While it's easy to see why Twilight's Las Gleaming tanked at the box office during its original release and remains, at best, a minor cult favorite to this day, the movie is a lively addition to the venerable tradition of loopy conspiracy flicks. Featuring an outlandish plot about a crazed U.S. general seizing control of a nuclear-missile launch site in order to force the president to reveal secret documents about America's involvement in Vietnam, the picture is far-fetched in the extreme. It's also ridiculously overlong, sprawling over two and a half hours. Furthermore, gonzo director Robert Aldrich filigrees the story with such unnecessary adornments as split-screen photography, which he uses to simultaneously show the goings-on at the launch site and the reactions of power-brokers in Washington, D.C. Plus, of course, the storyline is downbeat in every imaginable way. For adventurous moviegoers, however, these weaknesses are just as easily interpreted as strengths, particularly when the entertainment value of the acting is taken into consideration.
Burt Lancaster stars as the general, memorably incarnating a macho idealist who uses duplicity and strategy to manipulate enemies and subordinates alike. Charles Durning, rarely cast as authority figures beyond the level of middle management, makes an unlikely president, his innate likability and the darkness that always simmered beneath his persona offering a complex image of humanistic leadership. Also populating the movie are leather-faced tough guy Richard Widmark, as the officer charged with wresting control of the launch site from the general’s gang; Paul Winfield and Burt Young, as two members of the gang; and reliable veterans Roscoe Lee Browne, Joseph Cotten, Melvyn Douglas, and Richard Jaeckel (to say nothing of Blacula himself, William Marshall). Quite a tony cast for a whackadoodle thriller that borders on science fiction.
Based on a novel by Walter Wager, Twilight's Last Gleaming represents Aldrich's bleeding-heart storytelling at its most arch—the goal of Lancaster's character is revealing that the U.S. government knew Vietnam was a lost cause but kept fighting, at great cost of blood and treasure, simply to intimidate the Soviet Union. If there's a single ginormous logical flaw in the picture (in fact, there are probably many), it's that Lancaster's character could have achieved his goal through simpler means. But the ballsy contrivance of the picture is that seizing the launch site is a theatrical gesture meant to capture the world's attention. As such, the operatic bloat of Twilight's Last Gleaming reflects the protagonist's modus operandi--like the crusading general, Aldrich swings for the fences. Twilight's Last Gleaming is a strange hybrid of hand-wringing political drama (somewhat in the Rod Serling mode) with guns-a-blazin' action—for better or worse, there's not another movie like this one. Genuine novelty is a rare virtue, and so is the passion with which Aldrich made this offbeat picture.
Twilight's Last Gleaming: GROOVY