Title: On the Beach
Author: Nevil Shute
Publication date: 11/08/2016 (originally published in 1957)
Type: Fiction, Romance, Military
Characters: Cpt Dwight Towers, Peter Holmes, Mary Holmes, Moira Davidson, John Osborne
Ray’s rating: 5 stars
[Reviewer’s Note: Nevil Shute’s little novel, On the Beach, is a cold war story driven by the very real threat of nuclear war in the 1950s. The book’s main theme, though, is about people facing certain death. Even more, they are facing the extinction of humanity. They know it will happen, very soon, and there is absolutely nothing anyone can do to stop it. The parallels to the current world situation are striking. While nuclear war remains a threat, the greater threat now is the pandemic hoax that is driving the implementation of a global tyranny. If fully realized, it will mean the end of free humanity.
A movie of On the Beach was made in 1959 starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Anthony Perkins. It is well-done and expresses the book’s spirit and theme. I can’t find where it is streamed anywhere. You can only buy a CD. At this time, there is a bootleg copy of the complete movie on YouTube here.]
On the Beach is a post-apocalyptic story written by Nevil Shute in the 1950’s, at the height of the Cold War. It is a story of people facing inevitable doom, how they cope, the values that support them, and their final pleasures. It is thoughtful and low-key, though the intensity of the characters’ dilemma is always there, boiling up and threatening to overcome them. It is at once, sad and hopeful. It is NOT Mad Max.
The driving situation, and principal antagonist, in On the Beach is the aftermath of nuclear war. In a brief introduction, Mr. Shute provides the background of a nuclear war having snuffed out all life in the northern hemisphere and the radiation now moving slowly south. His story focuses on a few survivors in Melbourne, Australia who are waiting for the inevitable. How they handle that waiting drives the story.
Mr Shute’s prose is simple, making this book an easy read. In fact, I think it reads like a screenplay. I don’t know if that was Mr. Shute’s intent, but two movies were made from his book. But then, the easy prose does highlight the common lives of the characters as they face an uncommon horror. Taken that way, the writing emphasizes the story’s everyday elements much as the writing in McCarthy’s The Road emphasizes that story’s bleakness. On the Beach is not bleak, though it is sad.
The characters are depicted as was common for popular storytelling of the time—square-jawed, heroic men and brave, supporting women. Mr. Shute goes beyond these stereotypes [or maybe they are nonjaded depictions of how people used to be], though, by placing them in a situation that heroics and personal grit can’t save. That point is brought out in several ways, one of which is the general cluelessness about where the nuclear war came from and why. Even the military men don’t understand it. As the submarine captain says:
‘I’d like to read a history of this last war.’ said the American. ‘I was in it for a short time but I don’t know a thing about it. Has anybody written anything?’
And so the inevitability of death is aggravated by the senselessness of it. It is this theme that makes this story, in my opinion, so very relevant.
A modern version of this novel would be longer. The action does span the globe in that the submarine travels far and wide over the northern hemisphere checking war damage and radiation levels. Mr. Shute abbreviates all that. Today it would probably be expanded into subplots that switched between the submarine and the folks back home in Melbourne. I can even imagine the introduction of a political aspect that could make the story a thriller. All that would be a detriment to the storytelling, however, if it took away from the dynamic of people facing the end of everything.
In these days when political leaders push for war and consider nuclear exchanges “winnable,” On the Beach makes its subtle point: common, everyday people suffer for the insane actions of their shadowy rulers. Such suffering coming from nuclear war would likely be worse than Mr. Shute imagines, but his point is well made that it is the final result of unbridled ambition and greed empowered by doomsday weapons.