Open Government versus Imperial Presidency versus Terrorism: Twilight’s Last Gleaming

By Daniel Garrett

Twilight Last’s Gleaming
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Winfield,
Charles Durning, and Richard Widmark
Lorimar-Bavaria Studios/Olive Films, 1977

Twilight’s Last Gleaming is an intelligent film about history, government, individual conscience, and terrorism; and it features Burt Lancaster, Paul Winfield, Charles Durning, Gerald O’Loughlin, William Marshall, Joseph Cotten, and Roscoe Lee Browne.  This is one of those films that suggest that if Americans knew a significant fact—a decision and act that are dangerous, illogical, and wrong—about what their government has done and why, then Americans would be disturbed and insist on change.  However, it is arguable that while some people—a small conscientious group—might be agitated about moral wrong in high places, most people would be too busy with their own ordinary lives to care.  People tend to be concerned about what directly affects their own families and households, their own bank books and futures.  In fact, while this is an intelligent and well-made film, a film of articulate discourse occurring in well-appointed offices and rooms and geometrical facilities in scenes shown sometimes in split screen, it is impossible not to think that the film lacks something; and the more one thinks about it the more that it is clear that what it lacks are the facts and habits of daily life.  Where are the women and children?  Where are the morning meals and school assignments and little confessions and clueless employers and commercial projects and delightful surprises and television entertainment and private romances and stupid jokes and irritations and drudgery of a normal day?  Where are the ordinary things that are at stake, and make the confrontational drama and rhetoric matter?

Twilight’s Last Gleaming gives us the story of a driven, patriotic general, General Lawrence Dell played by Burt Lancaster, whose consciousness was raised by the chaos of Vietnam, and who began to work to address the purpose and practice of that war, troubling the military bureaucracy who took the opportunity to silence him when he got into personal trouble, sending him to prison.  Dell breaks out of prison, and with other men—Paul Winfield as Willis Powell and Burt Young as Augie Garvas—takes over a nuclear missiles site, from which Dell can insist that the government admit to its people the real reason for the Vietnam war—the attempt to demonstrate American military might and resolve to the Russians.  The reasons for war are hardly ever what they seem to be: there are usually questionable reasons—of culture and economics and power, of ambition and prejudice—behind the official reason we are told; and, consequently, it does not matter whether the Russians were the actual audience for Vietnam.  The fundamental concern is that foreign policy is undertaken for reasons the nation’s citizens do not know, understand, or approve—and that is true; and that is why, with many wars, though people may support the government decision at the beginning, the longer the war goes on the more people say, I do not know why we’re fighting, and it’s time to stop.  In the film, the renegade general threatens to launch nuclear missiles against Russia unless the American president agrees to tell the people the real purpose of the Vietnam war and establish a genuine nuclear policy.  It is a terrorizing threat.  Does anyone have the right to use violence to affect public policy?  The answer is usually no, and yet the scenario recurs.  Why?  The establishment options seem designed to exhaust and frustrate protest rather than to support it; and some realize the system does not and will not work in their favor—the normal functioning of the system, its logic and order, is read as conspiracy by those whose ideas and values are not in line with it; and consequently certain individuals resort to extreme measures.

In Twilight’s Last Gleaming, Charles Durning is an American president who is surprised to read a national security document that reveals the questionable roots of American policy in Vietnam.  President Stevens is served by a hawkish general, played by Richard Widmark, a general who is a longtime supporter of American might—for whom the preservation of power is more important than ethics.  The president has an aide, Gerald O’Loughlin, who helps to reconcile the president to his responsibility to represent the decision of his cabinet, of his government, despite misgivings.  For Twilight’s Last Gleaming, the war is but a demonstration; and viewing the film compels one to think about political trust and political decisions.  It is hard to remember now, decades later, why the Vietnam war was fought, though it inspired conflict in America, with some progressive people attempting to call the American government to account: The French had controlled Indochina, of which Vietnam was part, though Vietnam had an emperor; and when the Japanese invaded Vietnam during the last century’s second world war, a Vietnamese Communist militia defended the country and then took over Hanoi in the north of Vietnam, forcing the abdication of the emperor.  France did not accept the self-determination of the evolving government and resurrected the emperor, who was established in Saigon, in the south of Vietnam—an establishment the United States accepted and supported.  There was war, truce, and the country’s partitioning.  The Vietnam war began with attempts by North Vietnamese support of guerilla subversion in South Vietnam, and first it was a war between the two countries and then an international war, with various western countries supporting South Vietnam, and with Russia and China supporting North Vietnam; and it lasted from 1958 to 1975.  It was, like many wars, an actual struggle of men and arms and also a symbolic struggle of values—of north and south, of west and east, of democracy and communism.

The film was inspired by Walter Wager’s novel Viper , a book that did not have an explicit political theme; and it was adapted by Ed Huebach and Ronald M. Cohen, giving the director Robert Aldrich the kind of material with social resonance that he wanted to deal with.  That political vision attracted other participants.  Burt Lancaster (1913-1994), the star of The Killers (1946), From Here to Eternity (1953), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Elmer Birdman Alcatraz (1962), The Leopard (1963), Atlantic City (1980), and many other works, brings his customary force as General Dell.  However, it is a special thing to see Paul Winfield, William Marshall, and Roscoe Lee Browne in the film Twilight’s Last Gleaming.  Paul Winfield (1941-2004), the son of a mother who was a garment industry union organizer and a construction worker father, was a great reader and lover of film, and Winfield received regional recognition as an actor while in high school and a scholarship to Yale, which he did not pursue—attending instead the University of Oregon and the University of California.  Winfield, with Cisely Tyson, was in Sounder (1972), for which he, playing a Louisiana sharecropper, won a nomination for an Oscar; and Winfield was in Conrack (1974), Hustle (1975), A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich (1978), Carbon Copy (1981), White Dog (1982), Mars Attacks (1996), and Catfish in Black Bean Sauce (1999), among other film, television, and stage productions, including the works of Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Ibsen. Paul Winfield won an Emmy award for a guest performance on television’s “Picket Fences.”  In addition, Paul Winfield had a personal relationship with Tyson and other women, but his longest relationship, according to reports, was with a male architect, Charles Gillan Jr. Winfield did take homosexual roles, in 1984’s Mike’s Murder and in 1998’s Relax…It’s Just Sex.) The integration of the male roles in Twilight’s Last Gleaming is impressive, and in the motion picture the scruffy Paul Winfield is a voice of humorous, intelligent and streetwise honesty; although it would have been great to see women and children. Winfield as Willis Powell convinces Lancaster’s General Dell not to blow up the world. William Marshall plays one of the president’s men in Twilight’s Last Gleaming, and he is presented and responded to as an authority. William Marshall (1924-2003), an art student and New York University graduate, an Actors Studio member, played roles in Shakespeare plays to great acclaim, and starred with Victor Mature in The Gladiators (1954), and was an African revolutionary in Something of Value (1957) and a high-level lawyer in The Boston Strangler (1968), but he experienced the typical frustrations of a black actor and found his greatest fame with the (black exploitation) films Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream. Roscoe Lee Browne in Twilight’s Last Gleaming plays a former professor of the American president, and Browne arrives at the beginning of the film to ask the president’s official pardon for a radical who once lived in his home—and killed the leader of another country, but, of course, the president cannot pardon that kind of political violence. Browne (1925-2007), a track star, a literature teacher, and a Shakespearean actor who performed in theater projects by Robert Lowell and Edward Albee and August Wilson, also appeared in motion pictures, The Connection (1962), The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970), and TheMamboKings (1992), but, with his deeply sonorous voice, Browne is best known for his numerous television appearances. The acting throughout the film Twilight’s Last Gleaming is believable, grounded in character and conviction—and that makes the film’s speculative and odd indulgences more acceptable, making its central ideas easier to perceive and think about.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.

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