During the 1940s, Nevil Shute had a steady job as an engineer in the British military but in his spare time, he wrote novels that were being well-received. Once the war was over, Shute choose to move to Australia and focus on writing, soon becoming an internationally acclaimed novelist. His novel On The Beach, particularly hit a chord with the international community, depicting the impact of global nuclear destruction. This documentary studies Shute's career and the adaptation of his most famous novel into a feature film in Melbourne, as his predictions of a post-Hiroshima world seem to be foreboding in their accuracy.
In Lawrence Johnston’s ambitious documentary Fallout the end of the world takes many forms. It is the subject of Nevil Shute’s best-selling book, On the Beach, and for Shute, who died a month after it premiered, anger about Stanley Kramer’s Hollywood film adaptation may have driven him to an early death from a stroke. For Ava Gardner, who starred alongside Gregory Peck and Fred Astaire in the movie, spending time on location in Melbourne came to define the phrase, while behind all of that is the ever present reality that the weapons Shute saw as bringing a nightmarish close to humanity still exist in their tens of thousands.
a strong and cohesive documentary
While their titles always suggested a daunting totality, Johnston’s films have steadily grown in their focus and scope: 1994’s Eternity was an intimate investigation of Arthur Stace, the man who for decades chalked the documentary’s titles around Sydney’s streets, whereas 2008’s Night grapples with the vast nature of the nocturnal.
Fallout isn’t as broad as the latter, but it works to subtly tie together a trio of related subjects in Neville Shute’s life, awareness about the danger of nuclear weapons, and the making of the film version. That they make for a strong and cohesive documentary speaks to the instincts and eyes of the now veteran filmmaker, for not one of those three parts by itself would have made as satisfying a film as Fallout is. The key is in allowing the pieces to intermingle, so that the context and themes draw upon each other and allow for suggestion and resonance.
As sketched by archival material and the astute observations of journalist and author Gideon Haigh, Nevil Shute Norway didn’t fit the bill of a prophet of doom. An English engineer who worked in 'miscellaneous weapons development" during World War II, he was an internationally renowned author and Melbourne resident – he flew his own plane here – by the time On the Beach became a sensation upon publication in 1957. The book imagined radiation from a nuclear war enveloping the globe, northern hemisphere first and then spreading down, slowly killing all life in its path. It is a steady, sinister apocalypse, with southern Australia a final refuge for an American submarine and its crew as mass euthanasia takes hold.
Johnston’s film gets Shute, revealing a fascinating character, but it’s not as strong on Stanley Kramer, the producer and director whose melodramatic dramas skewed to social issues. He’s lauded by his wife, although the likes of Inherit the Wind and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner are creaky with age and were never classics to begin with, but the making of the 1959 film allows for a wry study of Hollywood down under, with Johnston’s prescient interview with Peck – conducted in 1997 when the late actor was back in Melbourne shooting a Moby Dick remake for American television – offsetting tales of Gardner’s eccentricities and debates over how to depict the subject matter.
Johnston was also able to interview photographer Wayne Miller, who photographed the horrific destruction in Hiroshima when an atomic bomb was first used as a weapon in 1945 and went on to be stills photographer for On the Beach. That unexpected link is what Fallout looks to perpetuate, a strange bond between nuclear war and entertainment. On the whole, the movie gets there. The tone is calm, the technique classical, but intimations of horror reside at every turn.