Beverly Gray in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
“It frightened the hell out of me. I’m still frightened.”
These words mark the reaction of a young Australian named Helen Caldicott to a story of the aftermath of mistaken nuclear war, in which those who never even took sides were faced with the slow advance of deadly nuclear radiation on their shores. On the Beach, first a best-selling novel and then a major Hollywood film, confronts the viewer with a number of questions: How would you behave if—in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse—you knew you only have a few weeks or months left to live? Would you carouse riotously, knowing the end is near? Deny that the entire thing is happening? Hope against all logic for a miraculous reprieve? Try to maintain a core of decency in the face of imminent death? Wish that you had done something long ago to prevent nuclear war in the first place?
The story’s effect on Caldicott, then a 19-year-old Melbourne medical student who’d just learned about genetics and radiation, was profound. She went on to become both a pediatrician and a feisty anti-nuclear activist, an inspiration to others in the non-proliferation community and in the nuclear humanitarian initiative. She is renowned for warning, “It could happen tonight by accident,” and with the onset of nuclear winter, “We’ll all freeze to death in the dark.”
But what about the book itself and the 1959 movie made from it?