Serling’s Re-Zoning Efforts: “The Old Man in the Cave”
Not every Twilight Zone episode was a Rod Serling original. Many of them were, but two dozen of his 92 Zone scripts were based on stories by other authors.
As I’ve shown throughout my “Re-Zoning” posts, which compare the original stories to their Twilight Zone counterparts, sometimes Serling kept a substantial portion of what the author wrote. Other times, he kept only the basic idea and made so many changes that it became almost a new tale.
“The Old Man in the Cave,” which first aired on November 8, 1963, falls more into the latter category.
It’s the one about a man named Goldsmith (played by the ever-reliable John Anderson, in his fourth and final Zone role) who’s trying to keep a small band of survivors alive in a post-apocalyptic world — in the “tenth illustrious year after the bomb,” as one of them says. Yep, the Cold War obviously got hot and the nuclear holocaust happened. It’s now 1974, Serling tells us.
(As always, spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen this one before or it’s been a while, consider fixing that first, then coming back. This blog is open 24/7.)
So how does Goldsmith do it? With the help of an unnamed, unseen “old man” who appears to be a sort of oracle. He gives weather forecasts and makes crop recommendations to help the survivors avoid radioactivity. If anyone finds canned goods, he can tell whether or not they’re safe to eat. (Pro-tip: If it wasn’t canned “pre-bomb”, you might as well throw it out, no matter how ravenous you feel.)
But it’s clear from the start that, despite the Old Man’s stellar track record, this weary bunch isn’t feeling particularly grateful. They follow his recommendations, yet grumbling is rife. Goldsmith seems to be the only one who believes in him completely.
Into this dry kindling Serling drops a lit match by the name of Major French. He rides in one day with a small band of commandos and takes over the town. French claims he’s there under some banner of authority to organize these small groups of survivors that he’s been encountering around the now sparsely-populated U.S. and instill some measure of discipline.
And French, played to villainous perfection by James Coburn, has no use for the Old Man or anyone loyal to him. He encourages the survivors to ignore his pronouncements and eat whatever they feel like. Goldsmith pleads with them to stick by the Old Man, but they are all too easily swayed by French’s bullying — and, no doubt, their gnawing hunger pains.
It isn’t long before French leads them in a coup. After everyone but Goldsmith has feasted on food that the Old Man told them was contaminated, they storm his cave and demand that he come out. All along, French has been insisting that the whole thing is a con game, and Goldsmith has tried to reason with them. In the end, though, he relents and opens the cave.
The Old Man, they discover, isn’t a man at all. He’s a computer. Before they can even recover from their astonishment, French encourages them to “kill it”. Only then, he claims, will they be free. Sure enough, they destroy it.
But their revolution is short-lived. Shortly thereafter, we see Goldsmith walking slowly among their fallen bodies. He stops at French’s prostrate form, and says:
“When we talked about the ways that men could die, we forgot the chief method of execution. We forgot faithlessness, Major French. Maybe you’re not to blame. Maybe if it weren’t you, it would have been someone else. Maybe this has to be the destiny of man. I wonder if that’s true. I wonder. I guess I’ll never know.”
But here’s something we do know: a lot of what we see in the episode came from Serling. Major French and Mr. Goldsmith are his creations.
We can absolutely credit writer Henry Slesar with the basics, yes. His story “The Old Man” also gives us a band of men and women trying to scratch out an existence some 10 years after the bomb hit, and they are indeed helped by an unseen Old Man. And they are just as anxious to learn who their mysterious benefactor is.
In fact, this very short short story opens on a meeting of “insurrectionists” who are trying to get the town people to storm the house on the hill (no cave in this rendition) where the Old Man resides. A group known as the “Governors,” who act as a sort of official guard force, are worried enough to have sent a young man named Tango to infiltrate the meeting and hopefully cool some tempers.
Tango tries his best to play devil’s advocate as he faces Sierra, the leading malcontent: “You speak of liberty, and the word is sweet. But tell me what the Village will do without the old man? Who will tell us when to plant our crops and where? Who will know which fields are safe for our seed, and which contaminated? Who will know when the storms will come, and when the rains will be radioactive?”
Sierra, though, is convinced the old man and his crew are motivated by “greed and a love of power.”
“The old man tells us how to plant our crops, and taxes the best we raise for him and his Governors. For a generation, we have worked to restore electric power to the Village, but every watt we produce is employed to light the stone house while we and our families live in darkness.”
This is an interesting wrinkle. For all that Serling added to the story, the business of power generation is one element that didn’t make it to the episode. It isn’t even addressed, leading Marc Scott Zicree, in The Twilight Zone Companion, to ask a logical question: “What has been powering the computer during the ten years since all-out nuclear war — and how did it get in that cave in the first place?”
I don’t think this is a serious defect. Serling still makes his point quite effectively, and the episode is so well-acted and produced that many first-time viewers may not even ask these questions, at least not right away. Still, it could have been pretty easily addressed. Even a line or two of dialogue about how they’ve been producing some electricity could have done it.
In fact, it could have explained why the survivors seem to turn so quickly. Given all that they owe the Old Man, one would expect Major French to have to work harder to get the crowd on his side. If, however, they had been given a reason to be harboring some simmering resentment, their revolt would make more sense. Instead, they seem like an ungrateful and fickle lot.
But maybe that’s Serling’s point. Humanity as a whole never comes off well in the Zone (hello, Maple Street). Yes, it’s obvious he believes we have the capacity to be better. Otherwise, it would make no sense to exhort us to improve — to work to uproot the fear, selfishness, suspicion, and bigotry that stain our hearts. But that doesn’t mean this stain is easily erased. Left to our own devices, we’re pretty bad.
That may explain why, consciously or subconsciously, Serling didn’t cast the survivors’ resentment in a more understanding light. In the end, it’s really not excusable.
Which is not to say some critics don’t try. The religious undertones are hard to miss, and they don’t sit well with Zicree. The Old Man is treated as a sort of deity, he notes, and when they turn on this god, the punishment is death.
“But, in actuality,” he writes, “a computer is not a god, it is a man-made tool, and the townsfolk’s insistence to know the true nature of their leader seems less an act of faithlessness than a natural human curiosity for vital information, a desire for democracy, for self-determination.”
All well and good, but we all know that the man who wrote such works as “The Obsolete Man” isn’t against self-determination. You’re in charge, yes, but you still need to use your brain. And given the Old Man’s track record, why in the world would any sane person turn on him?
Think about it. There are no instances of the Old Man making a prediction that later proved to be untrue. When the survivors are grumbling early on (even before French shows up), and Goldsmith is reasoning with them, they mention examples of times they ignored his advice and suffered the consequences. We even see them hold up an example of some mutated produce.
Unfortunately, humanity as a whole is populated by too few people like Mr. Goldsmith. Sooner or later, our spirits are low and our dissatisfaction is high. At times like that, a bombastic leader like French can make a surprising amount of headway, even among seemingly reasonable people.
“French is the equivalent of the serpent, and by yielding to his temptation, the villagers abdicate their particular Eden,” writes Zone expert Tony Albarella, who also notes the fact that Goldsmith’s survival is temporary. “This is the shadowy side of Serling’s humanistic perspective. The bleak events of the story give way to an even more grim ending: not just the death of the skeptics and the last faithful man, but an admission that the very traits that make us human might well lead to our utter destruction.”
Surveying the events of history, particularly the last hundred years, it’s hard to disagree. When the power goes out, how do we act? How about when we think the bombers are approaching and we don’t have a shelter? Or when we’re desperately hungry and some rabble-rouser tells us to gorge ourselves and ignore any warnings to the contrary?
So while I would never sneer at the “desire for democracy,” as Zicree puts it, I also can’t help recalling one of H.L. Mencken’s most sardonic quips: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
In the fast-moving denouement to Slesar’s story, Sierra convinces the survivors to storm the Old Man’s dwelling. Tango, who had run ahead to warn the Governors, is slain. So are the Governors, even as they try to barricade the entrance to the Old Man’s room. “Destroy him,” they tell the mob, “and you destroy the race.”
But, evidently full of righteous fury, that’s exactly what they do. “Then they killed the old man, the computer,” the story concludes. “It didn’t take the people long to die.”
This wasn’t the last we would see of Slesar in the fifth dimension, incidentally. His story “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” was adapted as well (though not by Serling) and broadcast later in Season 5. He was a popular writer for many years, with his stories appearing in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and many pulps, and he was a frequent contributor to Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
“He is famous for his use of irony and twist endings,” his Wikipedia entry notes. And so, of course, was Serling. Small wonder, then, that the two men helped produce such a memorable Twilight Zone episode.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!