Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sing 'Waltzing Matilda'

(Click For Bigger Graphic Of Impending Doom. It's Easy And Fun!)

According to the UN office of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty (an organization with a worldwide network of sensors capable of detecting even small amounts of nuclear radiation), a plume of radioactive material will reach the West Coast of the United States by Thursday or Friday, the New York Times reports.

"Health and nuclear experts emphasize that any plume would have extremely minor health consequences in the United States."

Okay then! "Extremely minor". Move along, nothing to see here.

Neville Shute; First Edition Cover, On The Beach

Neville Shute Norway (1899 - 1960) was a British aviation engineer ("Someone who can do for a shilling what any fool can do for a Pound," he once said) from the late 1920's through the end of the Second World War. He had a number of patents in Great Britain and America for a variety improvements to aircraft construction made over those twenty-plus years.

At the same time, he published over thirty novels between 1926 and 1958 under the name Neville Shute, including the 1956 classic, On The Beach.

(As a young Dog, I read the book in the early 1960's, along with another nuclear war anxiety classic, Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon (1959); books that featured, even described, The Unthinkable were being read by large numbers of people. When Alas was turned into a "Playhouse 90" television drama in the spring of 1960, it scared the shit out of me. And with good reason.

(Where I grew up, Minuteman missile fields were only a few miles away. If (in the immortal words of Slim Pickens in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove) it came to nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the Russkis, our war would be very short; we were a prime target. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was revealed that the early 60's Russian strategy to destroy American Minuteman fields was to fire a cloud of missiles with ground-bursting warheads: One to five megatons, exploding every thirty seconds, as they literally dug the silos out of the ground.

The town's large air-raid siren outside the fire station had allegedly been liberated from Dresden, Germany, by one of the firemen after WW2; hearing it go off every Friday at noon for almost two decades in a warbling, rise-and-fall tone of a 3-minute attack warning test, was something I never truly became used to.)

As a novelist, Shute was a realist about human nature. As an engineer, he understood the danger presented by rapid technological change; the development of nuclear weapons and the Cold War were never far from the minds of people in America, England, Russia -- or in Australia, where Shute retired in his 50's after WWII.

On The Beach is a novel about people living in 1964 Australia (ten years in the future for Shute, when he wrote the book), approximately a year after the Third World War. The northern hemisphere is poisoned by radioactive fallout, and everywhere above the Equator whoever wasn't killed in the blast of warheads has died from radiation poisoning.

(I always thought the date Shute chose for the war was a curious coincidence: The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in October 1962 and nearly ended in what would have been a series of escalations, and then a full nuclear exchange.)

In the novel, radioactive particles are slowly making their way below the equator to the southern hemisphere. The theory of Australian scientists (which proves true) is, background radiation levels will slowly rise and everyone in the south will die as well. Against that background of impending doom, Shute sketched his characters and set them in motion.

In 1958, Stanley Kramer directed a film of Shute's novel, starring Gregory Peck (who after did To Kill A Mockingbird), Anthony Perkins (his first good film role before being locked into a signature character by Psycho), Fred Astaire (yes, Fred Astaire) and Ava Gardner (who had divorced Frank Sinatra, and spent time in Spain with Ernest Hemingway).

Peck is an American nuclear submarine commander, given orders to go back to the northern hemisphere and see if radiation levels have decreased -- and to go to the United States to investigate mysterious radio signals broadcasting from San Diego (Seattle, in the novel). He falls in love with Ava Gardner, then sets off with scientist Fred Astaire to the north.

When investigated, the signals have a fairly prosaic explanation; the sub cruises up to San Francisco (destroyed in the novel but only abandoned, a ghost town, in the film) then returns to Australia.

Scenes Of A Dying World; Click To Enlarge; Easy And Fun!

Ernest Gold, composer of the film's soundtrack, wove the classic Australian tune, "Waltzing Matilda", as a motif in most of the music. At one point, Gardner accompanies Peck on a river-fishing trip -- crowded with others who want one last experience with rod and reel, and where they are serenaded by drunken campers singing the song, over and over.

In Melbourne, reports arrive of high radiation levels working down from the north. In advance, people are lining up for government-issue suicide pills -- painless and effective. Peck tells Gardner that his crew has agreed that they will take their submarine back to the U.S. -- in reality, to head for the Marianas Trench and dive for the bottom until pressure crushes the hull.

One by one, the film's characters make their Abscheid: Fred Astaire seals the doors in his garage, climbs into the driver's seat of a Mercedes 300SL racer, starts the engine in neutral and floors the accelerator pedal; Anthony Perkins and his wife have a last cup of tea. After watching Peck's submarine submerge from a cliff over the ocean, Gardner's character takes her pills with a slug from a pint of Scotch (" 'Fooled you,' she said ") -- and that is how Shute's novel ends.

Kramer's film concludes with scenes of Melbourne, now as empty and abandoned as San Francisco or San Diego, while the "Waltzing Matilda' motif plays behind.

The final image is of a large banner (There Is Still Time -- Brother), strung across a central park by the Salvation Army in promise of the solace of religion; but here, it was a warning to viewers in the theatre that there was still time for people, nations and their governments, to walk back from the nuclear brink.

Still Time.

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