What's On


In 1959, the movies came to Melbourne, all big-name stars and big-screen glamour.

Director Stanley Kramer brought Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins to enact the end of the world, in perhaps the biggest production the city had seen at the time. For all the Hollywood glitz that accompanied the film, however, its roots were uniquely Australian. On the Beach was an adaptation of the novel of the same name by the British-born, Australian-residing Nevil Shute, a book considered among the most important of local literary works. The feature and its making is only one part of the story; the other stems from taking a terrifying concept – of nuclear war – out of the hands of science fiction and into the lives of everyday people.

The genesis of Shute’s best-known publication, its basis in his engineering and military background, and the surrounding climate of politics and potential conflict forms the foundation of Fallout, Lawrence Johnson’s documentary exploration of the creation and context of On the Beach on the page and screen. The threat of the atomic bomb, ever-present at the time of Shute’s writing and already demonstrated in World War II, is as palpable as it is astutely investigated. This is a period in which John F. Kennedy told the masses “every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day in which this planet may no longer be habitable,” as the feature reminds in its opening sequence.

An at-times uneasy balance exists in Lawrence’s re-telling of two distinctive parts, between the history and the horrors of the subject, and the novel, its author, and the accompanying cinematic interpretation. Both facets are inherently interesting, and indeed they compete for attention – individual films about each could easily be made. Where the opening section is sombre yet sincere and instructive, the second-half focus on the making of On the Beach in Melbourne, the ample archival footage of the media frenzy it conjured at the time, and the many clips from the film itself, offers Fallout its spark. The former makes the latter more complex and compelling, but the difference in energy is evident.

Issues also lie in the figures relating the details; in an effort vast in content, too few sources are given their moment. Journalist Gideon Haigh proves the primary guide through the intertwined topics, with Shute’s daughter Heather Mayfield providing personal details, and Kramer’s wife Karen and actress Donna Anderson discussing the production. Those with a real-life connection to the events remain the most fruitful; the academic viewpoint, whilst educational, is stretched thin. There’s no questioning the information conveyed, only the choice of manner of delivery.

Fallout exists in many senses of the term: in a world changed by war, in the artistic response to potential destruction, and in the many repercussions of Shute’s book and Kramer’s film. Though its showcasing of movie-making in Melbourne remains its highlight, like the filmmaker’s other features – biography Eternity, drama Life and documentary NightFallout impresses in its ambitious scope above all else.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5


Director: Lawrence Johnson

Australia, 2013, 86 mins

Release date: Now showing at ACMI

Rated: M

Sarah Ward

Friday 3 January, 2014

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay