Now regarded as the last significant film by director Robert Aldrich, Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a powerful anti-war melodrama centred around the hijacking of a nuclear missile silo and the brinksmanship that follows as nuclear Armageddon becomes a real possibility. Filmed in 1977 and set in 1981, the film stars Aldrich’s regular collaborator Burt Lancaster (From Here to Eternity, Run Silent, Run Deep, Birdman of Alcatraz) as United States Air Force General Lawrence Dell, perpetrator of the hijack and presumably a traitor to his country and the uniform he wears.
With a title taken from a line in the national anthem of the United States of America, The Star-Spangled Banner, although weirdly it is the “alternate” US anthem, My Country, Tis of Thee, which plays over the opening credits, it is appropriate in that by the late seventies both Aldrich and Lancaster were in the twilight of their careers but this would prove one last big shout-out for both of them.
Although a significant director in the annals of Hollywood history, Aldrich was by no means a member of the A-list. A competent craftsman, over the decades Aldrich created a series of solid, well-made features, usually with superb casts and “tabloid” subject matter.
Working his way up from studio assistant via television, his output ranged across a bewildering variety of genres ranging from westerns to hard-boiled noir (Kiss Me Deadly) to gung-ho action adventures (The Dirty Dozen, The Flight of the Phoenix) to lurid female-centred melodramas (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, The Killing of Sister George).
Born into and subsequently disinherited by a far-right branch of the wealthy Rockefeller family, Aldrich’s own politics tended to the left and he was a loyal supporter and friend of many of those blacklisted during the McCarthy years, and Twilight’s Last Gleaming, loosely adapted from Walter Wager’s 1971 novel Viper Three, reflects Aldrich’s leftist sensibilities.
Aldrich also preferred dramas that relied on strong ensemble casts led by bona fide albeit faded stars and this is no exception. Because his films were never in the A-league, Aldrich tended to rely on lower-budget character actors to support his stars which worked very much to his benefit because of the lack of baggage they brought with them, and this is certainly the case with Twilight’s Last Gleaming.
Now remastered and available on Blu-Ray for the first time as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema range, despite boasting a 144 minute running time the plot is relatively simple, as renegade General Dell breaks out of military prison and with three rather volatile accomplices contrives to gain access to a nuclear missile solo in Montana which he helped design. After capturing and torturing the silo crew, Dell threatens to launch the missiles to provoke nuclear Armageddon unless the recently-elected President Stevens (Charles Durning) makes public the contents of a certain secret document.
When retrieved, this document proves conclusively that the US government prolonged the war in Vietnam unnecessarily in order to demonstrate the ideological superiority of capitalism, something which President Stevens had no knowledge of but which he realises members of his senior staff have colluded to ensure was kept hidden. As Stevens and his cabinet debate the unravelling situation, a SWAT team prepares to retake the silo before Dell can access the launch codes, resulting in a standoff with the fate of the world in the balance.
Like many second-string Hollywood features of that period which filmed in Germany for budgetary reasons, the exterior woodland scenes and the large outdoor set of the missile base were filmed in Bavaria, coupled with very convincing soundstage sets for the silo interiors, the authenticity of the piece going some way to distract from the one big problem the film has right from the start, namely the ease with which the hijackers break into the silo and overpower the crew, with some of their absurd roadside ruse having been recreated the following year by Lex Luthor in Superman the Movie.
The crucial initial scenes requiring a generous suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, to modern eyes accustomed to the high-voltage tech thrillers of modern time it is at times ridiculously low-rent and amateurish, however once installed in the silo, pressure quickly mounts as Lancaster brings his trademark intensity to the film as Dell has to both negotiate with the US cabinet and manage his rag-tag team who believed their purpose was financial, not political.
With the main protagonists never meeting face to face except in the last few minutes of the film, Aldrich makes frequent use of then-fashionable split-screen techniques to bring telephone conversations to life and show parallel narratives to increase the tension both during negotiations and the abortive raid.
In the role of President Stevens is Charles Durning (The Fury, When A Stranger Calls, Solarbabies) who brings a sympathetic humanity to the man caught up in a crisis not of his making, a grave leader whose determination to remain honest sets him at odds with his senior officials whose composition reinforces just how much the world was ruled by Old White Men for most of history.
That cabinet is brought to superb life by a team of experienced character actors including Hollywood veterans such as Joseph Cotton (Citizen Kane, The Abominable Doctor Phibes, Soylent Green) as Secretary of State Renfrew and Melvyn Douglas (The Old Dark House, The Changeling, Ghost Story) as Secretary of Defense Guthrie, countering Steven’s outrage that lives were sacrificed in what was little more than a game with the Soviets with the sanguine dismissal that that nothing can be done to change prior misdeeds, that it’s “blood over the dam.”
Responsible for the raid to retake the silo is To The Devil A Daughter‘s Richard Widmark as the gung-ho General Martin MacKenzie, while the cast is bolstered by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan‘s Paul Winfield and television worthies such as Leif Erickson (The High Chaparral) and William Marshall (Star Trek‘s Doctor Richard Daystrom).
The single extra on this new release is worth the price of admission alone, an exhaustive feature-length documentary about the making of the film which includes contributions from Aldrich’s daughter (who was present during filming) as well as actors and technicians who participated.
The story behind Twilight’s Last Gleaming as fascinating as the film itself, this is a superlative and extremely professional documentary, while the transfer of the film is both pristine and crystal-clear which showcases the production design and set dressing of a very high order, although the quality unfortunately also emphasises that to modern eyes the sets are somewhat overlit, as was the fashion of the era.