Gimme “Shelter”: The Perils of Survival At Any Price
“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
― John Wooden
The fifth-dimensional equivalent? I’d put it this way: “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when he believes his life is in danger.”
Case in point: “The Shelter,” Rod Serling’s sobering look at a neighborhood full of average families who are happy to treat each other well … until the day when a nuclear bomb is apparently headed their way, and only one family has gone to the trouble and expense of building a bomb shelter. (If you haven’t watched it, or it’s been a while, go here.)
Serling excelled at entertaining us, but he never flinched from asking some tough questions. And here we’re left with two big ones:
1) If you had a shelter only big enough for you and your family — that had just enough supplies for all of you — what would you do if a missile was bearing down on you, and your neighbors were pleading for you to let them in?
2) If you were one of the families who had ignored all the warning signs of the nuclear age, and never bothered to take precautions against the worst-case scenario, how would you react when that missile was airborne? Would you accept your fate? If not, what would you do if the neighbor who did have a shelter refused to let you in?
I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure which side of the door I’d least like to be on.
And that’s Serling’s point. In a radio interview with Bob Crane around the time “The Shelter” was broadcast, he freely admitted he didn’t have the answers.
But Serling had a finely-tuned conscience and a true sense of humanity. So he poured this dilemma into one of the most searing half-hours that The Twilight Zone had yet attempted. He held up a mirror — to all of us, himself included.
Anyone who doesn’t at least flinch at the reflection that stares back at us must lack a pulse. Because the ugly attitudes that erupt in the face of imminent destruction look like something we’d see on Maple Street.
Serling may not hand us an answer, fully wrapped and ready to use. He poses, in effect, another question: What are we saving?
Is it just our lives? Is that it? If so, will we sacrifice anything to save it? A strong desire to preserve our own lives is perfectly understandable, but does it justify any behavior we believe serves that end? Will we knock everyone else aside? Trample anyone who gets in our way?
Because if the answer is yes, we’re not saving anything. Nothing worth having, anyway. That’s what Serling is telling us.
What good is a living body if it houses a soul so corrupt that it jettisons, at the first sign of danger, the humanity that makes it worth anything in the first place? When we tiptoe through the rubble after everyone else has been blown to smithereens, what have we gained?
What is life in a graveyard? What is victory when civilization has been stripped away?
Some critics consider Serling’s writing too heavy-handed in this episode. “The people are clearly cardboard cutouts being moved around as the story dictates,” Marc Scott Zicree writes in “The Twilight Zone Companion.”
Even the director, Lamont Johnson, had mixed feelings: “That was Rod in one of his messianic moods. It was too uptight with its own self-righteousness, I think. I found it an interesting idea, I think the thesis was excellent, but I think its devices and its general style of writing were a little too pompous.”
If “The Shelter” lacks subtlety, though, let’s consider a couple of factors. One is that it was forged during a time of genuine national fear and dread. The Cold War was in full swing. The very month that the episode aired, President Kennedy authorized the Community Fallout Shelter Program. The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred just one year later.
Secondly, Serling was dealing with a very serious issue — the direst one imaginable, in fact, and one that had left him in knots — and doing it within the confines of a 25-minute teleplay, not a two-hour feature film. A little bluntness, I believe, is forgivable.
I’m with Larry Gates, who played Dr. Stockton, the character who’s built the shelter in question: “It was a first-rate script.” And I like what Tony Albarella, editor of “As Timeless as Infinity,” said about the episode:
The lives of the Stockton family and their neighbors are spared. This is not salvation, however, but merely destruction of a different sort. These once-tranquil suburbanites have revealed the ugliness and brutality of their true selves; were they instead to have perished in a fiery holocaust, the conclusion could not be more chilling.
That’s because they faced the “true test,” and they failed. What about the rest of us? Serling’s challenging script encourages us to find out — before it’s too late.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!