Nevil Shute's "On The Beach" was a bestseller when published in 1957, and though controversial, has never been out of print since. Shute became a master of "the middle-class story: the story of well-meaning and honest men and women reaching for success that can be measured in terms of money, victory over an opponent, happiness, love, personal fulfillment, or self-understanding" (Smith 149). Shute's style is clear and simple, though his characters have been referred to as "wooden" and he has often relied on formulaic situations, he never failed to "find the proper words and tone to take the readers into his confidence and hold them there" (Smith 149). Using functional prose, Shute wrote as he built airplanes: simply. Though Shute expected "On The Beach" to be a failure, believing people did not want to read about bad things happening in the immediate future, it became Shute's greatest commercial and financial success. "On The Beach" was made into a movie in 1959, allowing it to reach an even larger audience, and has become the first important study of ecological disaster (Smith 133). No single factor made "On The Beach" a best-seller, instead it gained this title due to a compilation of causes. "On The Beach," built upon the success of Shute's previous novels, created a controversial stir with the release of a film version and perhaps most importantly dealt with a timely subject matter when published in 1957 that has continued to prove timely into the twenty-first century.
In 1957, Shute had already written over twenty novels creating an existing audience for his work. Though he considered himself "an engineer who wrote books" ("Slide Rule," Shute), twenty-three of his novels became best-sellers. Throughout his lifetime, Shute's writing progressed, shifting from "war novels" in the 1940's to "anti-war novels" in the 1950's. As his subject matter shifted, so did his style, described by John H. Lienhard as:
low-key, but his plots are assembled like Swiss watches -- every piece fits perfectly, and you simply can't put one down after you're 50 pages into it. They also contain astounding technical realism -- far more than you'd think could hold his readers' attention, much less keep them spellbound.
Shute's first novel was "Marazan" (1926) about Phillip Stenning, an R.A.F. ace in World War I, who works at aviation jobs in the 1930's. When a friend is murdered, he investigates, tracking down a smuggler and supporter of Il Duce and laying a trap. In "Marazan" (1926) Shute introduces several of his favorite themes and techniques, which become familiar to readers of his later books, primarily a great deal of aviation information. Shute continues to describe technical details throughout his novels, as evidenced in the attention he pays to cars and the sport of racing in "On The Beach." His first novel also offers an example of a particularly modern theme, which is also recurring in Shute's work, especially visible in the bold assertion "On The Beach" makes about mankind's last days on Earth.
In "A Town Like Alice" (1950) (also published as "The Legacy") Jean Paget, captured during World War II, returns to Malaya after receiving a cash legacy to offer thanks to the village that helped her. She continues on to Australia, is reunited with Joe, a fellow POW whom she thought had died and proceeds to turn a miserable outback town into a thriving Town Like Alice (Alice Springs). In this novel Shute allows a woman to be:
the eagle-eye entrepreneur to renovate a small one-horse town in the outback. In a time period when women were viewed as homemakers and mothers, Shute uses the strong will of a determined and competent female to develop a town that may have otherwise eventually dried up like the swollen creek of the wet season in an Australian dry spell (Evans).
Shute's character experimentation in this 1950 novel led to the development of his assertive female character, Moira in 1957's "On The Beach" seven years later. Though many critics have argued that Shute's characters lack development, others argue it is precisely the ordinariness of his characters that makes them so realistic. Edith Fowke, claimed the characters in "On The Beach" "are dull and unimaginative, and the ending is anti-climatic rather than apocalyptic. In fact, his characters are so flat and unappealing that you may well feel their final death from the inevitable radioactive sickness is not a great loss." For Fowke the dullness of the characters failed to add a tragic perspective, leaving the novel insignificant and unmoving. Gerald Sykes, however, wrote in the New York Times that "the humdrumness of the characters is no doubt intentional, since it makes their story more convincing." He argues that the realness of the characters comes out through the predictability of their lives and the boring way in which they are depicted. In this sense it becomes easier for the reader to relate to the monotonous everyday activities they undergo, even during their final days on Earth.
Shute goes on to experiment with American-Australian relationships in "Beyond the Black Stump" (1956) about a young geologist from Oregon, Stanton Laird, who meets Molly Regan, an Australian girl, during a hunt for oil on her father's million-acre sheep station. Shute uses the romance between the two to explore the cultural differences between Americans and Australians. The Lairds, from Hazel, Oregon consider themselves to be settlers, however the Regans, are the actual pioneers, farming more than a million acres of arid waste in a region of Australia known as the Lunatic. On the surface, a union seems easy for Molly and Stanton, yet they discover that their worlds have less in common than they first supposed. This novel "developed as a result of Shute's groundwork for 'On The Beach' for he was planning to center the big new novel around an American survivor and an Australian girl" (Smith 125). "On The Beach" comes in a progression for Shute as he "first considered the Psychological dangers of using tools of war" (Smith 127) in "Requiem for a Wren" (1955) and moved on to consider the "logical cultural extension of the religion of efficiency: absolutely dull young men do their jobs very well without worrying about whether particular jobs will be successful, worth doing, or 'moral'" (Smith 127) in "Beyond the Black Stump" (1956). With "On The Beach" Shute goes even further, considering the world destroyed by gadgets, which it continues to love even after these gadgets have proven to outlast mankind.
Not only do these novels show a progression and a setting of the stage for "On The Beach," but Shute's previous experience with foreshadowing increased the attention readers paid to the warnings Shute gave. In "Ordeal" (1939) (also published as "What Happened to the Corbetts") Shute described the opening bombing raids of a war in Britain. The protagonists, the family of Peter Corbett, live in Southampton, one of the first cities to be heavily bombed. The story mirrors the bombing of England by Germany in World War II very closely, but was published prior to the actual event. "Shute studiously avoids mentioning who the enemy is, but as he does mention a satirical cartoon of Hitler and Mussolini, it is clear who he means" (McDonald). Shute's description, though called "decidedly un-dramatic" (McDonald) describes the isolation and forced independence of people suffering a major disaster and proved shockingly prophetic.
The success of Shute's previous novels helped propel "On The Beach" to become a bestseller as well, especially after Shute had proven himself as a prophetic writer with a great insight into the future. However, the majority of Shute's novels were written about his passions and experiences and things that Shute himself pondered and were subsequently not nearly as widely read as "On The Beach." Therefore, while Shute did have a reputation as a best-selling author prior to publishing "On The Beach," the status he earned after its publication was much greater.
Many critics have said that "On The Beach" has "more mood than plot" (Smith 128), illustrating the vision that became the epigraph for Shute's book, T. S. Eliot's "Hollow Men." The novel begins with ordinary people in a small town. The reader doesn't even know until the third page that there has been a war. It is disclosed as having lasted for thirty-seven days in 1962, leaving behind no history, only seismographic readings. Shute puts forth an argument for plausibility by suggesting that as weapons become more powerful, they serve only to increase the power of irrational men (Smith 130). The war began with a bomb on Tel Aviv. A British and American demonstration flight over Cairo then leads Egyptians to bomb Washington and London in Russian planes, resulting in U.S. and British retaliation by bombing Russia. Shute explains that the foundation of civilization is order, obedience and organization. Therefore, he cautions that civilized men should not have to make either/or decisions between disobedience and destruction (Smith 130). The message Shute sends with "On The Beach" is that "human society was a nice try; unfortunately, it worked too well, trundling down the path until it found a way to destroy itself" (Smith 131).
For Shute's characters, this means pretty much, life as usual, which has fascinated some critics as wonderful and others as awful. Awaiting a common death, for Shute's characters brings out not individual complexities, but rather a human archetype (Smith). While many reviewers were disturbed by Dwight Towers' insistence upon remaining faithful to his wife, though she and his children remain in Connecticut, which the reader is made to understand no longer exists, Smith argues this fidelity "is logical in so far as the condition of mankind has undergone a massive change. Except for a relative handful, those who were living are now dead - and the land of the dead has become the real world" (Smith 132).
In the 1959 film production of "On The Beach" produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, and starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins this disturbing detail is altered. In Shute's book, Dwight Towers refuses to give in to his passion for the Australian beauty Moira, who remains above trying to seduce him into betraying his dead wife. However, in the film, Towers, played by Gregory Peck, and Moira, played by Ava Gardner, enter into a consummated love affair. While this film made Nevil Shute a household word in the United States and abroad, bringing more dedicated readers to Nevil Shute than any of his other novels and playing a major part in the international protest against nuclear weapons, Shute hated the film. He was enraged by its production believing that this story, like many of his others, was about ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances who rise to the occasion and behave well. For Shute behaving well included remaining faithful to one's dead spouse. Shute felt the portrayal of Dwight Towers in this film version destroyed the central message of the book. Gregory Peck, who played Towers, agreed with Shute's steadfast belief that Towers should remain loyal to his wife, yet was overruled by Kramer, who decided the audience "wouldn't accept that a man like me would be able to resist a beautiful, willing woman who was in love with him. 'We have to give them some sex,' he said" (Peck). Peck argued that this corrupted his character as well as Ava's, believing "self-denial on the matter of principle was romantic" (Peck).
Despite Shute's dislike of the film, it is a classic, and the power of its message remains as strong in the twenty-first century as it was in 1957. Everywhere the film opened, controversy went with it, propelling interest in the film and novel even farther. The New York Daily News ran an editorial calling it "a defeatist movie" and insisting that "the thinking it represents points the way toward eventual enslavement of the entire human race." While many were left feeling as though a nuclear war simply wouldn't kill everyone in the entire world as "On The Beach" suggested, others felt the events were all too possible. Eva Gardner, who played Moira in Kramer's film acknowledged that though it was a fictional scenario, "everyone in the cast and crew knew it could happen. And that added a dimension of reality to the unreal world of film making that none of us had experienced before" (Gardner).
"On The Beach" proved to be a timely novel, depicting a possible end to the world that felt all too near in 1957. Shute's idea for this book began as he stated, "as a joke" (Smith 124) between himself and friends living in the northern hemisphere that if the northern hemisphere destroyed themselves with nuclear weapons, then Australians would inherit the world. Shute drew on his experience as an engineer in directing the power of nature to the convenience of man, and considered the abuse of this great source of power. This eternal quest for knowledge had led Shute to see an end of civilization, rather than, as his previous joke suggested, a new beginning for a remote part of the world. Not only could those reading the book in 1957 feel a foreshadowing, but since the horrific event Shute describes has yet to occur, readers today can still see the novel as a prophecy looming in their future. With the world recovering in 1957 from World War II in which nuclear bombs were first used, the full effects of nuclear warfare was in the forefront of many minds. With the arms race and beginning of the Cold War, Shute's proposed fate of the world seemed to creep ever-closer.
While at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Shute's prediction has yet to occur, there remains a dangerous conflict in the Middle East. With the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, Shute's novel once again mirrors actuality. As the United States stands facing a war with Iraq in 2002 "On The Beach" continues to instill fear within its readers. With bombing and retaliation hanging in the air, Shute's nuclear end of the world remains a hauntingly realistic possibility.
1. Smith, Julian. "Nevil Shute (Nevil Shute Norway)." Boston: Twayne Publishers, c.1976 PR 6027.054 Z9 (ALD-STKS)*
2. Extract from the Dictionary of National Biography 1951-1960: http://www.nevilshute.org/Biography/dictionarynationalbio.html*
3. Lienhard, John H. "Engines of Our Ingenuity: Nevil Shute" http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi110.htm*
4. McDonald, John Q. "Thumbnail Book Review of 'Ordeal.'" March 4, 1998 http://www.cfht.hawaii.edu/~jmcd/book/revs/ordl.html*
5. Shute, Nevil. "Slide Rule: The Autobiography of an Engineer."*
6. Evans, Darci. "Review of A Town Like Alice" http://www.nevilshute.org/Reviews/alice2.html*
7. Hills, Babette. "Review of Marazan" http://www.nevilshute.org/Reviews/marazan.html*
8. Lieberman, Gregg. "Review of Beyond the Black Stump" http://www.nevilshute.org/Reviews/blackstump.html*
9. Sykes, Gerald, "Supine Surrender," The New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1957, pp4, 14*
10. Fowke, Edith, review of "On The Beach," The Canadian Forum, Vol. XXXVII, No. 441, October 1957, p166*
11. Gardner, Ava and Peck, Gregory. "On The Beach - The Film and The Actors' Perspectives" http://www.nevilshute.org/Reviews/gardner.html*