Critical Context

On the Beach dramatized the potential effects of nuclear warfare better than any book before it. Because Nevil Shute was already one of Great Britain’s most popular authors, it had a wide audience. The novel was his biggest best-seller and never went out of print. It reached a larger audience when it was made in a major motion picture starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire in 1959, although Shute considered it the worst film made from one of his books.

Later works by other artists explored aspects of nuclear war not dealt with directly by Shute. The film Dr. Strangelove (1964) is a satirical examination of the irrationality necessary to initiate a nuclear exchange. It points out that such irrationality is not confined to small countries: An insane U.S. Air Force general orders sixty B-52 bombers to attack the Soviet Union. Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s book Fail-Safe (1962), which was made into a film in 1964, is a serious look at how people can become prisoners of the systems that they build: A computer malfunction sends the attack order to a squadron of American B-58 bombers, and the system works so well that the bombers cannot be recalled or stopped.

Antinuclear political activists are normally associated with the political Left. Shute, however, was a conservative who was strongly procapitalist and antisocialist, as shown in his books A Town Like Alice (1950), In the Wet (1953), and Slide Rule. Shute’s political position adds to the credibility of his message in On the Beach because critics cannot dismiss the book as left-wing propaganda.