The 1983 film, Testament, is about death. It’s about the death of a family, the death of a town, the death of a way of life, and the death of hope.
And you may be saying, “Well, gee, Lisa — that sounds like a really happy movie.”
Well, it’s not meant to be a happy movie. Testament is a painfully grim movie about the end of the world.
The movie takes place in the town of Hamelin, California, which we’re told is 90 minutes away from San Francisco. It’s a nice town, the type of place where everyone knows each other. Mike (Mako) runs the local gas station and cares for his disabled son, Hiroshi (Gerry Murillo). Elderly Henry Abhart (Leon Ames) spends his time on his radio, talking to strangers across the world. Fania (Lilia Skala) offers up piano lessons. Father Hollis (Philip Anglim) looks over the spiritual needs of the parish. It’s a normal town.
The town is home to the Weatherlys. Carol (Jane Alexander) is a stay-at-home mom who does volunteer work and who is directing the school play. Tom (William Devane) is a common sight riding his bicycle through town every morning before heading off to work in San Francisco. They have three children. Mary Liz (Roxanna Zal) is a teenager who is taking piano lessons. Brad (Ross Harris) is always trying to impress his father and is looking forward to his 14th birthday. Scottie (Lukas Haas, in his first film) is the youngest and never goes anywhere without his teddy bear. They’re a normal family living a normal life in a normal town.
And then, one day, everything changes. Scottie is watching Sesame Street when the program is suddenly interrupted by a clearly terrified anchorman who announces that New York has been bombed. The president is about to speak but, before he can, there’s a bright flash of light, an distant explosion, and the entire town loses power.
At first, the people of Hamelin try to remain hopeful. Though Tom works in San Francisco and San Francisco is among the many cities that have apparently been bombed (by who, we never learn), he also left a message on the family’s answer machine, telling them that he was on his way home. Even with Tom missing, Carol continues to insist the he’ll be coming home at any minute.
Tom doesn’t come home.
The rest of the film follows the slow death of the town. Even though the town was not damaged by the blast, the fallout soon hits. Cathy (Rebecca De Mornay) and Phil (Kevin Costner) bury their newborn baby after it falls ill from radiation poisoning. Mike, Henry, and Fania all start to grow physically ill and, in some cases, dementia sets in. Father Hollis goes from being hopeful to being tired and withdrawn as he tries to attend to each and every death. Larry (Mico Olmos), a young boy whose parents have disappeared, briefly moves in with the Wetherly family. He disappears about halfway through the movie and we never learn if he left or if he died. All we know is that no one mentions him or seems to notice that he’s gone.
Over the course of the film, Carol buries two of her children. By the end of the film, her remaining child is starting to show signs of being sick, as is she. Testament, which opened with bright scenes of a happy town, ends in darkness, with only a handful of people left among the living. Even those who are alive are clearly dying and can only speak of the importance of remembering all of it, what they had and what they lost.
Sounds like a really happy film, right? Well, it’s meant to be depressing. It was made at a time when nuclear war was viewed as being not just probable but also inevitable. Testament is a film that portrayed what a lot of people at the time were expecting to see in the future and, as a result, it’s not meant to be a particularly hopeful movie. It’s a film that accomplishes what it set out to do, thanks to a great (and Oscar-nominated) performance from Jane Alexander and Lynne Littman’s low-key direction. Unlike a lot of atomic war films, Testament does not feature any scenes of burning buildings or excessive gore. That actually what makes it even more disturbing. Even after the war, Hamelin still looks like it did beforehand, with the exception that many of the houses are now empty and that all of the residents are slowly dying.
(Would I have reacted as strongly to the film if I hadn’t watched it at a time when many people are afraid to go outside? Perhaps not. But this pandemic has brought extra power to a lot of films that may not have had as much of an impact in 2018.)
Testament is a powerful film, though not necessarily one that I ever want to watch again.