Nukeporn Revisited: The Movie That Ruined My Life

So, I’m moderating this panel up at the Newport International Film Festival a little while ago, and it’s on Shakespeare on film, and I’m talking to one of the panelists, Michael York, the British actor who’s just come out with a valuable book, A Shakespearean Actor Prepares–but more to the point, he was a featured player (the combative Tybalt) in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. Anyway, I found myself telling Michael York, almost as if I blamed him personally, “That movie ruined my life.” I was being facetious, sort of, thinking of the moment I saw it right after college and how at a vulnerable juncture it left a deep imprint on me, some powerful emotional fusion of love and doom.

But then I started thinking more about the concept of “the movie that ruined my life.” I began having fascinating discussions with people I knew about the movies they said ruined their lives. About the power of certain films, the way they can infect, sicken or at the very least cast a lasting pall over our vision of the world and of human nature. It can be a movie that is so powerfully life-changingly good in its depiction of badness: A couple of women mentioned Mike Leigh’s Naked. Or it can be powerfully life-changingly bad in its depiction of goodness: One person mentioned Patch Adams.

Anyway, I soon realized, after giving it a little more thought, that my life had already been ruined by a movie long before I saw the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet. A movie that had me looking at life through the lens of doom long before I saw Olivia Hussey expire so seductively in the tomb of the Capulets.

My life had been ruined by On the Beach.

This is something that became even clearer to me after seeing the recent Showtime remake. I hoped it might demystify for me a film I hadn’t seen since I was 12 years old. After all, the original had a genuinely stellar cast. Gregory Peck as the American submarine commander who surfaces his ship in Melbourne, Australia, in the wake of a nuclear war that has destroyed the Northern Hemisphere and left a deadly cloud of radioactive fallout moving inexorably south. Ava Gardner as the Australian party girl who tries to make him forget his family incinerated in America. Anthony Perkins as his Australian navy liaison whose wife (Donna Anderson) refuses to believe they’re all doomed. And most memorably, Fred Astaire playing totally and brilliantly against type as the gloomy Ferrari-driving scientist who articulates the existential bleakness of it all, the futility of trying to come to terms with the onrushing extinction of life on the planet.

The remake featured instead Armand Assante as the sub commander, Rachel Ward in the Ava Gardner role and Bryan Brown as the bitter scientist. I still can’t watch Bryan Brown on screen without thinking of him flipping fifths of liquor in sync with Tom Cruise in Cocktail, a movie so idiotic it’s almost an argument for the extinction of life on the planet.

But despite this, the remake of On the Beach got to me. Left me feeling devastated. Brought it all back. Then I made the mistake of going out and renting the 1959 original and I understood. It’s a genuinely powerful film, immensely skillful and surprisingly underplayed. For instance, for the first hour of the film it gathers remarkable power by what it withholds, what it doesn’t say.

The only way it lets on what happened to America, what happened to us in the nuclear war, is in this brief offhand exchange between a couple of the Australian characters talking about the American sub commander played by Peck:

“Did he have children?”

“Two kids.”

“They’re gone?”

“They were in America.”

I don’t know, maybe you had to be there, to be a baby boomer growing up with the threat of the Bomb blighting your vision of the future. (Still, I’d argue that part of the power of James Cameron’s brilliant, underrated Terminator films was due to the way they recapitulated and rewound nuclear-war terror for a new generation.) But experiencing the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis at the cusp of puberty and adolescence, all of it inflected by a genre of book and film I’ve called “nukeporn,” was different.

I have a curious relationship with the word “nukeporn,” a word I coined in a 1978 Harper’s piece called “The Subterranean World of the Bomb,” a piece that explored, among other things, the psychic internalization of the external threat of nuclear extinction. Recently I got a call from my friend Jesse Sheidlower, who is the American editor of the encyclopedic and definitive Oxford English Dictionary. He’d recently discovered, in the dictionary’s database of citations for new coinages, that my word “nukeporn” was cited as the very first use they could find in print of the now familiar practice of adding “porn” as a suffix to words, as in “kiddieporn” and “foodporn.”

Not exactly the kind of immortality I’d envisioned for myself, but nonetheless, looking back, there does seem to have been some validity to the term. Here’s how I described my formative adolescent encounter with the nukeporn genre in that Harper’s piece:

“I’d started with the soft core stuff: the tearjerking postattack tristesse of the slowly expiring Australian survivors in On the Beach, spiced as it was with a memorable seduction ploy in which a doom-maddened woman goes so far as to unfasten her bikini top on a first date, a hint of the unleashed inhibitions the end of the world could engender. This only aroused my appetite for the more explicit stuff: such nuclear foreplay novels as Red Alert and Fail-Safe with their mounting urgencies as the stiffening finger on the atomic button brought the trembling world to the brink of ‘going all the way,’ to use a metaphor from another adolescent preoccupation whose urgencies may indeed have fueled this one … nuclear war novels were … dramas of inhibition and release.”

(By the way, for those of you who feel a “mounting urgency” to read further on this subject and many of my other obsessions, you could use your “stiffening finger” to go online and order my collection The Secret Parts of Fortune, which reprints the Harper’s piece, a couple dozen Observer columns and much more.)

But looking back on that passage, I think I was being too blithe about On the Beach. I was in denial about the extent to which it had ravaged my outlook on life–or maybe it’s only now I have the perspective to see its malign effects.

I was being facetious about the “doom-maddened” bikini-top untying, but clearly the moment had left an impression on me. I just don’t think it’s healthy that my first stirring experience of sexuality on the big screen was in the context of the desperate longings of the last survivors of humanity. It’s just not a party-hearty kind of thing.

What really made On the Beach so powerful and distinctive, such a lifelong, life-ruining downer, was that it was the first film and book (it was based on the novel by Nevil Shute) to popularize (if that’s the right word) the notion of Total Extinction. Hiroshima had introduced the world to the searing horror of one nuclear blast, and there was an abstract awareness that, in the dozen or so years since Hiroshima, there were now enough nuclear and thermonuclear weapons available that all-out “total spasm war” (as the nuclear strategist Herman Kahn had called it in the famous “Escalation ladder” he erected) might not just cause hundreds of millions, even billions, of blast and radiation casualties. But, in fact, it might cause what one nuclear strategist described as “the death of consciousness” on the planet: radiation fallout so severe that all human life, even on the far fringes of the actual war zones, would die. Not just partial extermination, but total extinction.

Nevil Shute found a haunting, almost beautiful, way of dramatizing this horror: from the perspective of the last survivors on the far fringes. For those who haven’t seen it (and I highly recommend you rent it, in hopes more lives than mine will be ruined by it), On the Beach imagines a nuclear war that has left everyone in the Northern Hemisphere dead from the immediate blasts and radiation, and a deadly radioactive cloud slowly proceeding south from the equator, killing all in its path.

It was the first vision of “nuclear winter,” and although the concept is scientifically controversial (some contend that a nuclear war would not kill all humans on the planet–what a relief!), it made for a powerful, wrenching drama.

Everyone in the movie knows they’re going to die soon, as each bit of false hope and illusory scientific optimism is extinguished. The film is about the way the survivors try to deal not just with their own deaths, but with the unimaginable, unassimilable death of humanity itself.

This is strong stuff for a kid just coming of age. Long before it became the Sex Pistols’ incantation (in “God Save the Queen”), I grew up seriously thinking I had “No Future.”

Of course it didn’t have that effect on everyone my age. Last fall Elizabeth Mitchell, one of George W. Bush’s biographers, asked me to fax her an essay I’d done for a Yale reunion classbook about “the meaning of ’68ness” (I was a classmate of W., although in a far nerdier English-major realm than his frat-boy milieu.) I was struck by how incredibly gloomy I was about my birth year in that essay.

“To understand the singularity of ’68,” I’d written, “one first has to study the singularity of ’46, the year most of us were born …. Now that was a moment–the aftermath of Auschwitz and Hiroshima–[when] the war-weary world awakens to the magnitude of one holocaust and suddenly finds itself under the threat of another one …. We were the first crop of babies to drink atomic fallout in our mother’s milk … the first to be born into post-nuclear nuclear families …. We saw the beginning of the End …. Face it, the four horsemen were hovering around our delivery rooms, smacking their lips, whispering seductively, ‘apocalypse now.’”

Jeez what a Gloomy Gus I was! Somehow I suspect George W. didn’t entertain these kinds of thoughts about his birth year. (Maybe he never saw On the Beach.) Although, who knows, maybe it did affect him in a subtle way. After all, he didn’t seize the privileges available to him in a grim go-getter careerist way. The most interesting (and likable) thing about him is that he didn’t seem to have much direction at all until after he reached 40. This is a symptom of ’68ness, or ’46ness.

I know I tend to blame my own character flaws on my apocalypse-haunted, Cuban Missile Crisis–traumatized, nukeporn adolescence: my habitual disinclination to make plans, any kind of plans, but particularly long-term plans for the future I never thought would come. My preference for instant gratification over self-restraint and self-sacrifice; my preference for wasting time with Falstaffian rogues rather than networking with forward-looking Coffee Achievers. The way my affinity for an absurdist, black-humored attitude to life served in some way to distance and detach me from a full commitment to conventional life. I never expected to live this long, I always had a feeling of living a kind of temporarily reprieved posthumous life. And, now that I’m still around, I’m not very well prepared for it.

But that’s O.K., because deep down I don’t think I’ll have to adjust. Deep down I’m still convinced we’re doomed. Doomed! Doomed before long to witness another Holocaust, this one perhaps combining elements of both Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

Think I’m being a bit pessimistic? Well, it’s true I think about these things more than I should, more than is good for me, but does anyone really think the “peace process” in the Middle East is going to work? Sure, everyone involved should go on acting as if it might work, because that’s the only chance it will.

But even if the peace process works on paper, it will be a peace the Jewish state signs with some Arab leaders, while others, perhaps even those who do the signing, will never be at peace with the existence of “the Zionist entity.” And sooner or later, someone–people, nations, groups, terrorists, whatever–will have a nuclear weapon big enough to wipe out Tel Aviv, and sooner or later they’ll use it, and there’s little doubt the Israelis will retaliate with their nukes. Perhaps not a planet-destroying Holocaust but a local one, and for my people a second one. A spirit-destroying Holocaust. While I’ve always loved the idea of the state of Israel, my worst fear has always been that some day, in some way, the ingathering of Jews there would serve a “concentration” function similar to Hitler’s death camps, to make it easier to kill the Jews again.

For a long time I used to hope something could be worked out. I used to believe all problems are soluble, because the consequences of not solving this problem were inconceivable. But now I wonder about that. The tragedy of history is that some problems have no solution. Ever. I don’t see love triumphing over hate in history. I see just the opposite. Why should this be different?

And of course, the Middle East isn’t the only place it could happen. The remake of On the Beach posited a nuclear war in the year 2006 that begins over Taiwan. The mainland Chinese lose patience and decide to take the island by force; we’re pledged to defend it, but don’t have the means to defend it with conventional forces. The only way to defend Taiwan successfully would be to try to force the Chinese to back down with a nuclear threat. Maybe they’ll call our bluff, and then what? We’re back on the beach.

I don’t want to bring you down. But then again, maybe I do. I’m envious of people who walk around without being troubled by the threat of planetary extinction ruining their mood, the way it still can ruin mine.

I remember, I swear this is true, that after seeing On the Beach I started walking around–in junior high school–wearing a pin produced for the Ban the Bomb group SANE. It read “There’s Still Time Brother.” It came from On the Beach. The stunning last frame of the film flashes on a lifeless cityscape, on a church which flies the now pitifully ironic banner “There’s Still Time Brother,” the last desperate plea to turn to the Lord by Christian evangelists before the radioactive cloud extinguished life.

The fine print on the SANE button beneath “There’s Still Time Brother” read “Work for a Sane Nuclear Policy.” It was, in a way, an optimistic spin on the despairing last frame of On the Beach. It professed a faith in sanity I’m not sure the past century bears out. In fact, I’m not sure there’s “still time.” It may already be too late. We escaped nuclear war by a whisker a couple of times during the Cold War. I’m not sure we’ll be so lucky again. Have a nice day. Nukeporn Revisited: The Movie That Ruined My Life