Two anti-war films were released in 1983: The Day After and TESTAMENT. The former, released in the US as a made-for-TV movie, was visually sensational: missile launches, mushroom clouds, disfigured survivors, urban landscapes turned debris fields. However, the latter illustrates the notion that an understatement can sometimes be more compelling.
In TESTAMENT, Jane Alexander plays Carol Wetherly, the wife and mother of a 5-member family living in rural suburbia somewhere near Central California's Bay Area. Husband William Devane is off in San Francisco, never to return, the day the Soviet H-bomb falls upon it. Jane's character is left to manage alone the family's survival as their community, otherwise untouched directly by blast damage, copes with post-Holocaust disintegration. While some friends and neighbors leave the area for parts unknown, the Wetherlys remain.
TESTAMENT is not graphic in its depiction of nuclear war's devastation. What makes it absolutely compelling is the vision of a community, much like mine and possibly yours, and a particular family, everyday folks like you and me, facing the insidious effects of starvation and radiation sickness as they descend into the darkness necessarily to follow a nuclear exchange between superpowers. Ms. Alexander's performance is soul-wrenching and powerful, as when she cries out for God's damnation of those politicians that have reduced her world to an endless horror.
TESTAMENT is not a feel-good film, but certainly a great one. It's an exercise in bleak despair, and one which ultimately focuses on nothing more than the basic human instinct to survive - the final tribute to a species that has engineered the means for its own destruction.
"Testament" is the most intimate and arguably the most disturbing of the films made in the early 1980s dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear war. "The Day After," which also aired in 1983, is the most obvious example, but there was also "Special Bulletin" (1983), the BBC-produced "Threads" (1984), the animated "When the Wind Blows" (1986), and a Soviet film the title of which escapes me at the moment. Unlike the rest of those films, there are no harrowing scenes of nuclear explosions or people ravaged by radiation sickness. In that regard, "Testament" is almost naive; radiation sickness is nothing more than dark shadows around the eyes of the characters. But this is not a movie about special effects; the nuclear war consists of nothing more than a bright light outside the window with telephones and televisions suddenly going dead (the film is set in Hamlin, a small California town not far from San Francisco, the obvious target). The rhyme and reason for the war is of no consequence in the final analysis. Instead, this is a story about facing the end of the world, recalling the film "On the Beach" (1959) more than any other work in this genre.
Based on "The Last Testament" by Carol Amen, the "Testament" script is by John Sacret Young, who would later create the television series "China Beach," and offer many moments of subtle lyricism despite the subject matter. The focus is on the family of Carol Wetherly (Jane Alexnader), whose husband Tom (William Devane) went off to work that morning and never came back. The Wetherly's have three children, Brad (Rossie Harris), Mary Liz (Roxana Zal), and Scottie (Lukas Haas), and it is what happens to them after the bombs go after that affects us over the course of this 90-minute film. Death is inevitable in this film, and ultimately the question is how it should be faced. Director Lynne Littman provides scenes that become unforgettable because of their simple eloquence, most notable, one in which Carol finishes sewing up the shroud in which she has wrapped one of her children.
This is one of the most upsetting films I have ever seen in my life. It took me a while to be able to watch it a second time, and that was because I was working on a presentation involving nuclear war films. But watching it again was so superflous because the film was seared into my mind after watching it the first time. Alexander's performance, as you would expect, is superb, but it is Zal (who was equally good in "Something About Amelia") who is the most poignant figure in the story. Only once does the film threaten to break away from its pedestrian boundaries, when the school kids put on a play about the "Pied Piper of Hamelin" (remember the town's name is Hamlin), but even here the anger is submerged in the sadness of the presentation. Watching "Testament" is a very upsetting experience because at the end it is impossible to avoid asking yourself a horrifying question...what would you do in Carol's place?
Testament was a breakthrough movie for two reasons. It actually was commissioned as an episode of PBS's American Playhouse. When it was finished, PBS thought that it was too good for television and released it in movie theaters. It was a major hit and garnered Jane Alexander a Best Actress Oscar nomination (she should have won). The second breakthrough was the first film to deal with a nuclear attack from the survivor's point of view without saying who sent the missiles or bomb. All other films before that and even after assigned blame, this did not care what the cause was just the effect.
Hamelin, California is a small suburb of San Francisco. It is a typical small town of any large city. The Wetherly's are a typical suburban family with father Tom (William DeVane) and mother Carol (Jane Alexander). They have three children, the oldest Mary Liz (Roxana Zal), the middle child Brad (Brad Harris) and the baby Scottie (Lucas Haas). The family has their problems but nothing too crucial or untypical for suburban family. You might expect this to be a film about adultery or a family coping with loss. But this is a film about something more compelling.
The family is watching TV when an alert comes on just saying that nuclear bombs have been exploded on the east coast. Then a bright flash occurs. No one knows what happened for sure. The community is confused but everyone is okay. Then they go into survival mode.
Two weeks have past and those remaining try to restore normal life. But the fallout is starting to have its effects on the population. Survival turns to desperation then to despair. People continue to die. The first in the family to show signs is Scottie and he goes first. Larry, a neighbor kid that was staying with them is next. He is then followed Mary Liz.
Hiroshi's father leaves and Brad brings him home. Things are getting bleaker Carol is showing signs and so is Brad. They decide to end it but cannot carry it through. The film ends on Brad's birthday (2 months from the explosion) with a note of hope.
This is a film of little moments. When the family goes to get gas, Mike (Mako) tells them that it's free to regulars. Carol invites him and his son to dinner to repay. Mike tells he has been repaid many times by her family's kindness. The school play, The Pied Piper of Hamlin, is performed with all the children being taken away. There is a devastating scene where Mary Liz asks her mother about love knowing that she will never experience it.
I saw this in the theater and was blown away by this film and it is just a potent on television.
It's also interesting to see some early work by future stars like Kevin Costner and Rebecca DeMornay as newlyweds with a baby and Philip Anghlim, fresh off his Tony Award as the Elephant Man, as the pastor. William DeVane as the father had success in television movies in the 70's but would not gain fame until Knot's Landing a few years away.
And the film has character performances by some great older actors like Lilia Skala (Oscar nominee of Lilies of the Field), Leon Ames (Mr. Ed) and Mako (Oscar nominee for Sand Pebbles and founder of East/West Players).
By the way, The Day After got much more publicity when it aired on television but this film is 100 time better.
Testament at 20 - Cast reunion of Lucas Hass, Roxanne Zal, Brad Harris with director Lynne Littman twenty years after making the film with interspersed with interviews with star Jane Alexander, featured actor Kevin Costner, writer John Sacret Young, cinematographer Steven Poster, composer James Horner and others. This is a making of film with a lookback. Many of these featurettes are made at the time of the movie and are just promotional material. Being made 20 years later and the cast is all alive, gives this more depth.
Testament: Nuclear Thoughts - This is a 13 minute anti nuclear short that, while provides food for thought, is so one sided that it loses credibility.
Timeline of the Nuclear Age - A three minute written essay on nuclear bombs from the early tests to 2004.
on August 23, 2001
If there ever was a more powerful movie than this I have yet to see it. I have seen this movie several times since it's release in 1983 and the effect has always been the same. You go to bed and it replays in your head then you wake up and it dominates your entire following day. With performances so powerful from Jane Alexander and others that you will never forget. Also this movie makes use of scenes with children asking their innocent questions as they do that will tear your heart apart as they are among the first to succumb to the radiation sickness. So if you want to see a film that will be hard to shake from your memory for weeks but will not leave you feeling particularly happy this is the ticket. I personally think it should be required viewing in all schools across America to remind our young that there are some things much more important than the latest Britney and N' Sync releases.
on July 27, 2001
I have a personal reason for reviewing this movie: the writer of the original short story, Carol Amen, was a good friend of mine from church before she died of cancer. Carol told me she woke up in the middle of the night covered with sweat when she envisioned this story and wrote it in one sitting. She worked closely with the screenwriter, John Sacret Young (of "China Beach" fame) and was very pleased that he was able to flesh out the characters and situations without altering the main story.
This film, with its excellent acting (for which Jane Alexander earned an Oscar nomination) and a beautiful, simple yet haunting score by James Horner, is different from all of the other Cold War/Nuclear Holocaust films. It's a story of a family and community coming together. There is no magic pill that saves everybody in the end; there is no squad of commandos rushing in to defeat the evil Ruskies. What IS there is a sense of connection with this ordinary family (particularly Ms. Alexander) as they survive what has happened and ask themselves, "Why was I saved? Why was I allowed to live when so many others died?". This is not a date movie, not a movie for an evening of brainless entertainment. This is a movie to be thought about, to be felt with the heart. As a history teacher, I find this film invaluable and use it in my classes to demonstrate the human costs of nuclear war since most of my students have never had to live under the serious shadow of nuclear annihalation.
on December 1, 2006
Without sensation or hype, TESTAMENT appeared out of nowhere amid the myriad nuclear holocaust movies of the 80's. With TV blaring "The Day After" and Reagan amping up the arms race, this poignant, touching little film quietly entered the fray.
Though it received a best actress Oscar nomination upon its release, it's been forgotten over the years.
I never got over its power and the emotional impact one little movie could have.
Director Lynne Littman dedicates the film "to my family", which is the heart of the film. It centers on a mother who desperately tries to keep her children safe and her family together in the middle of an unthinkable disaster, without bringing much of what's going on outside into it -- and in doing so, the movie amazingly avoids any melodrama by keeping the action focused and the drama real.
While her kids watch TV, argue and play, Carol (Jane Alexander) is listening to her husband's phone message that he won't be home in time for dinner. Suddenly, the program is interrupted by a news report: New York and the East Coast have been destroyed by nuclear explosions.
Littman goes all the way--her film flying in the face of movie convention, unflinching in her illustration of the slow course of radiation poisoning, the disintegration of society, and in watching one woman hold it together in spite of everything,
Jane Alexander's moving performance is heartbreaking. Her daughter wants to know what making love is like, knowing that she never will experience it; she searches desperately for the teddy bear her son loved so he can be buried with it, she stoically sews her daughter's burial shroud -- the emotions are taut and controlled, and the viewer is left feeling a very real, very profound loss.
I sobbed when I saw this movie, and I'm no sap.
A very poignant, affecting and painful film. Not to be missed.
There are some images from movies and television that I watched as a child that have been seared into my brain: the Yankee soldier who wets himself before going into battle in THE BLUE AND THE GREY; the venomous snake that spooks the horses in a river crossing in LONESOME DOVE which ends up killing Ricky Schroeder's Irish friend; the masks that the kidnappers where in FORTRESS. Added to these images are a couple more: that of the residents of a small town burning the bodies of their citizens from radiation poisoning after a nuclear holocaust because there is no place left to bury them and disease is spreading too fast and that of a young father (played by Kevin Costner) carrying the body of his newborn child in a dresser drawer to be buried. These last two images are from the film TESTAMENT.
TESTAMENT is the most powerful film about the aftermath of nuclear attack ever made. It aired on television right around the time another movie about the aftermath of a nuclear war, THE DAY AFTER, aired. THE DAY AFTER is kind of a special effects extravaganza complete with launching missiles, mushroom clouds, masses of people in hysteria, and makeup revealing rotting flesh and opens sores. TESTAMENT is a much simpler film. The atomic attack is represented by a bright flash of light and all telephones and televisions going dead.
Jane Alexander portrays the central character of the story, Carol Wetherly, and she does so brilliantly. Wetherly is a stay at home mom with three children and a wonderful husband named Tom (William Devane). The Wetherlys live in the small town of Hamlin, CA--not too far outside of San Francisco. Tom leaves for work on the day of the attack and never comes back. The agony and suffering of this story is relayed ever so eloquently on the day after the attack as Carol realizes that Tom is never going to come back, a realization she eventually has to share with her children. TESTAMENT illustrates just how the people of a small community might have to deal with a nuclear holocaust if it ever happened: people burying their family members in their front yards, town meetings in one of the local churches that continue to drop in number as the days pass, people using HAM radios in attempt to contact someone somewhere, the struggle to find food, the frustration of wanting to leave but not being able to because of no fuel.
Perhaps one of the reasons that TESTAMENT affected me so much is that I was raised in a small town and it made the threat of what a nuclear attack could do very real to me. Many of the characters in the film reminded me of people I knew and I couldn't help but think to myself, what would I do in such a situation? What would my Mom do? Would we be able to survive? Or would we die before our time?
When the Cold War finally thawed in 1989 and finally ended less than a year later, TESTAMENT was forgotten by many people as a relic of the past. I've never forgotten the film and its images have been seared into my mind since I was a child. However, in the post-9/11 world in which we live, TESTAMENT is a film that is just as relevant as ever. As haunting and disturbing as the film is, TESTAMENT is a film that every American should watch at least once.
The DVD version of the film includes a couple of featurettes about the film as well as a timeline of the nuclear age. I enjoyed the TESTAMENT AT 20 featurette the best because it was an honest reflection about the film with some of the principal actors.
on October 15, 2004
Oh boy....here we go...testament has arrived on DVD! Its been a long time coming but I am so excited to see this make it finally to the DVD format.
Let me tell all of you that this movie was a masterpiece. I saw it back in the early 80s on PBS TV and it just rocked me to the core. IM telling you people this movie is so powerful you will never be the same after watching it!
Its about a family living a typical life of experiences and activities. They live in the suburbs of San Francisco Bay Area - the father goes off to work in San Francisco. The kids are watching cartoons after school and then hell is unleashed upon all! The TV is interrupted by news anchor notifying the entire eastern seaboard has been hit by nuclear missiles. A flash explodes in the living room and a air raid siren blasts....
The story begins....we suffer through the agony and hopelessness as the mother tries to do the best she can to get her family (daughter and 2 sons) to go about their daily lives.
You become so emotionally connected to the characters and their feelings that it becomes utterly painful to see the aftermath destruction of nuclear war via radiation and apocalypse.
You will cry till there's no tommorow when you see the family slowly die one by one. Its a feeling I've not experienced watching television or movies. The acting is so beautiful and authentic you can forget you are watching a tv screen and think you are seeing a live performance.
I am so happy to see this come out on DVD it is really a wake up call to human beings as they will appreciate life and the world we live in as opposed to nuclear holocaust that is out there.
Please understand this movie is so depressing that you may need help to recover from it but its a fictional tale that hopefully never comes true. Buy and see this movie as soon as you can because it will be a life changing experience for you - I have no doubt!
on April 27, 1999
When I was 10, I first saw bits and pieces of this film, but my parents wouldn't let me watch the whole thing. When I was 14 (and again when I was 18), I watched "The Day After." Last year, I finally saw "Threads."
This movie puts both of them to shame. "Threads" is unrelentently graphic, "The Day After" hammers you with its message about as subtly as a person with a baseball bat going "nuclear war is BAD! BAD BAD BAD!!!"
"Testament" puts the human elements back into the equation that nuclear war will become. After all is said and done with an attack (god forbid), the world will have to find a way to go on, or to make its way through the aftermath as best as possible. Jane Alexander shows us this journey through the eyes of a mother, heartsick and driven to the edge by the hopelessness around her.
The film is sad, yes, but it also leaves a message of hope, such as it is: that most human beings will find a way to go, for as long as they can, remembering what once was and hoping for what will be again
on November 23, 2006
I have clear memories of watching Testament in the theater back in 1983. I remember the mother, played by Jane Alexander, watching her young son die over a period of days, and how devestated I was by her hysterical preparation for his burial - I wept, and so did all those around me. It was the most human, anti-war scene I have ever experienced in a movie. This was not drama for the sake of entertainment, it was the very realistic illustration of the fragility of our society, how quickly everything we love so deeply could be taken away from us with absolutely no excuse or explanation. It also portrayed very well the strength of the human spirit, how people tried so hard to go on with some semblance of routine and meaning to their lives, knowing they too had only days or weeks to live. The horror of war has never been portayed more effectively. I remember leaving the theater, looking at the Seattle skyline at twighlight, and thinking how much we take for granted. I wished every national leader would be strapped into a seat and forced to watch this film.