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Australia 2013
Directed by
Lawrence Johnston
89 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars


Synopsis: In 1959 Hollywood came to Melbourne in the form of director Stanley Kramer shooting the film adaptation of Neville Shute’s novel, On the Beach, which posits an end of the world scenario in which nuclear war has erupted and Melbourne is waiting for an atomic cloud to travel south and kill the last surviving humans. Fallout is a documentary tracing the story of Shute himself, from his early days in Britain through to his emigration to Australia and the subsequent worldwide response to his novel and the film.

Here’s another example of an excellent film picked up by only one local cinema (thank heavens for the Nova!).  Fallout works on several interwoven levels – it is at once the story of a famous novelist whose life was filled with fascinating details.  It is also a depiction of a more naïve and insular time when a Hollywood movie being made here in Melbourne was the talk of the town, as was the presence of famous stars Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Antony Perkins and Fred Astaire. And underlying all this is the ominous theme of Shute’s novel which, when talking today about the still-relevant possible annihilation of the human species, is nothing short of compulsory reading for war-mongers everywhere.

The director’s artful use of archival footage is impressive and flows almost seamlessly into the main narrative. The film hits a nerve from the opening scene in which J.F.K. contemplates in a speech the possibility of nuclear annihilation and we then see the iconic image of a billowing exploding A-bomb. We are then taken back to a more genteel time in which we learn of Shute’s early life in Ealing, England where he was an aviation engineer before pursuing writing.  He then headed with his family to Oz and began churning out novel after novel with "On the Beach" being perhaps closest to his heart. Because of this, when the film’s producers made script changes at odds with the novel, Shute became irate, which references another meaning of the film’s clever title – a total falling out between the author and the director.  The shooting of the film brought an even more renowned fallout, that between Ava Gardner and the pursuing press, the actress famously declaring Melbourne to be a good place to make a film about the end of the world. (Although not explained by Johnston this "quote" was actually a fabrication by a frustrated Sydney journalist. You can read about it here).

Amongst the interviewees are Shute’s daughter, Heather Mayfield, Kramer’s widow, Karen, and Donna Anderson, a young star of On The Beach. Thankfully talking heads are not overdone. From various newspaper stills and archival footage we also get a fabulously nostalgic look at Melbourne in the 1950s including inquisitive Frankstonians turning out to watch the film’s shooting.

The film also looks at the development of nuclear weaponry and the dropping of two A-bombs on Japan during World War 2. The initial devastation and deaths, followed by the ongoing tragedy of radiation sickness are shown in horrifying old news clips, and then references to ongoing nuclear testing in the USA and Australia drive the point home – a man-made Armageddon felt like a real possibility back then. At the time, Shute deliberately wanted to bring these issues to public consciousness and he ultimately achieved his aim, his famed novel sold 100,000 copies in six weeks and the film helped kick-start nuclear disarmament talks.

Fallout finishes with a sobering thought for an era in which many fanatical governments combine medieval attitudes with 21st century technological weaponry: perhaps Shute’s then-futuristic novel, with its foreboding of tragedy still points to one possible, terrible future.




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