Testament (1983 film)

Testament is a 1983 drama film based on a three-page story titled "The Last Testament" by Carol Amen (1934–1987),[2] directed by Lynne Littman and written by John Sacret Young. The film tells the story of how one small suburban town near the San Francisco Bay Area slowly falls apart after a nuclear war destroys outside civilization.

Movie Poster
Directed byLynne Littman
Produced byJonathan Bernstein
Screenplay byJohn Sacret Young
Based onThe Last Testament by
Carol Amen
Music byJames Horner
CinematographySteven Poster
Edited bySuzanne Pettit
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
November 4, 1983
Running time
90 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2,044,892[1]

Originally produced for the PBS series American Playhouse, it was given a theatrical release instead by Paramount Pictures (although PBS did subsequently air it a year later). The cast includes Jane Alexander, William Devane, Leon Ames, Lukas Haas, Roxana Zal and, in small roles shortly before a rise in their stardom, Kevin Costner and Rebecca De Mornay. Alexander was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance.


The Wetherly family — husband Tom, wife Carol, and children Brad, Mary Liz, and Scottie - live in the fictional suburb of Hamelin, California, within a 90-minute drive of San Francisco, where Tom works.

On a routine afternoon, Carol listens to an answering-machine message from Tom saying he's on his way home for dinner. Scottie watches Sesame Street on TV when the show is suddenly replaced by white noise; a San Francisco news anchor appears onscreen, saying they have lost their New York signal and there were explosions of "nuclear devices there in New York, and up and down the East Coast." The anchorman is cut off by the Emergency Broadcast System tone. An announcer's voice states that the White House is interrupting the program, but just as the President is introduced the TV and electricity in the house go dark. Suddenly, the blinding flash of a nuclear detonation is seen through the window. The family huddles on the floor in panic as the town's air-raid sirens go off; minutes later, several of their neighbors are seen running around on the street outside, dazed in fear and confusion. The family tries to remain calm, hoping Tom is safe.

The suburb of Hamelin seems to survive relatively unscathed. Frightened residents meet at the home of Henry Abhart, an elderly ham radio operator. He has made contact with survivors in rural areas and internationally, and tells Carol that he was unable to reach anyone east of Keokuk, Iowa. He reveals that the entire Bay Area and all major U.S. cities are radio-silent. The morning after the attack, they are joined by a boy named Larry who tells Carol his parents never returned home from San Francisco; he later succumbs to radiation poisoning. Despite Abhart's efforts, no one knows or finds out either the reason for the attack or the responsible parties. Rumors from other radio operators range from a Soviet preemptive strike to terrorism.

The school play about the Pied Piper of Hamelin was in rehearsal before the bombings; desperate to recapture some normality, the town decides to go on with the show anyway. The parents smile and applaud, many of them in tears. The day after the attack, the children notice "sand" on their breakfast plates: contaminated fallout dirt settling back onto the ground from the blast. Residents now have to cope with losing municipal services, food and gas shortages and, ultimately, the loss of loved ones to radiation poisoning. Scottie, the first to succumb, is buried in the back yard. Wooden caskets are used as fuel for funeral pyres instead as the dead accumulate faster than they can be buried. Carol sews together a burial shroud from bed sheets for her daughter, Mary Liz, who also dies from radiation exposure.

While many of the children die, older residents fall to rapid dementia, and order in the town starts to break down as police and firefighter ranks dwindle. A young couple leave town after losing their infant, hoping to find safety and solace elsewhere. Carol's search for a battery causes her to listen once more to her husband's final message on the answering machine. To her sorrow, she finds a later (and previously unheard) message on the machine from Tom: he decided to stay at work late in San Francisco on the day of the attack, and she gives up her last hope that he will return home.

Son Brad, forced into early adulthood, helps his mother and takes over the radio for Henry Abhart. The family adopts a mentally disabled boy named Hiroshi, who Tom used to take fishing along with his children, after Hiroshi's father Mike dies. Soon thereafter Carol starts showing signs of radiation poisoning. Carol decides she, Brad and Hiroshi should avoid a slow and painful death from radiation poisoning and instead take their own lives via carbon monoxide poisoning. They gather in the family's station wagon with the engine running and the garage door closed, but Carol cannot bring herself to go through with the deed. The are finally seen sitting by candlelight to celebrate Brad's birthday, using a graham cracker in place of a cake. When asked what they should wish for, Carol answers: "That we remember it all...the good and the awful." She blows out the candle. A old family home movie of a surprise birthday party for Tom plays, showing him as he blows out the candles on his cake.



Testament was shot entirely on location in the town of Sierra Madre, California, a suburb community of Los Angeles located in the San Gabriel Valley.[3]


Testament received positive reviews from the few critics who got the opportunity to see it. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 82% based on reviews from 11 critics.[4]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film a rare four stars out of four, and was highly enthusiastic about the film. Ebert wrote that the film was powerful and made him cry, even after the second time he watched it. Ebert wrote: "The film is about a suburban American family, and what happens to that family after a nuclear war. It is not a science-fiction movie, and it doesn't have any special effects, and there are no big scenes of buildings blowing over or people disintegrating. We never even see a mushroom cloud. We never even know who started the war. Instead, Testament is a tragedy about manners: It asks how we might act toward one another, how our values might stand up, in the face of an overwhelming catastrophe."[5]

Christopher John reviewed Testament in Ares Magazine Special Edition #2 and commented that "Testament may not change any lives, but it is bound to change the way some people think. Considering the subject matter, every little bit will help."[6]

Testament was nominated for one Academy Award, a Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander.

Home media

Testament was released by Paramount Home Video on Beta, VHS videocassette, Laserdisc and RCA's CED System in 1984.

The film was released on DVD in 2004 in an edition that contained three featurettes: Testament at 20, Testament: Nuclear Thoughts, and Timeline of the Nuclear Age; this edition has gone out of print.

As part of its 2013 agreement with Paramount Pictures, Warner Home Video made the film available in 2014 for purchase on MOD (Manufactured on Demand) DVD Recordable disc via its Warner Archive Collection.

See also


  1. "Testament (1983)". Box Office Mojo.
  2. "Carol Amen, 53; Wrote 'Testament' - Los Angeles Times". Articles.latimes.com. 1987-07-11. Retrieved 2014-04-26.
  3. "Testament (1983)". thisdistractedglobe.com.
  4. "Testament (1983)". Rotten Tomatoes.
  5. Ebert, Roger (1983-11-04). "Testament Movie Review & Film Summary (1983)". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2014-04-26.
  6. John, Christopher (1983). "Film". Ares Magazine. TSR, Inc. (Special Edition 2): 61.
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