Loosely adapted from novelist Walter Wager’s 1971 thriller, Viper Three, Twilight’s Last Gleaming sets up an improbable plot, but still manages to be an interesting film with clearly more in mind than being just a standard thriller. Directed by Robert Aldrich, a man who brought his liberal humanist thematic vision to many of his films, pulled no punches here, taking on the U.S. government and its involvement in the Vietnam War.
Burt Lancaster plays Air Force General Lawrence Dell, who was imprisoned on a trumped up charge of murder after he had caused several problems for the service as a result of his leftist political leanings after having returned from a stint as a P.O.W. in Vietnam. Dell has discovered that the United States knew that the war in Vietnam was a lost cause. We essentially allowed thousands of young Americans to be killed just to prove to the Soviet Union how strong we were. Dell breaks out of prison and after a daring raid, manages to take over a nuclear missile silo.
Accompanied by fellow escapees Willis Powell (Paul Winfield)—in many ways a voice of reason—and Augie Garvas (Burt Young), two men who came along largely for a share of the $10 million Dell demands from the government. For Dell, the purpose is far more sinister: he will launch nine ICBMs loaded with nuclear warheads at the Soviet Union, sparking World War Three, unless the president (Charles Durning) admits on national television that the war was an evil enterprise intended only to scare the Soviet Union. The false logic of an otherwise well intentioned man willing to start World War III (which would have resulted in hundreds of millions in casualties) in order to make a point about a comparatively small amount of deaths in Vietnam is never fully addressed and is the film’s biggest flaw.
However, when assessing Twilight’s Last Gleaming, it’s important to remember that the Vietnam War had ended only two years before in 1975. Many Americans weren’t ready to openly discuss the causes and ramifications of an action that had cost so much; they simply wanted to put it behind them. At the same time, Americans having lived Watergate and President Nixon’s resignation were acutely aware that politicians could be dishonest. It’s this real sense of distrust and disenchantment that drives Dell. While he’s obviously terribly misguided, there is something somewhat noble about him. Sort of.
Some nay find Twilight’s Last Gleaming a bit too long, at 146 minutes. However, Robert Aldrich is fairly skilled at keeping the story moving, only allowing for a few instances where things feel like they drag a bit. It also helps that Burt Lancaster remains as cold as ice throughout. His viciousness is hardly contained as he shoots people without a second thought and makes truly heinous threats. A large and talented cast fills out key supporting roles. Charles Durning makes for a believable president; forced to make an impossible decision. Noted actors Melvyn Douglas and Richard Widmark do fine work as the Secretary of Defense and General Martin MacKenzie, the two men charged with leading the effort to prevent a disaster of epic proportions.
Aldrich provides both a physically and emotionally draining epic, as a group of men are forced to realize that a rogue General has the ability to the world. The director’s clever use of multiple split screens serves to ratchet up the tension at various points in the film. Whether you agree with the film’s message or not, there’s no denying Robert Aldrich’s ability to get the audience’s attention.
Presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Olive Films’ 1080p transfer was sourced from the original camera negative and presents a completely restored director’s cut. As such, this is a very sharp and defined looking transfer. There’s no dirt or specks to speak of, or excessive grain to mar the picture. While some DNR has clearly been applied here, it’s been done judiciously. Viewers will be pleased with the surprisingly vivid color palette and solid contrast.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track can sound a bit crowded at times, given all the split screens. However, the dialogue itself is very clear and never sounds distorted or tinny. Jerry Goldmith’s score sounds very nice, adding a very serious and patriotic tone to the proceedings. There’s also a haunting gospel version of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” by Billy Preston that bookends the film.
No subtitles are available.
The following special features are included:
- Aldrich Over Munich (HD; 1:09:41) comes with the following announcement:
“This making of documentary has some minor ghosting throughout. We did everything possible to fix these issues, but unfortunately the problems existed in the original source master. We had two choices; to keep this great and informative making of documentary or release TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING without the extra.”
Given that, I was expecting something nearly impossible to view. As it turns out, the video quality isn’t that bad at all. More importantly, this documentary is outstanding and really adds to the package. It includes interviews with a number of perceptive people, including Aldrich’s daughter Adell. While the focus is on Twilight’s Last Gleaming, more general information is also offered on Aldrich. Watching this will give you a sense of what Robert Aldrich might have hoped to accomplish through his films.