Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)

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Not The Final Installment In That Teen Vampire Series

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

1977 was a year of some high profile bombs which later achieved some cult status such as Cross of Iron, Sorcerer and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. This partially came about from the competition from a certain film called Star Wars which offered a more optimistic and hopeful cinematic experience. As someone who has mixed feeling on New Hollywood, these movies don’t deserve to be ignored the way they are and are some of the best hidden gems of the 1970’s. Likewise the trashy, conspiracy theory concept of Twilight’s Last Gleaming would be the ire of many high brow critics but it’s the high concept which makes Twilight’s Last Gleaming irresistible and helps the viewer to look past the implausibility of the premise. This is a film which trades it’s logic for emotion and is aware of its own implausibility (“How in the hell does some joker walk into a top secret installation and get control of the most sophisticated weapons system in the world?”). As a layman it feels believable within the context of the movie but it’s always fun to ask, could it happen in real life?

Twilight’s Last Gleaming features an ironic use of ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ during the opening and closing credits; it’s not exactly a happy movie. Oddly however Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounds like something from an action/adventure blockbuster and is even John Williams like at time. The action takes place over a single day in what can be described as Dog Day Afternoon like scenario in a missile silo for a film which you could mistaken as being based on a stage play with its handful of sets and lengthy scenes. On my first viewing I wasn’t convinced the running time was justified but watching it again I was hooked. Twilight’s Last Gleaming takes is set in the future year of November 16th, 1981 although it’s not stated why it’s set on this particular date.

Burt Lancaster was still getting some great roles into the 1970’s. He still had his mojo and now with a beat up face to boot. As one of the character’s in the film puts it, “with that rhetoric he could be elected governor in ten states”. Lancaster’s role of General Lawrence Dell draws parallels to his role of General Scott in the political thriller Seven Days In May; a megalomaniac going to extremes in order to fulfil his agenda despite the risks to the United States and the world as a whole. He may be trying to provide a catharsis to the pain and anger of Vietnam veterans but at what cost? Lancaster and co star Paul Winfred have an enjoyable chemistry between them and provide comic relief with their back and forth. It’s interesting seeing Lancaster sparring off with actors much younger than him as well as dropping some F-bombs. On top of that there is something surreal about watching Burt Lancaster drinking a can of Coca-Cola. Product placements for Coca-Cola appear at several points throughout the film with Coke vending machines in clear sight; I guess they have to answer to The Coca-Cola Company.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming consists of veteran actors talking some serious stuff. The discussions in the Oval Office scene are alot to take in on one viewing (“Ralph! Are you comparing Vietnam to Hitler?!” – It always goes back to Hitler). The movie is full of entertaining one liners – “It’s like Star Trek all over again”, “Come on this isn’t Disneyland” and my favourite, “There are no midgets in the United States Air Force”.  The oldest among this cast is Melvyn Douglas, the prime example of an actor who got better with age as clearly evident here; full of powerful subdue comments and monologues (“The beginning of the end of mankind, in graphic black and white”).

The film’s extensive use of split screen works remarkable well and does not feel like a gimmick creating a unique viewing experience; the split screen here is clearly not an afterthought. The entire sequence in which missiles are about to be launched is presented entirely in split screen with events being monitored in three different locations in order to heighten the tension. The scene itself is one scary sequence with the pandemonium and the sight of the missiles rising (the model of the silo exterior is shown on screen just briefly enough not to notice they are models). The President himself describes it best – “The opening of the doors of hell”.

The President in Twilight’s Last Gleaming played by Charles Durning is not an idealistic representation of a president nor is he massively charming and ultimately a bit drab. However we do get to see his human side during a scene in which he talks to his General alone and admits to being scared out of his mind. At the beginning of the film there is a scene in which the President has a conversation with a character played by Roscoe Lee Brown. It doesn’t have purpose in the plot but does set the tone of the White House scenes and foreshadows the rest of the movie (“If I grant Zabat sanctuary, I give approval to every dissident with a cause and a gun”).

The ending of Twilight’s Last Gleaming all comes down to the question of whether or not society can deal with the truth? With widespread distrust in the government starting with the assassination of JFK and not getting any better with the Watergate scandal, would the President’s cabinet reveal the movie’s purported truth on the Vietnam War to the American public like he ordered before being shot down in an attempt to take down the two men holding him hostage. However was his death even an accident or did they intend to let him be shot down in order to keep the truth hidden; it does seem odd that no medical aid is given to him after being shot. The ending is left ambiguous and the viewer is left to think about it.

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Command Decision (1948)

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Catch-22

Command Decision is my favourite film in the wasteland of mediocrity that is Clark Gable’s post war career; a period which only had a few highlights. The opening stock footage is the only action seen in the film as Command Decision is a movie consisting of wordy drama; quality actors delivering quality performances.

Gable himself was a bombardier during the war and spearheaded the production of Command Decision thus it must have been something he had real passion for. The role of Brig. Gen. K.C. “Casey” Dennis is not cocky Gable as he often portrayed, nor does he have a leading lady to play off. Dennis is a man under strain which you can clearly see on his face; in order to fight Nazis he must first fight his superiors, politicians as well as dealing with the press and even attending to matters such as farmers complaining about early morning take offs frightening their cows (“When did I ever get the impression this war was against the axis?”). Above all he is a man with life and death on his hands and even the outcome of the war. He may not see the battlefield but he still has an unpleasant job to do.

Walter Pidgeon however gives my favourite performance in the film as Major General Kane with his monologue in which he speaks off how the US Air Force struggled for years in an effort to get it equipped and running is the highlight of the movie. It is four minutes long, there are no cuts with actors interacting with Pidgeon along the way while he moves around the room with the camera following him; hair raising acting.

Van Johnson gives the film its comic relief to contrast the serious, downbeat nature of the film. As Sgt. Evans he rarely takes himself totally seriously from his wisecracks to sitting at Dennis’ desk when he’s not around. Johnson was often case in military roles and it’s not hard to see why; he was a boy next door with the essence of an eager young patriot. However Evans’ inability to take himself seriously could show a cynical side to his character as someone who doesn’t have much faith in the war machine; in fact the one scene in which he does act in a more serious manner is the moment in which he praises Dennis and shakes his hand after Dennis lambasts Edward Arnold’s congressman who criticises him for recklessly causing heavy loss of life.

Command Decision is a movie which covers a lot making it one worth viewing more than once in order to take it all in. Giving the film the benefit of the doubt in its accuracy, it’s an educational experience. Compared to a film like The Dawn Patrol (original and its remake) there is a world of difference in flight commanding between the world wars; much more high tech, bureaucratic and on a larger, industrial like scale.

Like the flight commander in The Dawn Patrol, Dennis gets hounded for the decisions he makes which leads to the message I ultimately take from Command Decision. Dennis’ decisions are causing a heavy loss of life of US airmen but the success of these missions to destroy the Nazi’s secret weapon in Schweinhaven (not a real place) could change the outcome of the war and save a greater number of lives in the long term. You can’t afford to appear virtuous and care only for the immediate loss of life in order to get results. However as Kane knows, without a good publicity and political support there not be much of an air force and how do you do that is your actions appear reckless to the laymen; a real catch-22.

The Dawn Patrol (1930 + 1938)

Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines

The 1938 version of The Dawn Patrol is one of those remakes which is a perfectly fine film in its own right but you do have to question is it necessary especially when it is largely a shot for shot remake with various changes made to the dialogue. The original Dawn Patrol from 1930 is a superb film to begin with and one of the better films of the early sound period. But do the technological advancements between 1930 and 1938 make the remake the better film or does the original still come on top? While I like both these films, I have to side with the original over its more famous counterpart. However when your remake has Errol Flynn, David Niven and Basil Rathbone, I can’t be too critical on its existence.

The Dawn Patrol from 1930 was Howard Hawks’ first feature length talkie. Although his trademark overlapping dialogue is absent (The Criminal Code made the following year would be his first film to feature this trademark) it still has the Hawksian themes male bonding and the tensions created from a small group of people being forced together under an impossible strain. In both movies the squadron use humour to combat tragedy and drink to deal with reality, which does raise the question of how they are able to fly if they drink so much? But I digress. There are also no women in sight; both films are a man’s movie through and through. There was no shortage of aviation films in the 1930’s, a world in which death was always around the corner. Simply put, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Both versions of The Dawn Patrol are close to the history they are recreating. Cast and crew from both productions had been involved in the war including Howard Hawks and Basil Rathbone. Watching a film about an armed conflict made by people who saw it first-hand really adds that extra element.

Hawk’s Dawn Patrol is an early talkie which I believe benefits from being just that. I know many dismiss early talking pictures as being static but some films from this period would not have been as effective in my eyes if they had been made a few years later; films which benefit from the rough and gritty nature of early talkies such as war movies like All Quiet on the Western Front, Hell’s Angels and War Nurse or others like the prison drama The Big House. Due to this the original Dawn Patrol feels more intimate to me than its counterpart, not to mention the sets here really do feels like they’re being lit by the candles which appear on screen. The remake on the other hand is more shinny and less gritty, not there’s anything wrong with that as it is a beauty of a film in its own right but original gets my vote when it comes to aesthetics. Surprisingly however The Dawn Patrol is one pre-code film which appears to be absent of any pre code material making the process of remaking it in 1938 easier.

Who succeeds more in the role of the Squadron’s leader Courtney; Errol Flynn or Richard Barthelmess? Barthelmess has a more gentle and more sensitive persona yet still commanding; expressing so much through his eyes as he was a distinguished actor of the silent era after all. As strong as Flynn’s performance is, the contradictory traits in Barthelmess’ Courtney makes for a more interesting performance in my eyes.

The Dawn Patrol would be one of Basil Rathbone’s few outings as one of the good guys, well kind off; he still has to perform the dirty work. It’s interesting to see him playing a character who shows sympathy towards others and even gets revenge on Errol, one upping him when he gets promoted to wing and names Courtney in the new in command of the patrol. Rathbone also has my favourite moment of the remake (a moment which isn’t in the original) in which his assistant Phipps (Donald Crisp) speaks of how wonderful it would be if they had a dog at the squadron headquarters, only for Brand to be completely zoned out that he doesn’t hear him, only to then look over at him and ask him why he’s pretending to play with a dog – a great piece of dark comic relief.

But who comes on top as the better Major Brand; Basil Rathbone or Neil Hamilton? Rathbone’s Brand is more commanding and more in control even though we still see signs that he is at breaking point. Hamilton is less commanding and in control but this itself I feel makes for an interesting character dynamic as someone who in this position of reasonability but clearly can’t handle it. If I was to choose however I would go with Basil Rathbone. While Hamilton’s performance does have more to it, Rathbone is simply a far more charismatic and cool screen presence.

Who makes for the better role of Courtney’s closet friend Scott; David Niven or Douglas Fairbanks Jr? Fairbanks is an actor I’ve long had trouble even remembering in any role. I don’t find him an engaging screen presence and will forget about his performance in a film as soon as it’s over. David Niven on the other hand is an actor I have great esteem for while his real life friendship with Errol Flynn translates into the film, making the friendship aspect is stronger and more endearing in the remake than in the original. Fairbanks is my only big complaint with the original Dawn Patrol so it’s David Niven all the way.

The aerial footage from the original is reused in the remake and there is a noticeable difference in image quality between reused footage from original and the newly filmed material. Still is it an interesting side by side comparison how movies evolved within less than a decade. The aerial action sequences are exciting to watch helped by the impressive quality of the footage while the lack of a music score and reliance on sound effects heightens the tension. I do have to ask though but can a single plane cause so much damage to an entire factory? It’s still exciting stuff none the less.

There are no good guys or bad guys in The Dawn Patrol. The movies don’t take a side such as when the downed German soldier is brought back to the squadron headquarters. He speaks in German but from what I’ve gathered in the original version of the film he calls them friends and how the fighting has “absolutely nothing to do with personal hate” and that “it is a sport/game and our duty as soldiers is clear”.

Would The Dawn Patrol be classified as an anti war film? I’m very dubious of the term anti war film and I feel throwing the term around willy nilly as is often the case comes off to me as a form of virtue signalling. As Francois Truffaut stated; war movies inherently glorify combat when they portray the adventure and thrill in combat. In other words, there is no such thing as an anti war film. Watching the action scenes in The Dawn Patrol I do feel the same kind of feeling I get when I watch an action/adventure film but then I have to remind myself of the horrors of war. Is The Dawn Patrol condemning war altogether or just the tactics used during this war such as the use of young inexperienced pilots? Or is it merely showing at the end of the day war just a necessary evil?

War Nurse (1930)

Hell’s Angels

I watch a lot of obscure movies, films which 99.9% of people will never watch. It’s like discovering a world that only I know about. Occasionally I will come across a hidden gem which I absolutely love usually because it meets my personal preferences. But then there are movies like War Nurse in which I’m in disbelief that a movie of such quality on many levels could fall tough the cracks of obscurity.

War Nurse follows a group of women who volunteer for nursing duties in France at the outbreak of the First World War. The film is a perfect companion piece to All Quiet on the Western Front, released the same year. Similar to how the young army recruits in All Quiet… have a distorted, glamorised view of what war will be like, so do the nurses at the beginning of War Nurse  (some of them are barely into adulthood) expecting to be “holding hands all night with good looking sick officers” and to spend “Moonlight nights up on no man’s land, with a general in each arm”. Little do they expect the extremely strenuous work, horrendous conditions, the lack of supplies and the near insanity caused by the constant firing of shells.

One scene in which the nurses retreat to bed for night only to be woken up shortly afterwards by the arrival of injured troops during the middle of the night, I can feel just how tired and physically exhausted these people must be. War Nurse is full of powerful moments both big and subtle such as when a soldier played Robert Montgomery asks a nurse played by Anita Page out on a date, literally seconds after she told him one of his close comrades just died; death is that common of an occurrence

The copy of War Nurse I watched was not of the greatest of quality so I couldn’t always distinguish the cast members apart. Yet I was still fully engaged and can say the production values are superb. I don’t have any information on the film making locations for War Nurse but the exteriors feature lush countryside backdrops to large scale recreations of baron no man’s land with shells constantly exploding.

Get this baby onto the Warner Achieve Collection!

The Mortal Storm (1940)

A Torrent of Emotion

I try to avoid calling movies underrated or saying “Why is this not more well known?!”, otherwise I would sound like the most malfunctioning record but as to why The Mortal Storm is not more famous goes beyond just my own personal preferences. The fact that Hollywood’s then biggest studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer would release an anti-Nazi film at a time when the US and Germany where not involved in conflict; a movie which would then entice a country who were involved in a conflict of which the US had a neutral stance towards. To give some historical context, although it seems hard to believe nowadays, fascist and other Nazi like ideas where widespread throughout the United States during the 20’s and 30’s (heck, just look at the film Gabriel Over the White House from 1933, also released by MGM, or the public initial backlash against films with anti-fascist sentiments such as Sergeant York or To Be Or Nor To Be). Prior to the US involvement in the war, there was even uncertainty as to whether or not the US should take part in the conflict in Europe. This movie being overlooked is criminal. It deserves the special edition DVD treatment with documentaries behind its production. I’m sure there must be an interesting story behind the making of this film. MGM have generally been seen as a studio who played it safe, thanks in part to its conservative studio head Louis B. Mayer. So it comes as a surprise The Mortal Storm would come from this studio and they paid the price. The Mortal Storm lead to MGM films being banned in Germany. The word Nazi is never used once throughout the film, while the characters I can only assume are Jews are referred to as Non- Aryan. I wonder if this was done to prevent further controversy surrounding the film but it’s still an incredibly brave picture.

The core story is about of Nazism affected common families and their friends. The Roths (Jewish I assume) are a happy picture postcard family one day, the next there are completely torn apart. The professor of the town’s local university is treated with the highest of respect one day, the next his students are boycotting his class after he states that science has shown there is no difference between the blood of various races. The Mortal Storm is a work of propaganda, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Propaganda is an art form in itself, one which tries to get an emotional reaction out of the viewer in order to convert them to one side. The Mortal Storm achieves just that. The tension during the film just builds and builds, ending in an ending which is one huge punch to the gut. Watching the film again in order to write this review I surprised just how engaging it was on a further viewing. There are many little touches I never noticed previously, such as when Robert Young’s character announces his engagement to Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart is the only character the room who does react with joy. Majority of the film is shot on sets with the use of painted backgrounds and miniatures, yet the whole thing still looks fantastic, and looks more idyllic than real world locations could.You really get a sense for this small town in the alps. The only complaint if any I can find with the film is the opening narration at the beginning which is overly bombastic.

The casting of the previously paired Shop Around the Corner stars couldn’t be more perfect. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play two friends who are forced to become lovers due to the impending circumstances. I can’t recall any other movies which portray a love story like this. Sullavan often portrayed characters who represented bravery; her voice is so fragile yet powerful at the same time. The cast isn’t the only tie the film shares with The Shop Around the Corner; both films represent a European society which was on the brink of destruction.