It is sometimes difficult, for we children of the 1980s, to fully express the extent to which we all believed we would die in some global nuclear holocaust. We never planned for our futures like earlier generations did, because there honestly did not seem to be a point. I personally was plagued by nightmares of atomic explosions and radiation exposure, and these fears were driven by a pop culture that clearly had the risk of nuclear warfare on its mind as well. The BBC had Threads (1984), America’s ABC had The Day After (1983), and in cinemas the threat of nuclear weapons fuelled the likes of War Games (1983), The Terminator (1984), The Manhattan Project (1986), Miracle Mile (1988), and a host of direct-to-television and VHS efforts.
At the earlier end of the nuclear Armageddon craze came Lynne Littman’s Testament (1983), based on the short story “The Last Testament” by Carol Amen and adapted by John Sacret Young. The film was originally produced for the PBS television drama American Playhouse but was found to be of high enough quality for Paramount Pictures to divert it to a theatrical release.
Testament focuses on the Wetherly family, who live in the small Californian town of Hamelin. Father Tom (William Devane) commutes daily to San Francisco, while mother Carol (Jane Alexander) cares for their children Brad, Mary Liz, and Scottie. The rural peace is shattered one morning by news of nuclear strikes along America’s east coast, followed by a blinding flash on the horizon. In the ensuing hours and days, it becomes clear that the USA has suffered an overwhelming nuclear attack.
There is a fantastic intimacy to Testament, one that separates it from its contemporaries. The rural setting and geographical distance from any explosions create an eerily quiet and more insidious apocalypse. There are no shattered buildings, fire storms, or scenes of mass carnage. Instead all contact with civilization is lost, and the isolated Hamelin residents have little recourse but to wait and see if and when radioactive fallout will kill them all. It seems a particularly arresting treatment for American entertainment, which typically pushes for more destructive, noisy takes on the end of the world. This kind of ‘cozy catastrophe’ is traditionally the domain of the United Kingdom. The grim inevitability that Young’s screenplay presents, and Littman’s enormously melancholic tone, run at right angles to the usual American exceptionalism.
Jane Alexander presents a fine performance as Carol. Tom left for work on the morning of the attack, and while he left a message claiming he was coming home he continues to remain missing. Alexander’s performance balances the emotional elements well: hope mixed with a growing despair. She scored an Oscar nomination for her efforts. William Devane has always been a solid actor, and he makes a strong impression early on as Tom. The film is also an opportunity to see early performances by Lukas Haas (Witness, Mars Attacks), Kevin Costner, and Rebecca De Mornay.
For a particular generation, we honestly thought this was our future. For everyone else, it is a superbly made and emotionally powerful window into a time and place – and a social fear that dominated Western society.
Testament has been re-released on bluray by Australia’s Imprint Films, and is widely available for online rental.