“Swimming”, he told her. “He wants to have a swim.”
“Sailing? There’s a race on Saturday.”
“I didn’t ask him. I should think he sails. He’s the sort of man who would.”
She took a drink of beer. “We could take him to the movies”, she said thoughtfully.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter, so long as we keep him occupied.”
“It might not be so good if it was about America”, he pointed out. “We might just hit on one that was shot in his home town.”
She stared at him in consternation. “Wouldn’t that be awful!” (1)
Lawrence Johnston’s latest feature-length documentary, Fallout (2013), provides a thoughtful and appropriately somber account of a range of interlocking stories, histories and discourses – including the life of English/Australian aeronautical engineer and writer Nevil Shute, the publication of his bestselling 1957 novel On the Beach, the production and location shooting of Stanley Kramer’s star-laden 1959 adaptation, and the contribution each made to still current debates around nuclear proliferation and its potential for human annihilation – that touch upon significant events and ideas that helped define the early and middle part of the 20th century. Johnston’s film is a consummately crafted combination of archival footage, historical photographs and audio recordings, and often-illuminating interviews with a range of commentators including Gideon Haigh, Magnum photographer Wayne Miller, Donna Anderson (one of the young stars of the film whose character features in the exchange above), Helen Caldicott, the director’s widow Karen Kramer, historian and journalist Paul Ham, Gregory Peck (whom Johnston interviewed in 1997 while the actor was in Victoria filming the TV series Moby Dick) and Shute’s daughter Heather Mayfield. It is only in its final moments that Fallout breaks free from this always fascinating, though sometimes claustrophobic and a little too obvious collage of archival material (the film displays a wonderful archaeology of footage around On the Beach but sometimes falls back on too familiar images of the era) and “talking heads”, shifting to contemporary views of Melbourne (mostly gathered for Johnston’s previous feature Night ) to emphasise the still pertinent lessons to be learned from the novel and film.Opening with black-and-white images of John F. Kennedy warning of the “nuclear sword of Damocles” hanging over civilisation, and colour footage of preparations for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and finishing with the beautiful but horrifying brilliance of a hydrogen bomb exploding, Fallout has something of the feeling of a requiem, as well as the quiet, almost everyday dread and insistent mortality that marks Shute’s novel and its subsequent filmic adaptation. At a distance of over 50 years, what remains most striking about On the Beach is the understated, restrained and melancholic nature of its portrait of the aftermath of nuclear warfare and its capacity to suggest the overwhelmingly global ramifications of any atomic exchange or accident. For Melburnians, its portrait of a somewhat quaint, becalmed, sedentary but still potently familiar “metropolis” dominated by its Victorian-era edifices is also endlessly fascinating. For me, the final shots looking back across the deserted facade of the State Library with the familiar buildings of RMIT in the background (one of which I used to occupy) have their own, peculiarly personal, charge.
I opened this article on Johnston’s film with a quotation from Shute’s novel that playfully, at least in retrospect, signposts my own particular interest in the film (the delicious “awfulness” of having your home town represented in a major international film). Kramer’s adaptation of On the Beach is remarkable for its attentiveness and even fidelity to its locations, particularly the inner-city streets and vistas of Melbourne, the docks of Williamstown, the beach at Frankston, the heads of Port Phillip Bay, and a range of other places. I have written elsewhere of how the film contributes to broader representational understandings of Melbourne and the difficulties of adequately capturing city’s quixotic and unspectacular pleasures (2). Nevertheless, one of the most refreshing aspects of Johnston’s documentary is the way in which it shifts and even internationalises popular (and local) responses to the book and film – aligning both more closely with how each was actually received in the late 1950s. Both the novel and film were designed to move well beyond the expectations and prejudices of homegrown audiences, and it is only in retrospect that the film has taken on a more explicitly localised and situated reading, for Australian many viewers at least. This is partly because the film and book are so attentive to the rhythms and everyday realities of 1950s Melbourne – though some would argue that it would have taken very little special effort to stage the depopulated streets of Melbourne that hauntingly bring the film to a close (they just needed to come into the city on a Sunday).
On the Beach was a massive international phenomenon in the late 1950s; the book selling millions of copies and the film premiered “simultaneously” in various cities throughout the world (including Moscow). Although Johnston is plainly drawn to the film through the “awful” pleasure of seeing his home town in a “big” movie, particularly during a postwar era in which very few “dramatic” images of Melbourne were produced or projected, Fallout is nevertheless seldom personalised in this manner. This lack of a personal approach to the material – at least within the film – does seem to be something of a limitation or missed opportunity, but it does help emphasise the wider implications and broader audiences that this documentary is aiming to address. In Melbourne, the most common approach to On the Beach is to sagely comment upon the ways in which it conceptualises and positions the city – as an apt place to stage the final desiccated days of humanity – but it is refreshing to be reminded of the global reach of the material and its explicitly international implications. These were certainly the goals and intentions of both Shute and Kramer.
The implications of film’s title, Fallout, are multiple. On its most obvious level, it refers to the central conceit that drives the story and enables it to stage the end of humanity in such a melancholy, diffused fashion. Although I’ve always found it difficult to accept that the nuclear exchange that triggers humanity’s demise would or could be contained to the Northern Hemisphere, its impact and effect gradually making its way South on the trade winds, this does enable On the Beach to stage the end of humanity in an unhysterical, sober and troublingly antiseptic fashion. In it’s own wistful manner, On the Beach nails the crepuscular, insidious and all-encompassing realities of nuclear warfare. Its lack of overt or direct representation of calamitous destruction is a subtle critique of the widely circulating propaganda that suggested the possibilities of winning or surviving nuclear conflict. In Johnston’s film, Gideon Haigh comments that he finds the American submarine’s arrival in the waters of a deserted, lifeless but hauntingly intact San Francisco the most unsettling and moving passage of the film. These images sit in contrast to most other visions of nuclear Armageddon, suggesting both the tragedy of humanity’s departure and its seeming lack of consequence or weight (other than for us). The film’s vision of a post-apocalyptic world makes little sense in terms of the broad effects of radioactive fallout for most life on the planet – even if generated by a “theoretical” weapon, the fallout intensifying cobalt bomb – but rings poetically true in terms of humanity’s idiotic self-destruction. On the Beach is both a realistic vision of the aftermath of nuclear warfare and the end of humanity – Shute’s book revealingly includes an epigraph from T. S. Eliot’s much-quoted poem “The Hollow Men” that famously claims the world ends “Not with a bang but a whimper” – and a haunting fantasy of the end of human consciousness. Although it is now difficult to even imagine that such a global catastrophe could play out in such a filtered and whimpering fashion, we are after all a culture that prides itself on connectivity and the “borderlessness” of contemporary consumer life, this would have made more sense in the somewhat cosmopolitan but still isolated Melbourne of the 1950s.
The title also refers to the making of the film of On the Beach and the “falling out” between Shute and the movie’s producers. As is claimed by Haigh, Shute was undoubtedly one of the most successful and highly paid creative figures living in Australia at the time (he arrived here in mid 1950, partly to escape the economic privations and geo-political uncertainty of Britain and Europe in the postwar era). He had written numerous novels that achieved significant commercial success – prior to arriving in Australia and after his emigration – a number of which had already been made into feature films. But On the Beach seems to have been particularly close to Shute’s heart, and was the only adaptation on which he attempted to question and critique the approach being taken and the changes that were subsequently made to his source material. This conflict is unsurprising as the moody, mute, almost deliberately undramatic qualities of Shute’s prose and characterisation clash against the all-star casting and romantic melodrama (though still reserved) of Kramer’s film. Fallout presents several letters of complaint written by Shute, lamenting in particular the sexualised nature of the relationship that develops between the central characters played by Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck (though he seems a very good fit for the character described in the novel) and the material’s Americanisation (it even indicates that his dissatisfaction with the film may have contributed to his early death a month after the film’s premiere).
I first became aware of Johnston’s interest in On the Beach when attending the opening of a group exhibition some time in the mid to late 1990s. Johnston’s contribution consisted, from memory, of two photographs of what appeared to be costume-tests for Ava Gardner, that he’d acquired and framed, from around the time of On the Beach. But as I’ve said, although Johnston is undoubtedly fascinated by the film and its view of Melbourne, his home town, he does not consciously parlay this personal response or relationship within Fallout. The film does sit interestingly alongside Johnston’s celebrated documentary on artist/evangelist Arthur Stace (Eternity, 1994) and his more impressionistic but often rhapsodic city symphony, Night – all are largely celebrations of the city that highlight marginalised practices and histories – but Fallout is the most conventionally structured and “argued” of this series.
For the many people who aren’t very familiar with On the Beach, it is Gardner’s apocryphal comment, “I’m here to make a film about the end of the world… and this seems to be exactly the right place for it” (3), that both sticks in the popular memory and synthesises particular, often self-critical ideas of Melbourne’s place (or lack thereof) in the global imaginary. Her dismissive, even petulant response to the city sits in contrast to the very positive comments that were circulated by the more mild-mannered Kramer, Peck and Fred Astaire during their stints here. Of course, on one level, Gardner (or whoever placed these words in her mouth) was just pointing out a basic condition of geography, a backhanded compliment that raised Melbourne to a level of notoriety while obliterating the antipodean extremities of Hobart and the South Island of New Zealand. My own fascination with On the Beach emerges from recognising my own city on screen and its amplification as the last inhabited city on earth. But there is also a part of me that acknowledges a grain of truth in the dismissive comment attributed to Gardner. For better or worse (mostly the former), Fallout marginalises Gardner’s comment while amplifying and contextualising the import of both the book and film. Philip Davey, author of the exhaustive When Hollywood Came to Melbourne and also interviewed in Johnston’s film, does comment on the significance of the filming of On the Beach to Melbourne, highlighting the parochial, fawning and somewhat star struck nature of the city’s response to the production.
But Johnston’s film is more serious and sober in its intent. As in Shute’s novel, a sense of gravity and mortality pervades the documentary. A key to this is the significant emphasis that it places upon the burgeoning “imagination” of nuclear catastrophe, and the ways in which notions of surviving atomic warfare and the “safety” of mutually assured destruction (MAD) began to pervade the discourses surrounding nuclear proliferation. In this respect, Fallout harks back to a series of films made in the 1980s such as Atomic Cafe (Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty, 1982) and Half Life: A Parable for the Nuclear Age (Dennis O’Rourke, 1985). The “fallout” of the title also reminds us that with the end of the Cold War the danger of nuclear destruction has been somewhat marginalised or pushed to the back of our consciousness, producing a false sense of security that has little to do with actual conditions or possibilities. We might also be reminded of this mortality in a more prosaic form while watching Johnston’s film, as one of the small number of interviewees it features has died within that last couple of months: photographer Wayne Miller. It is this combination of the cosmic and global impact of nuclear annihilation and its local implications that are the lasting legacies of Shute’s novel, Kramer’s feature and Lawrence Johnston’s provocative new documentary.
Fallout and On the Beach are screening as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival.
- Nevil Shute, On the Beach, Heinemann, Melbourne, London and Toronto, 1957, p. 24.
- Adrian Danks, “Don’t Rain on Ava Gardner Parade”, Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films, ed. Deb Verhoeven, Damned Publishing, St Kilda, 1999, pp. 173-85. This essay is also available at: http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/59/don’t-rain-on-ava-gardner-parade/.
- Stanley Kramer, “Directing Doomsday”, Herald-Sun 30 May 1998, p. 14. There is no consensus on the exact wording or the correct attribution of Ava Gardner’s alleged comment on the production of On the Beach. Despite long being credited with this statement it is now generally considered that Gardner never uttered these sentiments. This comment’s favoured source is a poorly sub-edited interview “conducted” by Melbourne journalist Neil Jillett. This attribution may one day itself turn out to be apocryphal.