Twilight's Last Gleaming
Around fifteen years ago on of the most changes in home entertainment hit the scene with explosive force; DVDs. These shinny little disc provided a means for the movie enthusiast to collect their favorite films. With a quantum leap in quality and storage longevity it became the ideal way for the films you love are close at hand. This quickly led to the fans generating lists of their most desired titles to place on their ever expanding shelves of plastic shells. By this time most of the items on those lists have been fulfilled. Blockbusters like `Star Wars', `Indiana Jones' and `Ben-Hur', have all been released not only on DVD but most have gone on to re-releases on the follow up high definition format, Blu-ray. A significant amount of time may have passed but for the diehard aficionado of the cinematic arts still have some cult classics that are still outstanding. One that has long been on my personal list is a cold war classic, `Twilight's Last Gleaming'. As is the case with a lot of movies similar to this in desirability I had a treasured copy recorded off cable television on my VCR. After repeated viewings the recording showed signs of wear and tear which only increased my desire to obtain this film once more in the clear and enduring form of a DVD. Recently while pursuing my list of newly announced titles I notice right there in front of me the tile I have sought for so long. It just so happened that I have been in a cold war kick of late revisiting some of my favorites films representing the genre. After such monumental movies like `Fail-Safe', `Seven Days in May' and `The Bedford Incident' my journey back in time to the turbulent sixty seemed incomplete with `Twilight's Last Gleaming'. Now not only has it been released but in a stroke of good favor the distributor Olive Films, although I was unfamiliar with the company I was exceedingly grateful for this highly anticipated addition to my collection.
For the current generation to understand and fully appreciate this movie you have to understand what the cold war era was like here in America. The period of peace that followed the conclusion of World War Two ushered in an idyllic time here as the GI benefits brought college educations and home ownership into the reach of more people than ever. In the fifties the public was frightened by the diametrically opposite form of government to ours, Communism. The subsequent witch hunt for `Commies' nearly ripped the nation apart but unfortunately not all these fears were entirely unfounded. There was an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union unlike any that ever occurred before. Both sides had accumulated a massive arsenal of thermonuclear weapons; more than enough to utter destroy the planet several times over. The fears this generated held the grownups captive and trickled down to us children as we were taught the futile practice of ducking under our school desks for cover. The `Bomb' became a symbol of mutually assured annulation. The most frightening aspect of the scenarios was the human element, unimaginable power and potential for global destruction was ultimately relegated to an all too flawed human being.
With this in mind Air Force general Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) was about to become the nation's worst nightmare. Branded a rogue by his superiors he was held in a military prison awaiting the disposition of his fate. A consummate strategists General Dell soon escapes in order to execute his larger plan. Accompanied by a pair of disgruntled soldiers, Willis Powell (Paul Winfield) and the significantly unbalanced Augie Garvas (Burt Young) the don disguises and make their way to an ICBM complex. Like hundreds of similar facilities located around the country this one was the control center for nine missiles topped with nuclear warheads. Each one was more than enough to lay a major city to waste. With the precision of a well-executed black ops mission Silo 3 was entirely under their control. Avoiding media attention the General contacts the government to give his demands. The most obvious is a ransom of $10 million but the real demand is more important to the officer. He demands the President of the United States, David T. Stevens (Charles Durning), appear on live national television to reveal the contents of a certain top secret document.
The director of this movie, Robert Aldrich, was a filmmaker well acquainted with depicting people trapped in emotionally charged and psychologically intense situations. With a resume encompassing movies including `What Ever Happened to Baby Jane', and `The Flight of the Phoenix', Aldrich earned a place as an artist that fully understands the changes that occur in a person's mind when placed under unbelievable stress. In this movie the General knew that the document in question would reveal to the entire nation, in fact the whole word, that the upper echelon of the government knew that it was impossible for us to win the ground war in Vietnam. The sole reason we persisted was to make a statement to the Communist regime in the Soviet Union that we are unfaltering in our determination to stop their plan of global domination. This put the circumstances far beyond a mere financial gain to one of altering the course of American history.
In 1977 when this movie was released the wounds of that war were still fresh. Many families were personally affected by the conflict and the anti-war protestors always maintained a position nearly identical to what was stated here. The story of the film reflected a feeling that many Americans believed and juxtaposed it against one of the predominant fears the public faced; a determined and desperate man with his finger literally on the button that can end civilization. The historical connotations may make this movie very specific to a specific time and place. What provides the movie with the enduring qualities it possesses is undeniably the cast. Burt Lancaster was an award winning actor that was best known for playing emotionally complicated men. Here he embodies the internal struggle faced by a career military man sworn to follow the chain of command tossing it aside to do what is right for his country. The henchmen in it for the money were portrayed by two of the best character actors of the time while the Washington side of the action had the likes of Joseph Cotton, Melvyn Douglas and Charles Durning, presenting the other side of the equation. Even though we are removed from the immediacy of Vietnam and the nuclear arms race the acting presented here remains mesmerizing.