Stephen King never forgave Stanley Kubrick for messing with The Shining. Changes Kubrick made to the storyline are regarded by the horror word slinger as more ghastly than any of his macabre creations. Kubrick also incurred the wrath of Anthony Burgess, who, after watching A Clockwork Orange, came to regret writing it in the first place. “The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about,” he mourned, “and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die.”
The same cannot be said of best-selling British novelist Nevil Shute’s attitudes towards changes director Stanley Kramer made to his magnum opus On the Beach. They didn’t pursue him till he died; they killed him. Shute was so livid about Kramer’s 1959 production, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, he worked himself into a fatal stroke (age 60) a month after it premiered. The author is chronicled in Australian director Lawrence Johnston’s feature documentary Fallout, which follows Shute’s colourful life and evolution into a career as a storyteller, regarded by the celebrated author as a “pansy” profession.
In his early 40s Shute was Chief Engineer of the R100, a Hinenburg-like airship dismantled after its government-funded counterpart, the R101, crashed in France in 1930 and killed all but six of the 54 people on board. He went on to head the Royal Navy’s ‘Miscellaneous Weapons Development’ division, creating MacGyver-on-a-very-big-budget inventions including a rocket-propelled wheel designed to roll down the beach and scare the beejesus out of incoming Germans. It was abandoned when the wheel took on its own life and chased a dog. In 1950 Shute moved to Melbourne, banged out novels (he wrote 23 in total) and was one of the highest paid writers in the world.
His personal story provides more than enough material for a detailed documentary, but Johnston takes a three-pronged approach: Shute’s life, his crowning artistic work and the science that inspired it are the bedrocks of Fallout. A rousing opening act account of the evolution of nuclear bombs and the bone-chilling impact of the Hiroshima detonation sets a scientific context around Shute’s most venerated work. The logical and creative sides of his brain collided to form a vision of the future that was, as Leonard Cohen famously grumbled, murder, and Shute’s explosive apocalyptic caution On the Beach whipped the world into fallout frenzy almost a decade before Barry McGuire’s gravelly pipes warned “there’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave.”
[pullquote position=”right”]The genius of Johnston’s always interesting and at times fascinating documentary lies in how it explains a horrifying science then branches into discussion of a creative polemic designed to put the frighteners on[/pullquote]. Fallout is a document of a person’s life, an examination of a devastating technology and “a making of” portrait of an influential book and film. Voice recording from an interview with Greg Peck, an account of Kramer’s career with comment from his widow Karen and a look at On the Beach’s “Hollywood comes to Melbourne” production — including the eccentricities of leading lady Ava Gardner — fill out the latter, which forms the meatiest chunk.
There’s a structural imbalance to Fallout that in many ways works in its favour. The film will appeal to viewers reluctant to lock themselves into something exclusively about a person, a work of art or a science. Johnston includes a take-home message about why we should not get complacent about “the bomb,” which might have felt like a half-thought if it didn’t provide such a fitting synergy with Kramer’s film and Shute’s novel. It also represents a curious reverse cycle: science that inspires fiction, and fiction that inspires documentary to loop back to the core of the original work’s intent.
Fallout is playing at the Melbourne International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere on July 28.