) “mumblecore” film, Jay and Mark Duplass’s Jeff, Who Lives at Home, exercises in design whose paper doll cutout characters have no humanity at all, or rather the humanity allowed by a culture that sees everything as empty, as representation—images about other images—a familiar postmodern attitude that seems to have stuck. The predominant philosophy of such films seems to argue that it is unsophisticated (or impossible) for the current generations to show real empathy, to believe too much in human concerns. Perhaps these films are simply the logical consequence of late capitalism, which has produced a culture that says it is pointless to be interested in others, or even ourselves, as we face a new social Darwinism.

One might argue that On the Beach isn’t political at all, but simply humanist, a familiar perspective of the nuclear war film, and one that can be damning. All war is, after all, political, and the nuclear arms race flowed from a desire on the part of the U.S. to be the leading superpower after World War II, in the meantime using this race to enrich corporations as the gap between classes widened and the “golden age” of postwar capitalist expansion (the 50s and 60s), where most people did fairly well, slowly came to an end due to the Vietnam invasion and the arms race itself.

The ideological reasons behind the war that sets the stage for On the Beach are never explained, beyond Julian’s condemnation of the “idiocy” of a strategy of defense that meant dependence on “weapons we couldn’t possibly use without committing suicide.” The remark is important if we recall that the U.S. is, so far, the only nation to use nuclear weapons against another nation, and that it initiated the arms race, so the use of “we” carries implications for the thinking viewer. Julian’s comment about “defense” gives us part of the film’s politics. The arms race came as the U.S. emphasized its need for defense from evil threats, mainly socialism (the War Department became the Department of Defense). The logic of the Cold War told us that the U.S. would rather destroy itself and all life rather than part company with capitalism one iota—this was the naked face of the U.S. as it emerged a mostly unscathed victor after World War II, a victor that plainly knew that the Soviet Union was in no position to influence American economic policies. But Julian’s remark, indeed his very presence, along with that of Commander Dwight Tower (Gregory Peck) and young naval officer Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) gives us additional insight into the film’s political vision.

Men and Machines

The first image of the film is of Dwight Tower leaning on a railing inside the submarine he commands, the USS Sawfish, as it heads into harbor at Melbourne. The strong male is immediately asserted as central to the film’s concerns. The image cuts to an exterior shot showing the surfacing submarine, with its massive conning tower, looming large in the frame. Men and their gadgets are immediately established as issues here, as is the male attitude toward emotions and power. Peck, often a very wooden actor, is, once again, a figure of authority, but his vulnerability was never better displayed, especially in a scene with Moira (Ava Gardner) after he chases after her at the train station. Dwight, who knows that his wife and children are dead back in Connecticut, cannot articulate his grief, but struggles to do so with Moira to a point that his face contorts, his attempts at emotional expression enormously painful; one senses the impossibility of such expression for this man.

But the military and a man’s sense of duty circumscribe the film. The film ends with Dwight returning to the submarine to take his men back to their homes; Moira sees him go as she stands alone on a bluff. The scene cuts to Dwight alone atop the conning tower. The notion of the male professional, and the code of “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” is at the heart of the disaster, the arrogance of the male always present, especially when he thinks he is “doing his duty” (and can’t the rules be bent at this point, so Dwight can take Moira with him?—the idea that real emotion belongs to the male group alone again asserts itself, and it is impossible not to assume that the film views all this critically, given what Dwight and Moira try to achieve).

Peter’s treatment of Mary (Donna Anderson) raises similar issues about the position of the male and his coping with emotion versus his need to maintain control. Peter is sensitive, but unremittingly arrogant (it is hard not to recall that Anthony Perkins was becoming Norman Bates as this film went into release). He infantilizes Mary constantly, yelling at her when she seems to be in denial about radiation death, telling her what she needs to do to herself and their infant child if he isn’t there. Peter’s authority, like all else, wilts, as Mary’s deep affection as parent/spouse grows in credibility. Mary tells Peter that she has been “foolish and impractical”—one senses that this is to mollify him as she takes a role as comforter. Mary is simply in shock because of the horror of the moment; Peter, like the other men, thinks he must stay “in control,” as if machismo still matters. Mary gains special credibility in their final scene, when her affection for Peter (rather than her acquiescence) allows her to die with him. The film gets its name from the high-culture reference to T.S. Eliot in Nevil Shute’s bad novel, one that takes pains to outline the tortured military details of how the war happened. In the film, Mary tells Peter, in their last embrace, that she recalls their first meeting on a beach, and their initial fascination with each other.

Julian is a special instance of masculinity as deadly, since he is a nuclear scientist whose work helps cause the catastrophe (he admits this). He is a particular rendering of the intellectual, a dissipated, self-destructive man who isn’t comfortable in his own skin. He brings to mind J. Robert Oppenheimer, the representative and by far most tragic scientist of our age. Oppenheimer was a wan youth who read French Symbolist poetry, but set all that aside, donned a leather flight jacket and slouch hat, and proved to us and himself that he was, in fact, quite macho, palling with the Army, building and exploding the first atomic bomb in New Mexico, winning, very temporarily, the approval of the male group and its establishment.

Julian is a soulful man, like Oppenheimer, but like his real-life counterpart, he does the horrible thing anyway. Julian tries to offset his frailty with certain manly affectations that are associated with death, principally his Ferrari. The motor race he enters is explicitly about suicide (the horrific crashes are the only “apocalyptic disaster” moments of the film, and are clearly about men wanting to go out in a blaze of glory—the rationale for sports overall?). Julian doesn’t die on the track, because his urge to win, and therefore prove himself a worthy man, ultimately triumphs over the death wish, but the Ferrari still becomes a tool of self-destruction when he suffocates himself. He has considerable self-hatred, and his embrace by the men of the Sawfish seems a bit tentative—he is an “egghead,” and such are suspect either for wrong sexual orientation or possible political dissidence. The skinny frame of Fred Astaire, and his character’s incessant smoking and drinking (anesthetics?), underscore Julian as walking death, as a man whose final abandonment of conscience necessarily inscribes him as the heart of humanity’s disaster.

Emptiness and Silence

Kramer makes a crucial decision in avoiding images of ruined cities. Instead, we see the empty streets of San Francisco when the Sawfish completes its mission in the north (to learn about the speed of radiation spread, which turns out to be dreadful). The ghostliness of these images is remarkable, especially as one thinks of San Francisco as the site of Vertigo’s colorful sexual frenzy. A sense of stillness, quiet, and isolation is basic to the film’s aesthetic, and not merely to emphasize the human absence caused by nuclear war. The stillness that surrounds, for example, the love scene between Dwight and Moira captures a basic sense of isolation and dread that accompanied the arrival of absurdism and existentialism into the postwar arts of the 50s. The cruelty of being itself is in counterpoint to human relationships, which put up a struggle to assert the importance of human existence.

Kramer makes use of Dutch angles in some scenes, notably Dwight and Moira on the porch as they escape the cocktail party, using Expressionism to assert a world out of joint. It is the domestic world, the world potentially of Eros (not the urban streets of film noir), that has been disrupted by a terrible presence. On the Beach makes extensive use of natural light, often without front lighting, so that faces are partially shrouded in gray, their emotions not quite visible. A notable moment is the flight of the sailor Swain from the Sawfish—he prefers to die in his hometown. Dwight’s attempt to rescue him is a science-fiction moment, as the periscope from the Sawfish suddenly appears alongside Swain’s little fishing boat. We see Swain’s face in close-up as he addresses Dwight, who offers aid, both men knowing that Swain will soon be dead of radiation sickness. Swain bravely assures Dwight that he will be okay (he jokes about the number of pharmacies he can choose from—consumerism now proved excessive and useless), his voice nearly cracking as his facial expression is kept hidden behind the gauze of filtered light.

When the Sawfish arrives at San Francisco, Dwight is startled by the absence of people. A crewman notes that like animals, people may want privacy to die. The privacy/isolation that becomes a motif of the film suggests that real intimacy occurs between people only in the face of death, so far has our civilization fallen.

Waltzing Matilda

The counterpoint to Kramer’s subdued sound mix is Ernest Gold’s score, itself subdued except for rather incessant variations of “Waltzing Matilda,” a song often mistaken for the Australian national anthem. The song enjoyed new popularity in the U.S. of 1959 due to On the Beach, and was recorded by several then-popular singers. The steady recurrence of the song in the film at first seems tiresome, as pleasant as the tune is, until one pays attention to its content. The American listener assumes, I think, that this is a love song, perhaps about a young man waltzing with a young woman named Matilda. The song has little to do with love, its lyrics almost surreal to the non-Australian. Its origins are usually traced to the Great Shearers Strike of 1891, when sheep-shearers came into conflict with owners, resulting in the death (either by murder or suicide) of the man who is “Matilda’s” narrator. The term “waltzing matilda” means to walk about as a vagabond with a satchel on one’s back. The song itself is a kind of ghost story, with the teller a form of Ancient Mariner offering a song of defiance, represented in lyrics used at a crucial moment in the film, as Dwight puts wood on the fire for his night of lovemaking with Moira:

 “’You’ll never take me alive, said he’/And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong/You’ll come a-waltzing matilda with me.”

The moment when the lyrics become audible is central to the film. Moira learns that Dwight loves fishing, so she prepares a trip for the two of them when he returns from the submarine voyage to San Francisco and San Diego—where the crew learns that a telegraph message is nothing more than an errant Coke bottle banging on a telegraph key, thus confirming that all hope is lost. Dwight’s return is poetically rendered. As Moira’s pets a horse on a relative’s farm, Dwight appears in full uniform on the horizon, then walks down the pasture to her as she stands in profile, her face filling half the image, a remarkable deep-focus shot. She has nearly given up on Dwight, assuming he is dead, or simply not inclined to return given his entrapment by his memories. Kramer’s use of black and white now seems an especially effective choice; the horse, the farm, and Dwight’s return have been drained considerably of romance while still retaining it. Dwight’s arrival might have been an early scene from Shane, but isn’t, as the film reminds us, through mise-en-scene and film stock, that the stakes for humanity are very high, and not only at the level of physical survival. The hope for humane values is also about to go, perhaps the most terrifying notion of all.

After they attend Julian’s near-disastrous auto race, Moira takes Dwight to what she assumes is a quiet little country stream where he can fish and they can make love, she having used her influence to move the official fishing season forward. The following scene is both harrowing and comical. The stream is crowded with noisy picnickers, everyone trying to affirm their lives through simple pleasures that cause much mutual annoyance, yet people get along. Dwight, starting to fume, gets his fishing line entangled in another’s, making him fall in the stream. Moira laughs. This is Kramer’s “apocalyptic anarchy” scene, but instead of people smashing windows, setting fire to their own property and beating up their own, the moment makes chaos harmless, bothersome yet gentle. The drunken revelers sing wretchedly bad renderings of “Waltzing Matilda.” The bad singing continues into the night, but as Dwight puts wood on the fire, an extraordinary baritone comes out of the night air, accompanied by a beautiful choir that brings the song into focus. Dwight stops, stands up and turns toward Moira. They embrace as we hear the lyrics “You’ll never take me alive, said he.” This labor song, an act of defiance against the wealthy, becomes an assertion of life against death, of Eros over Thanatos.

The ending is wrenching, with the deaths of Julian, Peter and Mary, and Dwight’s final parting (he wants “privacy” for his own death, still unable to part company entirely with the male veneer). We have the submarine’s point of view at the last instant of his departure, the Sawfish’s long deck going underwater, taking us with it. The sense of burial and suffocation is complete. It is unfortunate, and perhaps representative of the mistakes Kramer is prone to make, that he cuts back to the empty streets of the city to confirm that, indeed, everyone is dead. Worse, his last shot is the now-empty prayer meeting that we saw earlier. That the faithful receive little comfort from organized religion was clear enough from their increasingly zombiefied expressions when we initially saw them. Kramer focuses on a banner that we also saw earlier—it reads “There is Still Time, Brother.” Obviously the sign refers to putting a stop to the arms race, not the resurrection. Point taken. This is the kind of misjudgment that has provided justified argument for Kramer’s adversaries.

On the Beach may today elicit a collective ho-hum from the audience. Don’t we know that we will all die in some sort of massive apocalypse? And who cares? Let’s just buy that massive flat-screen TV with its 3D and huge sound system (so we can build our “home theater” and be rid of the irritating public), along with all the other commodities we are supposed to have, whether we want them or not. And aren’t all these emotions so passé and silly? Isn’t The Dark Knight Rises far more fun, and Moonlight Kingdom much smarter for those of us who want smart films? I don’t doubt the answer to these questions is basically “yes,” a response indicative of an acquiescence that says doomsday is now.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He has published several books on film and writes frequently for Film International and other publications. He is currently listening, for the hundredth time, to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, with special attention to the famous adagietto, known popularly as “death music,” especially after it was played as such by Leonard Bernstein at Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral. The piece became especially associated with mourning after its use by Visconti in his Death in Venice (a film Sharrett applauds). But if one quickens the tempo slightly we find what Mahler intended—a love note to his wife. The adagiettois one of art’s most important meditations on the close associations of life and death, of sex and repression. Benjamin Zander’s version of Mahler’s Fifth, accompanied by a lecture on the piece, is very useful (Telarc Discs).

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