Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
When Hollywood Came to Melbourne
Director: Lawrence Johnston
The Australian doco Fallout shouldn't be mistaken for a simple chronicle of the filming of Hollywood classic On the Beach in Melbourne. It is so much more than that. Fallout follows the creation of Neville Shute's novel, arguably the most successful Australian novel ever, delving into his experiences in World War II and his reasons for writing this extraordinary tale of nuclear annihilation. That it transitioned into a project that brought Hollywood to Australia for the first time is only half the story.
Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner on the set of On the Beach
This is an ambitious and exhaustive exploration, starting with the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the motives of the U.S. government at the time, and the impact these events had on Japanese society. Shute's experience as an engineer during World War II gave him an intricate knowledge of warfare and shaped his psyche. On the Beach in many ways was an outlet for the guilt he felt at being a part of this process.
For the uninitiated, On the Beach tells the story of the aftermath of a nuclear war which has wiped out the entire northern hemisphere and the ensuing contamination is slowing poisoning what is left of the world. The citizens of Australia are basically waiting to die, knowing there is no escape from the encroaching radiation.
These days apocalyptic dramas are commonplace, but back in 1957 when the novel came out, it was truly revolutionary. This wasn't some schlocky sci-fi adventure, a popular genre at the time, but a serious examination of what the human race was doing to itself. It came when atomic bomb testing was at it's peak and little regard was given to its long term effects. To focus the story on a group of Australians, innocent people far removed from the creation of such horrors, people who had lived relatively sheltered lives, made the story even more confronting.
Shute's experiences, not only as an engineer, but also before then as a youth in London where hiding in bomb shelters was a part of daily life, gave him a first hand look at how people react during such dire circumstances. From this came his bleak story, which apart from its political statement addressed such taboo issues as euthanasia and suicide.
Acclaimed director Stanley Kramer sought the rights to the book and tackled the adaptation with gusto. He wasn't content to make the film on some Hollywood backlot, he wanted to film in Melbourne, where the story is set. And so it was that Hollywood first came to our shores. The natives were fascinated to see such big screen heavyweights as Ava Gardner (recently divorced from Frank Sinatra), Gregory Peck, Anthony Perkins (just prior to becoming immortalised as Norman Bates) and Fred Astaire (in his first serious role, playing Shute's alter ego). It also meant a rare chance for up and coming local actors to be featured in a Hollywood production, actors who would later be well known through Aussie TV shows. Then there's the city itself: Flinders Street Station, the GPO, and Frankston all became prominent backdrops.
Much fuss was made of Ava Gardner's behaviour at the time. She was hounded by the paparazzi, and was famously quoted as saying Melbourne was the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world (it's commonly known now that a journalist invented the quote).
Like many a classic film, On the Beach was ahead of its time and proved too confronting for the masses when it was released. It would take years to recoup its budget and be regarded as highly as it is today.
Shute, who cared little about the adaptations of his other books, had a heavy emotional investment in the film that was being shot in his back yard. He was antagonistic about some of the changes, and his family infer the final product was directly detrimental to his health.
This is a multi-layered account of the novel and film, a must-see for fans of cinema, literature, Australian history, and human nature. It's an even handed slow burner, with long fuses going off in all directions. From nuclear contamination, Hollywood backlashes and personal animosity, Fallout proves a poisonously appropriate title for this fascinating documentary.