Rod Serling managed to tap into the essence of human nature and boil it down so simply that decades and decades after his work was released, new generations are still learning from him the psychological construction of the human spirit and will to survive. And he’s relayed that message, time and time again, without pulling his punches, showing that the survivors are often a lone few and those that perish did so from their own actions.
Two months ago in this column, I looked at “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”, which depicted a comfortable society slowly collapsing from within due to suspicion and fear of The Other when their creature comforts disappeared. And for this month’s column, we are looking at that episode’s spiritual sequel, “The Old Man In The Cave”, which shows what happens when that comfortable society has already fallen and how man’s baser instincts show that history repeats itself even when the setting has changed.
The year is 1974 and what was the United States is trying to recover from a nuclear war. The country is full of stragglers who, due simply to proximity, combine where they can to form any kind of society and simply survive despite a desolate wasteland and absolutely no future.
In one of these unnamed towns, the population of twenty or so stand around a heap of rations and canned goods, wondering whether they can use it to survive. But they must wait for their leader, Mr. Goldsmith (John Anderson), to return from his visit with the Old Man, who resides in a cave away from the town and helps the people in determining which food is not contaminated and when dangerous weather will hit.
When Goldsmith returns, he sadly informs the townsfolk that all of the food they’ve uncovered is contaminated and they’ll have to look for something else for the time being. Despite their disappointment, the people of the town trust Mr. Goldsmith and, more specifically, the Old Man in his cave. But ten years of struggling to survive gets even worse when a group of four military men, led by Major French (James Coburn), enter the town and question the wisdom of the Old Man.
By quickly asserting his authority with a literal boot to Goldsmith’s neck, French and his cronies take over the town and demand to know who the Old Man is. As French slowly turns the town to his side, Goldsmith must determine if the Old Man should stay locked away and safe forever or become yet another victim of this endless war for survival.
In general, The Twilight Zone functions as a morality play and many of the same themes run through the original series’ five seasons. It isn’t difficult to place Rod Serling, the creator, oft-writer, and producer of the program, in terms of where he stands in regards to morals, ethics, and philosophy. But what perhaps doesn’t get a lot of attention is how wide-ranging the worldview presented is.
I mentioned earlier how “The Old Man In The Cave” serves as a spiritual sequel to “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”. And both have similar plots: an event occurs within a close-knit community and said community begins to unravel with suspicion and fear, leading to violence and death. But the peculiar thing is that despite the similar structures of the episodes, both come at the same problem from different angles entirely.
“Monsters” dealt with the loss of technology and expected comfort. When the neighborhood loses power and the use of everything from lights to the use of vehicles, the neighbors begin to suspect each other which leads to their downfall. In “Old Man”, we discover that the Old Man is, in actuality, a computer feeding Goldsmith the facts of food products, weather scenarios, and where farming land is not poisoned. How does the community in “Old Man” react to this? By destroying the computer, feeling betrayed that a human wasn’t telling them how to live.
It’s a fascinating difference between the town obsessively needing technology in “Monsters” and the town revolting against it in “Old Man”. But despite the differences in reaction to the reliance on technology itself, the core theme is the same: man, when faced with suspicion and fear, will destroy that which helps them which, in turn, leads to their own demise.
“Monsters” ended in a tragic way, with the entire neighborhood turning against one another and eventually killing what they thought was an intruder who, in fact, was a fellow neighbor. “Old Man” gets much darker. As Goldsmith abstains from going against the Old Man’s directions, he ends up the only survivor. The rest of the town perishes, first from doubting the Old Man’s advice, emotion-free as it was, and then from destroying him.
As Serling narrates at the episode’s end, as Goldsmith walks through the town he calls home, with bodies at every step:
“Mr Goldsmith, survivor. An eyewitness to man’s imperfection. An observer of the very human trait of greed. And a chronicler of the last chapter—the one reading “suicide”. Not a prediction of what is to be, just a projection of what could be. This has been The Twilight Zone.”
The end is so much darker than usual that even the typically verbose Serling can’t “wow” us with too many words, as the sobering possibility of man destroying themselves takes root in the viewer. Keep in mind, the episode was produced in 1963, during the height of the Cold War. Death was knocking on the door and Serling’s thoughts weren’t necessarily revolved around providing compelling entertainment but rather a possible fiction becoming an all too true reality.