James Lileks takes a break from the brutal Minneapolis winter by watching one of those “beach” movies from the late ’50s. Now with 100 percent less Frankie and Annette:
I watched “On the Beach,” because I seem to be on an inexplicable Cold War horror-story jag. Not something I really want to indulge, but perhaps it’s good to see these movies when you’re not in the mood, when the tropes and assumptions seem bygone and archaic. “On the Beach” is a very curious movie. It’s set in Australia, after some global war that killed everyone, left San Francisco intact, and unleashed a cloud of radiation moving inexorably towards Australia, where it will finish its work. So everyone dies. Even Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. That’s how bad war is. It’s difficult to imagine the audience getting up after the credits, gathering their coats, and thinking well, pie? Some coffee? I’m starved! It would make everyone want to go home and sit in a room and brood and decide there’s just no bloody point, is there?
Naturally of course, people refer to the late fifties and early sixties as being innocent and naive. (See also: Mad Men.) But from the late fifties through the entire decade that followed, the earth sure got nuked and paved surprisingly often in the movies, didn’t it? This list is just off the top of my head and doesn’t include the Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, where mankind’s total destruction was a near-weekly theme:
- On the Beach (1959)
- The World, the Flesh and the Devil (a 1959 movie starring Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer)
- The Time Machine (1960)
- Dr. Strangelove (shot in 1963, released in 1964)
- Planet of the Apes (1968)
And that was before the endless series of eco-apocalypto films of the 1970s. By the time of Star Wars in 1977, George Lucas was blowing up planets left and right.
Fortunately though, while the 21st century has brought its own unique challenges, at least we’re not worrying much about worldwide nuclear disaster today, right?
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