Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Ronald M. Cohen, Edward Huebsch
Based on a Novel by: Walter Wager
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Charles Durning, Paul Winfield, Richard Widmark, Burt Young, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Roscoe Lee Browne, Melvyn Douglas, Joseph Cotten
Country: USA, West Germany
Running Time: 144 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
I loved the last Robert Aldrich film I reviewed, The Flight of the Phoenix, and I’m a fan of some of his other classics, such as Kiss Me Deadly and The Dirty Dozen, so it didn’t take much to convince me to review one of his last films, 1977’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming. It wasn’t particularly successful when originally released and has hardly grown to be a classic, but it has picked up favour along the way, enough at least for Eureka to add it to their Masters of Cinema roster.
Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a thriller which sees a former USAF general, Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster), head a team of escaped convicts on a mission to take control of a nuclear silo housing 9 warheads. They quickly succeed (helped by Dell’s inside knowledge) and put America to ransom, making an unusual demand. On top of the standard large amount of cash and flight out of the country, Dell wants the president to release eye-opening information about America’s involvement in the Vietnam war to the general public. He feels the people must know what happened and will press the ‘big red button’ if they aren’t told. Unfortunately, the President (Charles Durning), or at least his staff, aren’t happy about releasing the incriminating document as it will likely cause utter chaos. Nuclear armageddon is hardly an improvement on this though, so the President is stuck between a rock and a hard place, particularly since he is as horrified by the revelations as the public might be, due to not being in power during the war. As time ticks away and several tactics are attempted to talk Dell and his team out of it or physically stop them, we draw ever closer to a climax that can’t possibly end well.
At almost two and a half hours, it’s not a fast paced film and although there is action here and there, many of the scenes are made up of lengthy debates on difficult decisions to be made. The many moral quandaries posed though are vital to how the film remains gripping through its lengthy running time.
This is helped by fascinating subject matter which remains relevant almost 40 years on. The control the heads of the military, CIA and the President’s staff have over the country above the head of state himself for instance is covered here. Applying this to current events, it makes you realise how all this talk of impeaching Donald Trump isn’t necessarily going to make that much of a difference to how the country is run if the same people behind the scenes are still pulling the strings. All the ‘big red button’ business of nuclear war is as frightening as ever too and always ripe for debate. The central wish of Dell to expose the truth about America’s involvement in Vietnam may seem less relevant now, but the debate as to whether certain truths are too dangerous to be revealed due to their repercussions could easily be attributed to more recent or future situations.
The film also has a great cast. Burt Lancaster is obviously a big name draw, but then you’ve got a multitude of less well known but excellent character actors such as Burt Young, Richard Widmark, Richard Jaeckel and Charles Durning as well as some ‘old Hollywood’ stars such as Melvyn Douglas and Joseph Cotten. I also spotted John Ratzenberger (Cliff from Cheers and Pixar’s favourite voice actor) in a small role. It’s very much a man’s film though with no women in the cast, other than a couple of minor bit parts. According to the documentary included in the package, a number of scenes with the First Lady were originally scripted and shot, as well as some with the President’s female secretary, but it was felt they didn’t move the plot forward, so were cut to keep the film from running closer to three hours.
The characters are well drawn too. There are no clear villains, but flaws on all sides. The President, for instance, has his moments of heroics, but weaknesses too. Then you’ve got Dell, who’s preaching an honourable message, but is still pretty insane for endangering the lives of millions to get that message across.
It’s not a perfect film though. It can feel a bit over the top in delivering its ‘big speeches’ from time to time – it’s not a particularly subtle film, put it that way. Aldrich isn’t much of a visual stylist here either, with the film looking overly clean and bland at times (particularly the lighting), not helped by some fake-looking technology around them (although the computers in those days probably did look that clunky). His use of split screen seemed a bit dated at first too, although once some of the set-pieces kicked into gear I realised their benefits. In allowing the viewer access to multiple angles at once during a tense scene, it really cranks that tension up as you can see the action taking place, whilst seeing the reactions of those in danger, those carrying it out, those who want it to be successful etc. It gives you a rich and exciting experience without resorting to frantic editing which can often be harder to process.
So it’s big and brazen at times, but still thought-provoking and not entirely didactic. It’s thoroughly gripping too, despite its length, and occasionally quite exciting, so it’s a very strong film, if a little rough around the edges. In an era famous for its political thrillers, Twilight’s Last Gleaming manages to hold its head up high.
Twilight’s Last Gleaming is out now on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture and audio quality is superb, even by Masters of Cinema’s high standards. It looks flawless – incredibly sharp and clean.
Other than the usual excellent Masters of Cinema booklet, you only get one extra feature included in the set, a documentary about the film called ‘Aldrich Over Munich – The Making of Twilight’s Last Gleaming’. You needn’t worry about this sounding disappointing though, as the doc is feature length and fantastic. Incredibly in-depth, looking at all aspects of production; pre and post, as well as the film’s reception, it contains all you’d need to know about the film and contains a decent range of interviewees and archive material, keeping you interested throughout. So, a great release overall.