Arrival at the end of the world

Rebecca Boyle
Thursday, 22 June 2023

In 1959 Hollywood came to Australia. Newspapers were abuzz with the arrival of showbiz giants: the great Gregory Peck, iconic showman Fred Astaire, teen idol Anthony Perkins, and glamorous brunette bombshell Ava Gardner.

They were in Australia, Melbourne specifically, to film On the beach. Based on Nevil Shute's acclaimed novel, it would be one of the first movies to deal head on with the prospect of complete nuclear apocalypse.

The stars descend

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that, on her arrival, Ava Gardner had scornfully described Melbourne as 'the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world.' This now-famous quote was made-up – the satirical invention of journalist Neil Jillett. Though it wasn't hard to believe. For these stars from the other side of the world, Australia was a long way from home.

Their arrival in Australia is documented in National Archives' passenger arrival records. In 1959, like now, new arrivals to Australia had to fill in an incoming passenger arrival card with their name, intended length and purpose of stay, and other details. Even better for classic Hollywood fans, these ones also include photos!

Peck, Astaire, Perkins and Gardner, as well as co-star Donna Anderson, are all represented. It's refreshing to see that even famous actors can have bad passport photos. Gregory Peck's mugshot is quite unflattering, though Astaire looks distinguished. We don't know how Ava Gardner looked in hers – her photo is missing. Pinched by a starstruck customs officer?

All 5 actors state their purpose in Australia (acting), and give their intended Australian addresses as care of Stanley Kramer Productions. American director Kramer both produced and directed the film.

Filming started on 15 January, with newspapers and magazines keeping up a steady stream of breathless star-spotting. The Royal Australian Navy cooperated with the production, allowing the use of HMAS Melbourne, Williamstown Naval Dockyard, and even letting some men serve as extras. Then, after just over 2 months, On the beach wrapped on 27 March.

An unhappy author

When On the beach premiered on 17 December in 1959, it received mixed reviews. For some, it was a powerful depiction of the potential consequences of the ongoing Cold War. Others were not as convinced by the Hollywood depiction of the end of the world. One man in particular wasn't happy. Nevil Shute, the author of the original book, was famously displeased with the movie. He and Kramer had multiple disagreements throughout production. Shute was especially disappointed that the relationship between Peck and Gardner's characters, which was unconsummated in the book, became a more traditional love affair in the film.

Here, National Archives once again has a connection to the On the beach story. Shute, and later his widow, Frances, were both correspondents of Governor-General Lord Richard Casey. Some of their letters are in our collection.

The letters include a note from Shute when he sent a Casey a copy of the newly published On the beach in 1957. They also include Casey's response: 'As you say it is not a pretty story – although it is an interesting one.'

Shute died in 1960. Later, in 1967, Casey recalled in a letter to aviator Edward Connellan that he had spoken to Shute's widow Frances Norway. He was keen to see another of Shute's novels, Round the bend, made into a film. However, he acknowledged in his letter: 'When Shute was alive I tried to get him to get it made … but he was so nauseated by the way they distorted "On the Beach" that he said he'd never get any other of his books made into a movie.' Later, Frances Norway confirmed this in another letter, describing the film of On the beach as a fiasco. Round the bend was never adapted.

A filmic legacy

Love it or hate it, On the beach has retained its status as a cult film. It is one of the ultimate Cold War movies, a bleak depiction of nuclear apocalypse that retains power to this day. The documents in the National Archival collection form part of its continuing legacy, a treasure trove for fans of the novel and the movie alike.