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In This Place

On the beach

Liz Lerner

The other night my wife and I watched “On the Beach,” a 1959 film by Stanley Kramer. It was one of the first and — to my mind, still the best — nuclear holocaust movies ever made. It takes place in Australia, after an all-out nuclear war in the Northern Hemisphere, which produced a lethal cloud of radioactive dust that is inexorably moving to engulf the remaining parts of the globe. Released only three years before the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, “On the Beach” proved to be eerily prescient. I saw the movie when it first came out, when I was sixteen, and it gave a bad case of the cosmic jitters that has never completely left me. Recently, I had a strong urge to see it again, partly to see if it would have the same effect and partly to understand why it affected me so deeply. I also knew I didn’t want to see it alone, so I asked Kathy to watch it with me.

What struck me seeing it again was its ordinariness and its understatement. There were no gruesome scenes of dead or dying bodies, no images of destroyed cities. The impact of the war is never shown, only spoken of. The dramatic force of the movie lies in the way that all the characters attempt to live a “normal” life in the face of the full knowledge of their impending doom. They continue to fall in love, raise children, race cars, engage in drunken sing-alongs, and so on. Time and again they manage to forget their situation briefly, only to have some inadvertent comment smash them back into their existential reality.

When we finished watching it, I realized it still had the power to give me the jitters. At first, I thought I saw in it some analogous situation to the current pandemic, another global threat that has already killed millions, even as we try to return to “normal life.” But the parallel doesn’t hold, primarily because we have vaccines to contain, if not cure it. And even if there were no vaccines, as was the case in earlier epidemics — the Spanish Flu, the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague — our species, and most of our civilization, would likely survive.

I’ve noticed lately that when commentators rank the most serious threat to humankind today, the number one threat — more serious than terrorism, social injustice, systemic racism, autocracies, or nuclear proliferation — is climate change. This is understandable, since the effects of climate change are becoming more intense and more widespread. In fact, more than once I have heard talking heads say that if we don’t address climate change, the other issues won’t matter.

But this is myopic, and false. For even if we do nothing about global warming and the worst-case environmental scenarios play out, the probability of the wholesale destruction of the human race would be very small — though under conditions that might make survival meaningless.

No, by all measures, the threat of nuclear war remains by far the most serious threat to human existence. We dodged that bullet once in October of 1962, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 deluded us into thinking that the threat of nuclear destruction was somehow canceled. The reality is otherwise, as the recent war in the Ukraine has made all too clear. Russia and the United States still have thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at one another, with a hair-trigger launch system at the ready. And that, I realize, is the reason this movie continues to haunt me: because sixty-three years later, NOTHING HAS CHANGED.