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The Twilight Zone (Episode #127): “The Old Man in the Cave” (airdate 11/8/63)
The Plot: After a massively destructive atomic event, a small band of people try to rebuild a life, aided by the advice of a leader that gets all of his marching orders from a mysterious, unseen old man in a cave – just like the title promises!
The Goods: With everything in ruins, it’s tough to think straight. We aren’t used to survival mode, and when we drop into it, the results are pretty ugly. Rod Serling knew this, and it was paramount in his creation of The Twilight Zone. This episode is one of the most direct examples of the show’s philosophy that faith and courage should endure even when fear and violence promise to be our salvation.
The story here focuses on the pacific Mr. Goldsmith (John Anderson) as he barely holds on to his leadership position – one he utilizes to organize the people left alive in the area.
At the beginning, his crew finds a trove of canned food, and the ensuing argument underlies just how tenuous our relationships can be when all the McDonald’s in the world have been firebombed out of existence. They decide to wait for Goldsmith to return from the cave to let them know whether the old man inside approves of the food, or believes that the cans are contaminated with radiation. When the food is deemed inedible, it doesn’t relieve the tension, and when paramilitary leader Major French (James Coburn) shows up, the rubber band is poised to snap.
What’s most interesting about this episode is how every element of its allegory could have swung the other direction.
In this version of the set up, French asserts himself as an authority through force and convinces a weakened group of survivors to eat the canned food after exposing the old man in the cave to be a computer. Of course, the food was irradiated, just as the computer foretold, and everyone dies except Mr. Goldsmith. Lesson learned.
However, the story just as easily could have gone the other way. French could have been an aggressive but necessary force in freeing a group of people from the heretical worship of a computer that’s steering them in the wrong direction. The food could have been fine, and Mr. Goldsmith could have been burned at the stake for relying too much on technology instead of listening to his fellow man.
All of it hinges on Serling choosing between making the food poisonous or not (or, really, short story writer Henry Slesar choosing). One outcome proves that faith and the utilization of tech are superior. The other shows that humanity is supreme in the face of soulless mechanics. Both are lessons that previous entries have made, so it seems realistic to believe that this episode could have gone exactly in the other direction.
More than just high concept flexibility, this is one of the more compelling stories as a result of strong acting from Anderson and the powder keg friction of Coburn (as if there were any doubt). The two men manage to be representational without losing their core DNA as frail meat sacks trying to stay alive in a world that doesn’t encourage it. The wall to wall tension helps bring a sense of realism to an unimaginable scenario that we imagine all the time in our art.
Once again, a fascination with nuclear death rears its ugly head, and this time the wisdom comes from a circuit board.
What do you think?
The Trivia: Serling, for one, welcomed our robot overlords.
On the Next Episode: Robby the Robot makes another appearance when a woman has to take care of her hateful uncle’s robot after his death.
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.