Although critically rejected upon its release – and largely ignored by audiences of the day – a political-driven paranoid 1970s Cold War thriller still resonates despite having significantly aged. Mark Fraser celebrates a compelling and ambitious, albeit clunky, cautionary nuclear tale.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
In his voice-over commentary for the DVD release of Robert Aldrich’s 1973 railroad actioner Emperor of the North, New York University’s Professor Dana Polan makes a couple of pertinent observations regarding the movie and its idiosyncratic director.
First, he points out, in the overall scheme of things the film’s historic backdrop (depression-hit rural America circa 1933) plays second fiddle to what the whole thing is really about – that being “a larger archetypical battle of two men”; a fight between “pure evil and a force, maybe not so much of good, but at least of lesser evil”.
This involves, Polan says, strong male protagonists who are “surrounded by technology, going to battle” and heading towards some kind of final confrontation.
“(Aldrich) … often structures his films about men in their elements, men in their primal state, facing off against each other – life lived as kind of arena or duel, where people stake each other out and go to ultimate battles,” he notes.
Polan’s second observation focuses on the director’s insistence that the younger generation is not up to the task of tackling this kind of challenge, having neither the training nor experience to adequately handle such combat.
This attitude, he says, essentially reflects the mindset of an experienced filmmaker from Old Hollywood – one who lived during an age when “subject matter is about experience” and “you have to have gone through it all” in order to “carry your actions through”.
These are interesting considerations to keep in mind when watching the director’s 1977 nuclear thriller Twilight’s Last Gleaming, for they go some way towards explaining how the movie ends up being somewhat anachronistic despite seriously addressing one of the greatest dangers facing contemporary humankind.
Opinions like this are also useful when trying to put the film in context vis-à-vis the Aldrich oeuvre, a 28-year body of work which is as consistent as it is varied.
Discover More: Top 10 Films of Robert Aldrich
Set in a truly fictitious 1981 (given the November 16 date provided by the movie’s opening title was on a Monday, not Sunday as it purports) Twilight’s Last Gleaming is ostensibly about a face-off between the world’s most powerful man – US President David Stevens (Charles Durning) – and its most dangerous one, that being railroaded air force general Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster), who has escaped from death row with three other convicts and taken over a nuclear missile silo in Montana.
As far as Dell’s crew of misfits – dishonourably discharged corporal Willis Powell (Paul Winfield), Augie Garvas (Burt Young) and safecracker Hoxey (William Smith) – is concerned, the extortion mission is all about getting a large ransom payout ($10 million) and escaping to a country of choice. Their ringleader, however, has a broader agenda in place, that being to publicly expose the US Government’s secret Vietnam War policies.
Being an Aldrich movie it’s no surprise the story not only focuses on the battle of wills between the two leads, but also spends a fair bit of time examining the conflicts Stevens and Dell have to face when dealing with their respective peers.
In the case of the Commander–in-Chief, it’s with the all-male members of his inner cabinet, who make it clear they are not willing to spill the beans regarding the country’s past ideological indiscretions.
Meanwhile, Dell’s chief nemesis comes in the form of his tough-talking erstwhile military comrade General Martin MacKenzie (Richard Widmark), the officer given the responsibility of liberating the underground rocket launcher from its home-grown terrorist captors.
The fugitive Vietnam War veteran is also forced to deal with two voices of dissent from within the bunker – the sometimes recalcitrant Powell and old air force buddy Captain Stanford Towne (Richard Jaeckel), who happens to be based at the nuclear facility when it is taken over. Both, it turns out, plead reasonable cases as they try to dissuade Dell from launching World War III
Thus the stage is set for a highly explosive political melodrama in which the boundaries between good and lesser good become blurred – albeit not in ways one may expect – as each man pursues his particular goal.
While driven by seemingly noble intentions, the sociopathic Dell is well and truly the movie’s morally ambivalent centre; on the one hand demanding that the public be told the true reason “why this country was made to endure a war that cost over 50,000 American lives and 20 times that many South East Asians – all for nothing” while, on the other, threatening to “light up the fucking sky” if his demands aren’t met.
For the amiable (not to mention naive) Stevens – who early in the film refuses to exonerate a defacto family member of his former law professor (Roscoe Lee Browne) on the grounds of terrorism (whereas in reality it is because his government has traded the assassin for the rights to establish some US air bases in an unnamed third world dictatorship) – his upbeat outlook is shattered after learning for the first time about a cynical piece of US foreign policy so brutal it literally makes him shudder with indignation.
Unfortunately, upon discovering this awful truth, the hapless President then has to decide if he will comply with Dell’s wishes and go on television to reveal the contents of National Security Council document 9759, which outlines his country’s motivation for escalating the Vietnam conflict, or acquiesce to the whims of his unapologetic cabinet.
To make matters worse for the Commander-in-Chief, he is also faced with the prospect of having to offer himself as a hostage to the escaped convicts as they make their proposed getaway on Air Force One. In the end he does what he sees is the right thing to do and goes with Dell’s plan knowing full well that – by negotiating with terrorists – he is making himself expendable.
Familiar territoryIf anything, Twilight’s Last Gleaming is an amalgam of ideas lifted from many of Aldrich’s previous works, with its narrative containing a sometimes colourful mix of bombastic politically-driven melodrama, bitter anti-war sentiment, macho bravado, unashamed grandstanding by dominating lead characters and short outbursts of violence – all played out against a not-too-improbable doomsday scenario in which the rule of authority is both seriously challenged and significantly eroded.
It is also an undeniably old fashioned-looking film, at times resembling something made for television in the late 1960s rather than the modern pseudo-science fiction mini epic it sort of ends up being.
Although it deals with some sweeping subject matter, the dialogue-heavy Twilight’s Last Gleaming is peculiarly static, even when attempting to be tense and exciting – a point alluded to by Vincent Canby in his New York Times review of the movie (published on February 10, 1977), wherein the scribe whinged that much of the action consisted of “people … forever picking up and putting down telephones, buzzing secretaries, and getting into and out of various means of transportation – automobiles, jet airplanes, helicopters and elevators” (he could easily have added tanks to this list).
Despite being a bit snarky, this remains a valid observation. After all, by the end of his filmmaking career – which came just four years later with All the Marbles (1981) – Aldrich’s direction had become quite tired, particularly when it came to pacing, coverage and camera movement. Missing from Twilight’s Last Gleaming was much of the visual energy found in some of his earlier works (especially Kiss Me Deadly and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, made in 1955 and 1964 respectively); replaced instead with functional mise-en-scene (read TV) that relied too heavily on performance and dialogue to deliver its desired punch.
Even the director’s extensive use of the split screen – a gimmick which had worked reasonably well in both Emperor of the North and his 1974 hit The Longest Yard – was starting to look passé.
Taking all this into account, it seems with Twilight’s Last Gleaming Aldrich assumed that the above-mentioned Old Hollywood approach of having strong-willed and world-weary male protagonists continually going at each other’s throats should have been enough to carry the movie’s dramatic weight.
Unfortunately, a good portion of his potential audience in 1977 was made up of film goers who had just spent the better part of a decade watching the emerging cinematic skills of New Hollywood auteurs like Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Brian De Palma and, to a lesser degree, Steven Spielberg. For this reason alone it’s understandable why the film bombed at the box office.
Then there’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming’s cast, which is predominantly made up of stars from yesteryear.
While they deliver adequate performances, both Lancaster and Widmark were well past their primes when the movie came out, suggesting it may have been somewhat optimistic on Aldrich’s behalf to expect them both to pull in crowds as they had during the 1950s and 1960s.
A similar thing can be said about some of the supporting actors like Melvyn Douglas, Joseph Cotten and Leif Erickson, all of whom – as members of Stevens’ cabinet – make it look like the US Government is being run by a firmly entrenched gerontocracy.
Against the grain
Nevertheless, there are a few noteworthy aspects regarding Twilight’s Last Gleaming which make it a seminal part of Aldrich’s cinema.
Firstly, as with many of the filmmaker’s other works, it has an undeniable conscience, heavily criticising both US foreign policy in general and America’s insistence of being the world’s number one Cold War superpower.
Secondly, it must be recognised that Twilight’s Last Gleaming was one of the original (if not the first) big budget studio movies* to critically question the motives of the Vietnam War head on, hitting the screens just before Ted Post’s Go Tell The Spartans (which also starred Lancaster), Ashby’s Coming Home, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, Sidney J Furie’s The Boys in Company C (all made in 1978) and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).
This minor achievement was somewhat negated by the likes of Canby, who bleated in his critique: “Good grief! All of the characters in the film, whose minds are so tiny they’ve totally forgotten the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, are convinced that such a move toward ‘open’ government would result in the collapse of the American way of life and death.”
Maybe, but perhaps this barb is missing an important point. Sure, the Vietnam War and its political side effects had been covered extensively by television and, to a lesser degree, documentary films by 1977. However, it hadn’t been tackled by Hollywood in any meaningful way. The fact a filmmaker of Aldrich’s stature decided to break this ground should have been celebrated rather than berated especially as, at the end of the day, it marked the beginning of a major turning point in the history of American cinema.
Finally, it’s worth looking at one of the earlier observations made by Polan, in which the professor suggested the director may have been somewhat ageist when it came to his attitude towards the inexperienced and ill-equipped younger generation.
During Twilight’s Last Gleaming’s climatic moments – as Dell and Powell prepare to take Stevens through the military gauntlet which separates them from Air Force One – the ex-corporal tells his patriotic superior: “I just want you to know general that, win or lose, you are some motherfucker.”
When they finally do leave the safety of the bunker, however, it is Powell who takes control of the situation, street-wisely grabbing the Commander-in-Chief by the collar and putting a pistol to his head (while, in a nice touch, whispering sincerely “Sorry, Mr President”), before leading him into the open line of fire as a briefly stunned Dell looks on.
Although the renegade general quickly regains his composure, this fleeting moment of guard dropping clearly showed that – contrary to Polan’s assertion regarding Aldrich’s Old Hollywood attitude towards junior – the director obviously regarded this younger man as being up to the insurmountable challenge put before him.
Like the older and more experienced Dell, it turns out Powell is also some motherf*cker.
*The film was made with American and German monies, being a joint venture between Lorimar Productions in association with Bavaria Atlier in what became a Geria GmbH Production.
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed Twlight’s Last Gleaming on Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka Entertainment which released the film in the UK on dual format October 17 2016
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