FALLOUT FROM THE BOMB
The stream of apocalypse films since the 1950s channels our fears of out-of-control technology, writes Tom Ryan
ONE of the highlights of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival will be a turn-backthe-clock screening of Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959), based on the 1957 novel by Nevil Shute, starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire, and shot on location in Melbourne. Another will be Fallout (2013), the world premiere of Australian filmmaker Lawrence Johnston’s terrific documentary about it.
The timing of MIFF’s programming is apposite, especially given the present cycle of films about the end of the world, or at least the end of the world as we know it ( Take Shelter, World War Z, Man of Steel, Pacific Rim, This Is the End, and so on).
In their targeting of the dangers of nuclear proliferation to humankind, the what-if scenario of On the Beach and the commentary provided by Fallout focus on the dangers to the planet posed by so-called advances in science and technology and how mankind seems bent on destroying itself.
Neither is alone in its concerns, which have been central to the development of the disaster movie ever since the US dropped atomic bombs, nicknamed ‘‘ Little Boy’’ and ‘‘ Fat Man’’, on the heavily populated Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki almost 70 years ago.
As Johnston, director of Fallout, notes: ‘‘ That was the turning point for the notion of fear in the world because nobody had ever done that on that scale, whatever the politics were. It’s hung over us ever since then. And all different variations on it.’’ These include everything from monsters from the deep to plagues of zombies roaming the world and devastated post-apocalyptic landscapes.
During the 1950s, creature features such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them! and Godzilla (which was remade in 1998) delivered implicit warnings about the unexpected side effects of the bomb. During the same decade, the fact of the bomb also lent an apocalyptic dimension to Robert Aldrich’s private-eye thriller, Kiss Me Deadly.
From the following decade onwards, though, the cautionary tales became far more explicit in their concerns, assuming a wide variety of forms that stretch from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Fail-Safe in the 60s through to The Sum of All Fears, The Host, The Road and Melancholia in the new millennium.
Resonating through all of them, to greater or lesser degrees, are the words of On the Beach’s resident scientist Julian Osborn (Astaire), when he explains, as the inevitable end approaches: ‘‘ The devices outgrew us. We couldn’t control them.’’ Or the observations of an interviewee in Fallout (cultural commentator and columnist for The Australian Gideon Haigh), who describes the modern world as ‘‘ a giant ammunition dump awaiting combustion by a stray spark’’.
In general, there are two subsets of films about the threat of nuclear annihilation. One confronts us with in-your-face imagery of the horror and its aftermath and was in vogue even before the digital era. One example includes Peter Watkins’s riveting documentary style depiction of a nuclear attack on England in The War Game (1965) — commissioned, then banned, by the BBC, it subsequently, and bizarrely, won an Oscar for best documentary. Then there are Nicholas Meyer’s The Day After (1983), which deals with consequences for a small town in Kansas; Mick Jackson’s gritty, Sheffield-based Threads (1984); and Australian director John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009), set in a devastated post-apocalyptic landscape.
Johnston understands all too well why these films set out to shock. He felt the need to do the same thing in Fallout, which is about as far from a conventional behind-the-scenes account of the making of a film as it’s possible to get.
Haunted by the traumatising horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and illuminating the influence they had on Shute and Kramer, it’s both a study of the impact of the bomb on the 20th-century psyche and a cautionary tale in its own right.
It surveys the specific historical events that gave shape to the book and the film, and their personal implications for both men, but it’s also a wake-up call to those who may think the nuclear demon has been put to rest. For Johnston, ‘‘ making a film about subject matter that is historical means taking on a responsibility to an audience, particularly a younger audience that might know nothing about that material’’. And if that means confronting them with an unpalatable reality, then that’s the way it has to be.
‘‘ When I first saw the footage of people who had been physically affected I was horrified. But I thought it was important to share that,’’ Johnston says.
‘‘ We’re so anaesthetised now by what we see on TV, and the world has become so narcissistic, it becomes a matter of making people think when they see that footage, ‘ What if that ever happened to me?’ Showing something that shocking is like a pinprick in the film.
‘‘ And then there’s the impact of the bombs themselves as they explode and the immense scale of it. We use that footage to show people what actually happened. And that technology is still somewhere. It’s not like it’s under the ground or that it vanished in 1959. It still exists. It’s in the hands of man to use it, or use it as a constant threat.’’
The second subset of films about the nuclear danger chooses to leave the horror of the hit and its aftermath to our imagination. Instead, these movies ask us to ponder what it might be like to know it’s about to happen, to be helpless to do anything about it and to have to come to terms with the approaching doomsday: films such as Australian director John Duigan’s One Night Stand (1984), American independent Steve De Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile (1988), and Canadian actor-director Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998). Arguably, this low-key and often low-budget approach is even more effective because it gives us time to ponder the characters’ mortality and room to muse on our own.
On the Beach, in fact, gains much of its power from the eerie sense of quiet with which it surrounds the group of characters it gathers together in and around Melbourne to face the end. It’s January 1964, the rest of the world’s population has fallen to the radiation now being borne Down Under by the trade winds. All that’s left of life for the crew of the American submarine docked at Williamstown and the locals is about five months. There’s nothing else to do but go about their everyday business until time runs out for them, and for the human race.
‘‘ I’ve come to like Stanley Kramer’s film a lot more over the years,’’ Johnston says. ‘‘ People’s eyes sometimes glaze over when you start talking about nuclear issues, or they glaze over when they hear that the film was made in 1959 and that it’s in black and white and that Fred Astaire is in it [in his first dramatic role]. But I think the concept in it, which comes from the Shute novel, is very strong and still pertinent.’’
One of the most striking features of On the Beach, in fact, especially for Melbourne audiences — note: plot spoiler ahead — is the contrast between the shots of the city’s streets filled with people and the final sequence when, suddenly, there’s no one there. No life as we know it. No final survivor wandering a deserted metropolis, as he does in The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Quiet Earth (1985) and I Am Legend (2007). No hope. Just a sign left over from a Salvation Army rally that took place earlier on the steps of the State Library, reading, ‘‘ There is still time, brother.’’ The declaration is brutally ironic within the world of the film.
Acknowledging that On the Beach and Fallout share a fear about the inevitable consequences of a nuclear incident — Astaire’s scientist in Kramer’s film tellingly insists it would be folly to think of such an occurrence as an accident — Johnston also sees Fallout as a continuation of the concerns of his earlier work.
‘‘ I didn’t make the film in any way as a political flag-waving film beyond my being a humanist,’’ he says. ‘‘ I guess that’s something that has permeated my past work. I see Eternity as my Sydney film and Fallout, in a very different way, is my Melbourne film. They’re both about mortality. They’re both about living in the world and how we go about living in the world, whatever their other motivations.’’
Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner on the set of
right; and director Lawrence