Directed by Stanley Kramer (1959)
From the review of the book by Nevil Shute:
A devastating nuclear war has been fought across the world, wiping out almost all life. Only in the far South have people survived, so far, but they know that the poisonous fallout is gradually heading their way and the scientists have told them there is nothing they can do to save themselves. We follow a group of characters in the city and suburbs of Melbourne as they figure out how to spend their last few months of life…
You can read the full book review by clicking here…
In terms of action and even dialogue, the film stays pretty close to the book for the most part, but there are some differences that I felt changed the emphasis and tone quite a bit. Before I get into those, though, I had some real problems with the casting and what I’ll call the Hollywoodisation of the film. In the book, Captain Dwight Towers is American, but all the other major characters are Australian. It jarred with me throughout that in the movie the vast majority of the main characters speak with American accents. Most of them make no attempt to sound Australian, and there’s a distinct contrast between their voices and the minor characters, many of whom are authentic Aussies.
(I cannot lie – I got very tired of Waltzing Matilda by the time the film was finished.)
The star factor clearly came into play in Kramer’s casting, too. Ava Gardner is about twenty years too old for the character of Moira, so that, instead of a young innocent drinking and playing the field to ward off thoughts of her impending death with her life unlived, we have an older woman who has been drinking and playing the field for decades before the war even began. She’s good, but she’s not the girl in the book, and therefore her story is not so heart-breaking. Fred Astaire is also far older than the character he is playing, but because he’s a secondary character and not involved in romance, I found that didn’t bother me so much – I rather enjoyed his performance, though I felt someone should have talked to him about his eye make-up which looked like a throwback to the days of the silent movies.
Gregory Peck is very good as Dwight and Anthony Perkins is good as Peter, although a sadly Americanised version. The woman who plays Mary, Donna Anderson – hmm. I couldn’t decide whether her acting is terrible or whether the fault is Kramer’s direction, but she’s a real weakness in what is otherwise a solid cast.
As much as warning of the dangers of nuclear holocaust, it seemed to me the book was speculating on how humanity, knowing that its end was inescapable, would deal with its own demise. The film somehow keeps trying to inject hope where in the book there is none, I think in an attempt to create some suspense. While Kramer doesn’t go so far as to change the outcome for humanity, he does change how the people react to it, thus rather missing Shute’s point. I’m now heading into pretty major spoiler territory, so if you’re intending to read the book or watch the film, you might want to skip ahead to the last paragraph…
(The mystery of the invisible baby! Little Jennifer, Peter and Mary’s child, never physically appears in the movie but they might have made a better job of pretending she was there. Elbowing her in the face so you can kiss her mum doesn’t seem very caring…)
* * * * *
Mary, in the book, chooses to go into denial. It’s not that she doesn’t know they’re all going to die, she simply makes a decision to live the last few months of her life as she would if they had a future ahead of them. In the film, she more or less goes insane, at one point becoming almost catatonic. Why? It added nothing and was less psychologically interesting.
In the book, Shute describes how the people of Melbourne cope with daily existence as shortages grow, and their domestic concerns as death approaches – things like what to do about their farm animals and pets, how long to continue going to work, how to cope without milk and petrol and so on. I said in my review: It’s a slow-moving but fascinating and rather moving depiction of an undramatic end – all the bombs and war and destruction occurred far away; for the people of Melbourne, nothing has outwardly happened and yet every part of their existence has been irrevocably changed. The film shows us very little of these concerns, preferring to concentrate on the minimal action provided by the submarine’s expedition north and on the romance between Dwight and Moira. As a result there’s far less depth to it.
But the biggest and worst change is the relationship between Dwight and Moira. Dwight’s wife and children are already dead, having been in America during the war. In the book, Dwight, rather like Mary, chooses in light of his own impending death to go on as if they are alive and will all die together, and be together in some form of afterlife. This prevents him from being able to fall in love with Moira as she wishes. In the film, Hollywoodisation demands romance, so they fall in love. The fact that Dwight so easily gets over his wife cheapens and lessens him as a character – a terrible mistake.
The end is also changed for no reason that I could think of. In the book, Dwight follows military norms to the end, scuttling the submarine so it can’t fall into the hands of a now non-existent enemy. In the film, he and his crew sentimentally set out for home, wishing to die in America. This also ruins the book’s sad end for Moira, choosing to die looking out over the bay where Dwight’s body lies in his sunken vessel. In the film, she watches him leave her, not out of a sense of duty but out of some kind of sickly sweet patriotism. And then Kramer tacks on an over-the-top warning to humanity about the dangers of nuclear weapons, obviously not realising that, if you feel you need to spell out your point, then you’ve failed to make it.
* * * END OF SPOILERS * * *
You know, before I started writing this I was intending to give the film five stars – I did enjoy watching it. But as I’ve been writing it’s been going down in my estimation – the perils of over-analysis! So now I feel quite generous giving it four.
★ ★ ★ ★
And that makes the decision very easy this time…