"The last generation.. innocent victims of an accidental war, living out the last days, making plans that will never be carried out, making do with what they have - however temporary it might be - hoping for the miracle that will not come. As the deadly rain moves ever closer, and the world as we know it winds toward an inevitable end."
It's an extremely depressing subject, but Nevil Shute has a way of presenting the story to make even the 'end of the world' not necessarily positive, but to demonstrate how mankind could cope with it in an honourable manner. Not to say that everybody in the story is always positive and dancing around the Maypole. Certain characters drink too much, party too much, live in denial; however these are realistic coping mechanisms. Still, the story is wonderfully presented; there is a gentleness to it that belies the subject matter and Shute never delves too much into the seedier aspects of the situation. They remain on the periphery, with Shute focusing on the main characters and their relationships.
The main characters are -
Commander Dwight Towers, an American submarine Captain, with his submarine, the USS Sawfish, which he has seconded to the Australian government;
Moira Davidson, an Australian woman, living out her time in a state of drunkenness;
Lt Peter Holmes, an Australian Naval officer, who is assigned to the Sawfish as his last assignment;
May Holmes, Peter's wife, who lives in denial, trying to cope with the future, and
John Osborne, an Australian scientist, also assigned to the Sawfish to travel with it and take readings of the atmosphere in that area of Australia where the nuclear cloud has already hit.
The lives of these main characters are gently interwoven by Nevil Shute, each dealing with the future in his or her unique way, each affecting the others in positive ways, affecting their methods of dealing with the tragic future coming their way. Shute presents this 'nightmare' scenario in a manner that, even though the future may be bleak (I won't ruin the story by leaking how it ends), these people try to live their lives on a daily basis, in such a manner that no matter what ultimately happens, they know they have lived with their heads held high.
On the Beach is a book I've read many times and it is a story that I never tire of. I give this book 5 stars (out of five, of course); it is a cautionary tale of the future that everyone should read.
There was also an excellent movie made in 1959 by Stanley Kramer, that I've also watched many times and enjoyed as much as I have the book. It has a great cast, with Gregory Peck more than suitable as Dwight Towers and Ava Gardner as Moira Davison.
At the time, there were obviously not as a great many Australian actors known in the US, as there are now, so the parts of John Osborne, Peter and Mary Holmes were played respectively by American actors, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins and Donna Anderson.
However, this in no way detracts from the strength and drama of the movie. Stanley Kramer is very respectful of the writing style of Nevil Shute and presents the story in a very similar style. It was one movie that suitably portrayed the book and was every bit as good as the book.
Other Nevil Shute books/ movies
I must say that I haven't read a great many Shute books. The one that particularly hits home for me is Pied Piper. The picture to the left isn't the edition that I possess, but I was a bit lazy today to take a photograph of it, so I used on online. The basic story is -
"One man's thrilling rescue of seven abandoned children during the Nazi invasion of France in the fateful summer of 1940."
The story is about an old English gentleman, dealing with the death of his son who embarks on a fishing trip to the French Alps and has to return to England because of the Nazi invasion of France. On his way, he acquires his flock of children, who he must deliver safely to England.
This is a fascinating story, told in a similar style to On the Beach. It tells the story of an individual thrust into an astonishing situation, who uses his positiveness, his humanity, to manoeuvre his way through dangerous, life-threatening situations. Another story that I give a 5 star rating.
This story was also turned into an excellent movie in 1942, starring Monty Woolley as John Howard, the Pied Piper, and also Roddy McDowell, Ann Baxter and Otto Preminger. Also a great movie, one that you would enjoy completely.
Currently in my To Be Read book shelf, I have -
Landfall (1940) - A young RAF pilot is accused of sinking a British sub;
The Far Country (1952) - A young woman travels to Australia. A condemnation of British socialism and the national health service;
Most Secret (1945) - Unconventional attacks on German forces using a French fishing boat; and
So Disdained (1928) - written soon after the General Strike of 1926, reflected the debate in British Society about socialism and considered whether Italian fascism was an effective antidote.
One other Nevil Shute story turned into an excellent movie, that I want to mention, is No Highway. Starring James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich and Glynnis Johns, the movie was based on the novel of the same name and was released in 1951. Stewart plays the role of Theodore Honey, an eccentric "boffin" at RAE Farnborough who predicts metal fatigue in a new airliner.
Stewart is sent to Labrador aboard one of the aircraft to investigate a previous crash of one of the same planes to help prove his theory. It becomes evident that the plane he is flying on is reaching the flying hours where his theory may happen before they land in Labrador.
The movie, as most of Shute's books/ movies, is about the lovely interplay between the main characters, between Stewart and Dietrich and between Stewart and Johns. Once again, his characters are placed in situations that threaten their very existence, but once again, there is a lovely humanity and sensibility that draws you into the plot. Both my wife and I have seen this movie a few times and each time it is as engrossing as the next.
The next time you're looking for an excellent story or movie, you can't go wrong if you choose one of Nevil Shute's. Enjoy!