International Reaction to the Motion Picture “On the Beach”

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

An earlier post discussed the 1959, United Artists release of the major motion picture On the Beach.  The movie was based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Nevil Shute. 

To recapitulate – Both the book and the movie take place in a post-apocalyptic world.  The nuclear fallout resulting from World War III has killed all life in the Northern Hemisphere and air currents are slowly moving the radiation south.  Only the southernmost parts of the Southern Hemisphere remain populated.  A U.S. Navy submarine undertakes a mission to identify mysterious signals coming from the Northern Hemisphere while people in Australia await the deadly radiation that is approaching.  As the first major movie about nuclear conflict, On the Beach, threatened to stir up international sentiment against war and nuclear weapons.

movie poster showing clouds w/silhouetted figures in foreground
On the Beach movie poster (1959) United Artists

The movie received significant advanced publicity with plans for simultaneous premieres in the United States and fifteen cities around the world on December 17, 1959.  To provide guidance to its overseas posts on how to handle questions and comments about the film, the United States Information Agency (USIA) issued an “INFOGUIDE” on December 4.  You will find that document in the earlier post.

While the INFOGUIDE was directed to United States Information Service (USIS, the overseas arm of USIA) posts, the Department of State files include a few reports on the film’s premier.

The U.S. Mission in occupied West Berlin reported that: “[d]espite considerable pre-release promotion in West Berlin papers, 6 or [of?] 9 critics wrote definitely unfavorable reviews and rest lukewarm.  Popular Ullstein tabloid ‘B.Z.’ set tone for criticism on political grounds while distinguished critic Friedrich Luft in Die Welt led attack from artistic viewpoint.”  The mission quoted the film trade journal Filmblaeter as writing in an overall uncritical review: “Film seems satisfied to depict end of mankind in lovable terms.  Let’s hope this pleases box office.  Presumably real thing would be somewhat less aesthetic.”

The consulate general in Toronto reported: “Notices excellent.  Most critics review film as pure drama and there has been little emphasis on social and political significance.”  It also included a lengthy quotation from a review by the critic Bruce West.  Among other things, West is quoted as writing “One of the things that made this fantastic story almost believable in the year 1959 was the haunting and nagging realization that man has already unleased [unleashed?] upon himself vast destruction by his own stupidity.”

incl reviews of On the beach
U.S. Consulate General Toronto to Department of State, Despatch 37, December 23, 1959

From Zurich, the consulate general reported: “Strongly adverse criticism appearing [in the] Zurich Neue Zuercher Zeitung edition December 18 (No. 3998) was to effect film overstressed appeasement and branded all supporters of atomic defense measures as ‘warmongers,’ thereby playing squarely into Communist hands.  Paper noted Communists already showing film in territories under their control and are unashamedly using it as means to propagate their own so-called ‘peace campaign.’”

U.S. Consulate General Zurich to Department of State, December 24, 1959

The consulate general in Amsterdam did not report until March 1960, the premier in that city being delayed to avoid having a “film of this nature . . . shown during the Christmas Season.”  The consulate general noted that the premier was “relatively quiet and unspectacular.”  It also noted that “[w]ith but one exception, ‘On the Beach’ received favorable review by the Dutch press.”  The consulate reported that the newspaper De Volkskrant “noted that much mis-information could be avoided if it had been expressly stated that ‘On the Beach’ was not an informational film but rather science fiction.”

Sources:  U.S. Mission Berlin to Department of State, Telegram 535, December 21, 1959, file 811.452/12-2159; U.S. Consulate General Toronto to Department of State, Despatch 37, December 23, 1959, file 811.452/12-2359;  U.S. Consulate General Zurich to Department of State, December 24, 1959, file 811.452/12-2459; all 1955-59 Central Decimal File; U.S. Consulate General Amsterdam to Department of State, Despatch 219, March 7, 1960, file 811.452/3-760, 1960-63 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021); all RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

One thought on “International Reaction to the Motion Picture “On the Beach”

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. Very interesting to rfead the actions and reactions of our Government and other nations to this movie. I’d note that the book was published just five years after the US atmospheric thermonuclear test, called Castle Bravo, in the Marshall Islands in 1952. This test was much more powerful than anticipated and it included radioactive particles crossing the globe. There was great public and international concern following this test – so much so that all remaining tests in this series were cancelled. Still, I can’t help but wonder the role this test played in the author writing the book.

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