One of the truly riveting and under-rated political thrillers of the 70’s, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, deals with the reasons why the truth about American involvement in the war in Vietnam was kept from the American public. It features a fictional war hero and renegade USAF General (Burt Lancaster) who breaks out of prison with a small group of convicts to capture an ICBM missile silo he helped design, threatening to fire its nine Titan nuclear missiles at Russia and start WW3 unless the President (Charles Durning) tells the American public the truth, suppressed for years, about why so many had to die.
This one did poorly at the box office when released in 1977 (perhaps people don’t want the truth?) but has since grown into a cult hit since as questions have been asked about Vietnam and because an appreciation has grown over the years of the plausibility of the clever plot and the likely and ruthless reaction of the US military, embodied by Richard Widmark, to the subversive challenge from one of their own Its promotion was also hampered on release by all the split screen shots that dramatically worked to show things happening simultaneously but were difficult to put on video tape, now no problem for DVDs.
The film’s title is taken from the words of the US National Anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner which begins: “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light / What so proudly we hailed as the twilight’s last gleaming”, a reference that works for a film about a public being kept in the dark. For this viewer it was also a joy to see the three leads together at the height of their powers, and now sadly no longer with us – Lancaster, who died in 1994 aged 80, Widmark, who died in 2008 aged 93 and Durning, a king of character actors, who died in 2012 aged 89. We’ll be watching it again, to see the reality of the “land of the free, and the home of the brave”.
Twilight’s Last Gleaming was released last month by Eureka Entertainment in a Dual Format DVD and Blu-Ray presentation and as part of its Masters of Cinema series. It is directed by Robert Aldrich and the package includes a feature-length documentary, Aldrich Over Munich, about the making of the film in Bavaia, as well as a 39-page booklet featuring a new essay by film scholar Neil Synyard and an interview with Aldrich in 1977.