Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Conflicted State of Mind

Causarano (Albert Salmi): What's your pleasure, Lieutenant? How many men have to die before you're satisfied?

Katell (Dean Stockwell): Off hand, all of them. No matter who they are or where they are. If they're the enemy, they get it. First day of the war or last day of the war, they get it.

It seems to me that it is in the context of war that the great matters of human existence are addressed, and those stories are particularly soul searching in the artistic efforts in the first couple of decades after a major conflict.

The artists who take on that topic tend to fall into two camps. Both agree that the costs of war are horrific, but one camp tends to see those sacrifices as necessary for the achievement of the ultimate goal while the other tends to see the costs of war as being too high, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

In the case of World War II, that period ran from roughly 1945 to 1965, neatly including the entire run of the first incarnation of the Twilight Zone. Series creator Rod Serling fell into the latter camp, and the episodes of the series that dealt with war, be it World War II or another clash, reflected that conflicted state of mind.

World War II provided particularly fertile ground for such introspection because both camps agreed that not only are the costs of war horrific but also that defeating the Axis powers was vital. It was a conflict within a conflict. Even so there was genuine anguish, it seems to me, in the work by Serling and many of his contemporaries when it dealt with World War II.

The episode of the Twilight Zone that first aired on this night in 1961, "A Quality of Mercy," found the remnants of a World War II U.S. infantry unit watching a cave in the Philippines from their hillside perch. Some Japanese soldiers, most of them apparently wounded, were holed up in the cave, and American shelling had done little to dislodge them.

The date was Aug. 6, 1945, the day that a nuclear weapon was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, accelerating the end of World War II. That was unknown to anyone in the Twilight Zone episode until later, after the bomb had been dropped. In the meantime, the infantrymen on that hill found themselves under the command of a gung–ho lieutenant played by Dean Stockwell.

This lieutenant had it in mind for the unit to undertake a virtually suicidal assault on the Japanese soldiers who were holed up in that cave.

He was, as the company sergeant (Albert Salmi) said, a "Johnnie come lately" whose desire to demonstrate his efficiency as an officer repelled the war–weary members of the infantry unit.

Then one of those supernatural Twilight Zone moments occurred. The lieutenant dropped his binoculars on the ground, bent over to pick them up — and he was transformed into a Japanese officer on Corregidor in 1942. The situation was similar to the one the lieutenant had just left. Japanese soldiers were watching a cave from a hillside perch. Inside the cave were maybe two dozen American soldiers, most of them wounded.

And the lieutenant found himself having the same conversation he had been having with that sergeant — only the roles were reversed.

It was a typical Twilight Zone switcheroo — followed by a reverse switcheroo in which Stockwell was back with his infantry unit in the Philippines. As far as his comrades were concerned, no time had passed at all. They were unaware of the game–changing experience he had just had.

He was hesitant to give the order to move out — and during that hesitation word reached the unit of the atomic bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima.

In a relatively small but pivotal role, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy was the one who broke the news to the rest of them. They were told that command expected the Japanese to surrender as a result. The unit was ordered to pull back, wait for a few days and see what happened as a result.

Stockwell was in kind of a daze, and Salmi told him not to worry, that there would be other wars, "other human beings you can knock off."

And Stockwell could only say, "I hope not."

As for Nimoy, Star Trek was still about five years in the future. He had been in movies (sometimes uncredited) and made guest appearances on other TV shows, but he didn't become a household word until Star Trek and Mr. Spock.