Nevil Shute

Active - 1951 - 1951  |   Genres - Drama, War, Romance

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Biography by Bruce Eder

An aeronautical engineer by training, Nevil Shute's literary career bookended years spent working for aircraft manufacturers such as DeHavilland and founding his own aircraft company. His full name was Nevil Shute Norway and both of his parents were published writers, in addition to his father being a British postal official. Born in 1899, Shute tried for a commission in the flying corps during World War I, but was turned down because he suffered from a stammer. Instead, he served as a private in the Suffolk Regiment stationed on an island in the Thames River and returned to Oxford after the fighting ended. He joined DeHavilland in the early '20s and was heavily involved with the development of the R-100 airship. Shute's first novel was published in 1926 without making much impact and most of his energies during that decade were devoted to establishing his own aircraft plant, Airspeed, Ltd., in Portsmouth. The company prospered while his literary efforts were largely ignored, apart from the 1936 filming of The Lonely Road, based on his 1932 book. Finally, in 1938, he left Airspeed to devote his attentions to writing, leading to the novel Kindling, which he regarded as his first important book.

Shute kept writing during World War II, a period in which he worked with the Admiralty developing anti-submarine rockets and other high-tech aeronautical weapons. Meanwhile, his fiction advanced in both reach and grasp -- The Pied Piper, one of his most enduringly popular books, found an especially wide and appreciative audience with its story of an aging Englishman with no special love for children who is trapped in France amid the collapse of the Allied war effort in the spring of 1940 and ends up rescuing a group of children from the Nazi occupiers. It was filmed in 1942 by 20th Century Fox and became a major hit with Monty Woolley in the starring role. Shute's novel Landfall (1940) was also a wartime bestseller, telling the story of a test pilot who believes that he accidentally sank a British submarine. Starring Michael Denison, it was filmed in 1949 by Associated British and director Ken Annakin. Shute's 1948 work No Highway dealt with an aeronautical engineer who very nearly destroys himself and brings his industry to a standstill when he predicts the in-flight failure of a passenger airliner. That book, which was widely praised for its sustained suspense and ability to present technical engineering information in an easily understood form for the layman, was filmed in England in 1951 by Fox under director Henry Koster with James Stewart starring as the soft-spoken, eccentric scientist. And the author's 1950 novel A Town Like Alice, about the plight of women captives of the Japanese during World War II, was filmed by Rank in 1956 under director Jack Lee. Starring Virginia McKenna, the story was also the subject of a Masterpiece Theatre television adaptation three decades later.

Shute's books had become regular fixtures on the bestseller lists after World War II and, while they were never accepted as great literature, they were considered among the more challenging serious novels of their period. His non-fiction book Slide Rule, did achieve some serious critical respect, but his most well known and most controversial book, bar none, was On the Beach, a chillingly realistic, carefully written doomsday novel. Published in 1957 at a time when the world's public was beginning to get very nervous about the consequences of fallout from nuclear explosions -- and set in Australia (where Shute had relocated to avoid the high postwar British taxes at the end of the 1940s) -- it told of the final months of the last survivors of a nuclear war, all trying in their various ways to cope with the poison seeping into their air from the Northern Hemisphere. The book's popularity helped jump-start the anti-nuclear movement and undid years of efforts on the part of the U.S. government to push the notion that a nuclear war could be survivable with only some inconvenience and careful planning. It also helped coalesce a serious anti-nuclear, anti-American political movement in Australia and New Zealand. Despite its best-seller status, however, no major studio wanted to touch On the Beach as a film project, partly because no one could see how the story -- which dealt, in part, with an American nuclear submarine crew's efforts at survival -- could be brought to the screen without the cooperation of the U.S. Department of Defense. The latter made it clear that it would do nothing to help facilitate the movie's production, and that seemed to be the end of the issue. Producer/director Stanley Kramer, however, persevered and got the cooperation of an entity every bit as essential as the Defense Department -- the government of Australia. The island nation was eager to encourage American and British filmmaking in its territory and there was no political danger to the government in 1959 in lending one of its navy's submarines to stand in for an American atomic sub. Kramer was known for his ambitious, yet tasteful, work as a producer, and the prospect of getting Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire -- all major box-office names at the time, with each capable of "opening" a movie on their own -- for an extended shoot was as enticing as publicity as anything else about the project. The movie -- which, like other adaptations of Shute's work, followed its source closely -- was a hit, generating still more political ferment and keeping the writer at the center of controversy, as well as generating a decade's more sales for the novel.

Shute took a step back from the topicality of On the Beach in 1959, returning to the world of engineering for his last book, Trustee From the Toolroom, which he finished late that year. He died January 12, 1960 in Melbourne after suffering a stroke, less than a month after On the Beach opened and two-and-a-half months before the publication of his last book. In the decades since, The Pied Piper, No Highway, and A Town Like Alice bounced in an out of print, while On the Beach remained continuously available into the mid-'70s. The latter was somewhat displaced in the second half of the '70s as the anti-nuclear movement shifted its focus from banning various weapon systems to the controversy surrounding nuclear power plants. In the decades since, all of Shute's work -- with the possible exception of The Pied Piper -- has become harder to find in book form, while demand has slackened only somewhat, thus keeping Shute (along with Graham Greene, Joyce Cary, and Somerset Maugham) among the most popular of 20th century English novelists. Filmmakers, especially television producers, still occasionally look to his books as sources for their work. He was even still sufficiently well known into the 1970s to turn up as an oblique comical reference in the form of the author "Nevil Shot" in an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus.