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The Twilight Zone (Episode #59): “A Hundred Yards Over The Rim” (airdate 4/7/61)
The Plot: The one man in a wagon train with any hope left of 1847 California, tells his wife, sick child, and traveling companions that he’ll walk just over the next sand rim and one hundred yards to find water. If he can’t find any, they’ll turn back.
The Goods: There are at least two main themes working in this wonderful story. The first is desperation. As Christian Horn (Cliff Robertson) leads a group across the arid sands of mid 19th century New Mexico, the immediate world that we’re dropped into is one without water or food or medicine. The few wagoners left are so deluded by thirst and hunger that they want to turn back – as if going back to Ohio would somehow be easier than pressing on. They’ve made a huge gamble with their lives, and now it looks like that gamble has come to collect its winnings.
That theme continues on as Christian promises a quick trip over the next rim to see if there’s a natural spring, some game to hunt, a bit of salvation. What he finds is 1961.
He’s injured when a massive truck flies by on the freeway and he jumps to avoid becoming road kill, but he stumbles his way to a roadside cafe a mile up the road. What should be a three-meal-a-day building that doles out all sorts of food and drink looks a hell of a lot different to a traveler who’s been in the desert for a year.
Fortunately, the owners are warm and hospitable. Joe (John Crawford) brings the odd man from the past in, and Mary Lou (played by an actress who, no lie, is named Evans Evans) takes a look at his wound. All of it is done with such careful consideration both to how a man thrown into modernity would react and to how the people of the present would respond to him. Everyone is cautious, especially when Christian spots the calendar and loses his mind a bit.
All of that leads smoothly into the second theme of the story – what the future has that we need. What’s beautiful about this episode, is that it’s not immediately clear what purpose Christian sinking into the future serves. His group needs food and water, and here he is gallivanting off to hang out with truck drivers and eat pie. Of course, as soon as Mary Lou pulls out a little bottle of penicillin, it becomes clear. The future has something that his time doesn’t have: a cure for his son’s fever.
Instead of belaboring the point, they call a doctor (Ed Platt) who tells them that he pretty much appears to be sane despite talking crazy. Hell, even his antique gun looks like it was made just last year. All signs point to everyone either being collectively insane or Christian being from the past. Obviously, they call the cops.
The episode then delivers the only element it hasn’t shoved in yet – a chase scene. It’s a fantastic shot of adrenaline after a dramatically engaging world of circumstance and dialogue. Christian runs from the diner and into the sun. The police (with Joe in tow) catch up and chase him toward the rim.
On the other side, Christian finds himself back in 1847 with the medicine his son needs and a renewed understanding of what his journey means. It’s not just about travelers trying to find a promised land in California. It’s about pioneers who will build the new world that he finds.
Back in the future, Joe and his wife puzzle over Christian’s disappearance and a gun Joe finds in the sand that looks like it’s been lying out there for a hundred years.
In the end, this is a concept we can absolutely apply to our own life. It’s easy to see Christian as a desperate man in a backward, limited time, but how would the plot be changed if the outset took place in 2011? What does the future have that we need?
The Trivia: Another reason this episode works so well is because, alongside a challenging story, they packed a ton of recognizable faces into the mix. It’s wonderful seeing Chief from Get Smart play the doctor. John Crawford was a big star and appeared in a lot of great movies. John Astin (aka Mr. Addams) is in the wagon train, and the star of the whole show, Cliff Robertson, played Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. Talk about time travel.
On the Next Episode: A group tries to sleep through a robbery.
Catch-Up: Episodes covered by Twitch / Episodes covered by FSR
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.