by Joe Heuman
Cut, no. 16, 1977, p. 6
It's November 16, 1981. Four escaped convicts, led by an ex-Air Force general (railroaded into prison by the military for his outspoken political beliefs), have captured a Titan missile silo in Montana. "Gentlemen, ex-General Dell announces to his compatriots, "we are now a superpower." The group (now down to three after Dell shoots one accomplice for being too violent) demands ten million dollars in ransom. They also want the Chief Executive as a hostage, in order to secure their safe passage out of the States. Finally, Dell requires the President to go on national TV to read National Security Document 9759. This paper is a record of the minutes of a 1961 policy meeting, at which American officials crystallized the strategy for the nation's involvement in the Vietnam conflict.
Though the Vietnam debacle is long past, Dell is convinced that America is still torn apart by the dissension over the fiasco. He wants to reveal the truth to the people, so they will understand the duplicity of high government officialdom. That's why he was set up for a prison term-by a powerful conspiracy that enforces silence.
The document would show that high government executives knew a limited war in Southeast Asia could never be won, but that it was fought anyway, for the purpose of proving to the Russians that the U.S. was able and willing to wage a brutal limited conflict, complete with atrocities, in order to maintain a buffer of fear between the two super-powers.
Newly elected, President Stevens has no knowledge of the document's existence. After reading it he realizes that it was formulated by members of his own cabinet. He queries his brain-trust and understands that they would rather let him die as a hostage, or have the world blown apart, than reveal their own guilt. There are intimations that vast powers outside the legal order are involved.
This is the basic premise of TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING, a film which was heralded by a huge national ad campaign but then pulled from circulation in less than a month's time, after flopping badly at the box-office. An independent production, financed with American and West German money, TWILIGHT was presented not in the hope of explaining the Vietnam war, but with a frank desire for commercial success. The notion that anyone could swallow such a limited and conspiratorial explanation of the war is not important to the film. It appears that Robert Aldrich, as director, had no interest in exploring the calculated attempt to subjugate a portion of the world to a specific economic order. He has offered this reactionary, revisionist view of Vietnamese history as part of the paranoid vision of the film, one that is meant to involve the audience in an "exciting" drama of heroes battling unseen relentless power. To this end, he combined the premise with a melodramatic script, a semi-factual scenario (complete with realistic technological gadgets) and a split-screen technique that foregoes conventional cutting for direct simultaneity of action (in two to four places), all of which were supposed to blend into the magic of "box-office entertainment." The fact that they didn't is of some interest to me, but my speculations on the reason for the failure must depend upon a closer look at both the film and its director.
The paranoid vision of TWILIGHT follows a pattern established by earlier Aldrich films (KISS ME DEADLY, ATTACK, TEN SECONDS TO HELL) where individuals struggle against an unyielding system that is constantly conspiring to gain control of their freedom and personal will. In this context the term "paranoia" is not intended as a diagnosis of organic disease. In fact, I would claim this kind of paranoia is a defense mechanism which many individuals have built up against a society that demands conformism — even to those collective beliefs that are based on obvious falsehoods and manipulated facts, such as (1) the Vietnam war, (2) the necessity of a $100 billion defense budget, or (3) the theory of the "lone assassin" in relationship to the killings of the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King.
This kind of paranoid vision requires care in its construction and completion. It must be contrived so that viewers will accept it on its own terms, as rational and inevitable. It operates according to a rigid logic of its own. But in TWILIGHT, which was designed as entertainment, the logic of paranoia exists alongside that of a conventionally plotted thriller. The former provides the premise, while the latter determines the course of the action, and the two do not appear to be in conflict until the end of the film, when the protagonist falls completely out of character.
The obsessive ex-General Dell has spent years planning his scheme. He is portrayed as strong, cunning and resourceful, and yet he commits a low-grade blunder during the escape, which results in total catastrophe for his mission. He allows himself, his remaining comrade and the President to become needlessly exposed to riflemen as they make their way out of the missile silo. There is no reason for Dell's lapse of intelligence, at least within the logic of the plot, and Aldrich is too shrewd to allow for such a gross inconsistency unless he intended to show a rupture in Dell's character.
After realizing that the forces opposing him (known ominously as The Power) are willing to sacrifice the President, Dell wants to activate the missiles in a retaliatory rage. The other surviving member of the team, a Black lifer named Willis, refuses to cooperate, and since it takes both of them to manipulate the controls, Dell is immobilized. Willis' motivation stems from his comprehension of the magnitude of the forces they face ("We took on The Power," he says at one point) and from a reluctance to destroy the world because of personal frustration and pain.
The ex-general's fantasy that American power resides in, and springs forth magically from the President has been revealed as a sham. It is the fatal flaw in his scheme. His subsequent blunder (akin to a breakdown) occurs because he couldn't extend his fears or his demands far enough. He failed to locate the real source of control, and so his threat to blow up the world is not enough of a trump card. And if the fact that he is willing to destroy the planet (and able to do it) won't move his enemy to concessions, what would? The lack of credibility extends not only to the sudden break in his character in terms of the plot, but also to the final invalidity of his vision (his conviction that the exposure of the document would make a difference). In a sense the film has jettisoned its hero. Aldrich must have been conscious that such an ending would destroy the plausibility of the film.
The paranoid vision of complete control by unseen forces acquires its full sinister dimensions in light of this climax, which abruptly alters the context in which TWILIGHT may be viewed and understood. After constructing a conventional realist text, he undermines the basis of his construction (beginning, middle, end) by bringing it to an inconsistent and illogical conclusion. This is not the first time Aldrich has used formulaic filmmaking to accomplish his own ends. ATTACK had American soldiers murdering a cowardly commander, while KISS ME DEADLY made a mockery of the self-control of its macho hero, Mike Hammer, who seemed totally in command of the situation until he slipped and let the world explode in a Pandora's Box ending. These ruptures impose paranoid logic upon the text-the logic of the conventional plot becomes suspect when a portion of a supposedly solid structure changes or disappears. Pace, style, the entire sense of space and time is distorted when a movie deviates from an established and expected psychological pattern (much as in Hitchcock's PSYCHO, where the protagonist is suddenly and brutally murdered in the middle of the film).
By ending TWILIGHT the way he does, Aldrich seems to be asking that the audience deal in judgmental terms with Dell's quest for the truth. Until the ending, the film has worked to engage the audience in the action and to let us identify with the crusading protagonist, to create an emotional or psychological connection. This is part of its function as entertainment, and entertainment is what the ad campaign, as well as the film itself, have led the audience to expect. The final rupture must come as a surprise, perhaps an unpleasant one since it destroys the credibility of the hero and severs the audience's psychological connection with him and with the movie itself. The wrong people are killed. Strange, unexplained powers survive intact. Suddenly distanced from their involvement, viewers are asked to think about things they would just as soon forget. (And who actually believes that a guy who couldn't even rob a grocery store would be able to shoot King and then make good an international escape, while the same FBI squad assigned to harass King became the investigators of the crime?)
It is understandable that audiences might have felt duped by this film. First we are asked to do one thing (as passive receivers) and then something completely different (as active participants). We are manipulated into an awareness that we have been participating in a contrived fiction. We are shown that the logic of Hollywood (plot, character, editing, lighting, sound) has nothing to do with the frightening idea of a well-directed conspiracy. Forced to switch roles, the audience has been maneuvered into a critical relationship with the film text. And while this is valid and demanding as a viewing experience, in the case of TWILIGHT it spelled disaster for the money men. Many filmgoers do not enjoy being fooled, and we aren't comfortable outside the logic of the conventionally plotted film. Faced with the necessity of taking a critical stance, we are likely to dismiss the film as bad and think no more about it. And since TWILIGHT was produced and marketed with a mass audience in mind, it became a commercial failure.
What Aldrich has created is neither a simple entertainment nor a serious explanation of history (I certainly wouldn't recommend the film as history — past, present, or future), but rather an expensive and successful joke. (Paranoids can and do have a sense of humor, however weird it may be.) Attacked by some for lacking plausibility and coherence, praised by others for telling the historical truth, TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING has a purpose which is altogether different. It shows that audiences still trust and depend on the conventions of the Hollywood text, and we are uncomfortable when confronted with the contrivances of this text and with its limited ability to explain the world. We have been asked to question some of our assumptions and habits of viewing, while many other movies have attempted to train us not to question these assumptions and habits, but to accept them unthinkingly. To extend the terms of paranoid logic, we are following orders without knowing it. We are being controlled by unseen forces, and the point of Aldrich's joke is to reveal the structure of the controlling mechanism and thus make us aware of our condition.