On the Beach (1959)About three-quarters of the way through Stanley Kramer’s On The Beach (1959) there is a four-and-a-half minute sequence which shows the doomed lovers Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) and Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner) heading off to the mountains to escape the stifling banality and anxiety that has shrouded Melbourne prior to the arrival of the nuclear cloud, which is slowly engulfing the world and mutely killing all humanity, heading that far south. Dwight is married with a family somewhere and will be heading off on another expedition from which he surely won’t return.

Dwight has heard that due to some pressure from Moira, Admiral Bridie (John Tate) has “had the trout season moved up”. Moira responds by saying that “I know just the spot, nice, quiet and peaceful”. The film immediately cuts to an overcrowded stream populated by fishermen, lovers, boy scouts and families, including a chorus of beer-drinking blokes singing a brash, hearty, often ill-toned rendition of “Waltzing Matilda”, a ballad that functions as the film’s musical theme. This scene is so ridiculously peopled that it marks an extreme contrast to the shots of the deserted streets of Melbourne’s CBD that are scattered throughout the film. After Dwight tries to disentangle his fishing-line and ends up casting himself into the creek, the film cuts to the Narbethong Hotel during a storm with the same chorus, now repaired to the bar in the hotel, continuing the song as we move into a scene of Moira and Dwight having champagne inside their room.

As they sip champagne and gaze into each other’s eyes the window is flung open by the storm. They leap to struggle with and eventually close the window, but not before the rain has wet their hair and faces. Once calm has been restored to the room, Dwight offers to stoke the fire. While he squats in the fireplace, the singing moves from more raucous tones to a solitary tenor voice that has more pronounced sonority and timbre. Dwight and Moira recognise this voice in their faces and Moira, screen rear and left, turns to Dwight who is facing into the fire. Both are bathed in muted light and shadow. Dwight turns and raises himself towards Moira. As Dwight walks to her the camera follows him and cranes up to head height and into a close-up of the couple as they embrace and kiss. The single tenor has by now been joined by a newly refined chorus of male voices growing in volume as the single kiss increases in intensity, slowly moving from the world of the film into an almost extra-terrestrial world beyond the scene and the here-and-now. The camera then starts to move into and around the couple, glistening in the now stronger key lights. In increased volume the singing becomes distinctly extra-diegetic in both volume and presence, overwhelming the scene, and remaking it as the camera’s swirl comes to rest on the couple and the image fades to black.

This is one of the more extraordinary scenes in Australian film because it takes a locationist, humorous and “Australian” aesthetic and imparts to it, suddenly, unexpectedly, all the ennui and melancholy, all the extreme unexplained pressure of the looming nuclear disaster, and forms it into a crystalline moment of Hollywood high melodrama.

About The Author

Deane Williams is the Head of Film and Television Studies at Monash University. He is the author of Australian Post-War Documentary Film: An Arc of Mirrors and Michael Winterbottom (with Brian McFarlane), and is currently working on an Australian Research Council funded project devoted to Australian Film Theory and Criticism.