Spotlight on Season 4: “No Time Like the Past”
What if you could change the past — not just in your personal life, but on a global scale by stopping something horrible?
That’s the central conceit of Twilight Zone‘s “No Time Like the Past,” and it’s an intriguing one. I’ll give it a full review at a later date, but for now, I want to focus on one scene in particular. Even if you’re not a fan of this episode (and not many fans give it high marks), I think we can appreciate what Rod Serling was saying — or more accurately, condemning — about halfway through the story.
For those who haven’t seen it (check here if you want to see how to watch it first), or haven’t seen it in a while, the story concerns a man named Paul Driscoll (Dana Andrews). He has a time-travel machine, and to his credit, he wants to help mankind, not just himself. So he travels back to three key moments earlier in the 20th century: the day Hiroshima, Japan, was bombed; a day when Adolf Hitler made a pre-World War II public appearance in Berlin, Germany; and the day the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed, one of the events that led the U.S. to enter World War I.
Driscoll’s intention is to stop these events. He’s convinced that the modern world, which he detests, could be changed for the better if he succeeds. Yet each time he fails. Convinced the past can’t be changed, he decides instead to go to a quiet little town called Homeville, Indiana, in 1881, to live out the rest of his life.
There he takes up residence at a local boarding house and meets Abigail Sloan (Patricia Breslin), a local school teacher. At dinner one night, they are joined by a Mrs. Chamberlain (who runs the boarding house), a local banker named Hanford, and another unnamed male boarder. As the scene opens, Hanford is launching into a little soliloquy:
“I tell you, Mrs. Chamberlain, that until this government of ours assumes its rightful place of responsibility in the world, we will remain an isolated, terribly provincial static community of states. Do you know what I say we should do about it? I’ll tell you what we should do. We should take the American fleet, send it over to the Orient, and plant the American flag.
“Then on down to Australia, then back across the Pacific to South America, planting the American flag as we go. Planting her high. Planting her deep. Planting her proud.”
The unnamed male boarder is ready to applaud. The others look uncomfortable. “You ought to run for office, Mr. Hanford,” Mrs. Chamberlain dryly comments.
“Believe me, my dear lady, I’ve thought of it,” Hanford says. “But finance comes first. It’s the lifeblood of the nation. And the bank needs me. Hey there, Mr. Driscoll, what are your international views?”
We viewers already know they diverge sharply from Hanford’s, but Driscoll, in a vain attempt to avoid an argument, tries to sidestep the question: “I don’t have any, Mr. Hanford.”
“Of course you do, man, of course you do,” Hanford insists. “Everybody has to have views as to the destiny of our country. Now, you take the case of the Indian wars five years ago. All this silly, conciliatory nonsense about giving the Indians lands — as if you could actually make savages understand treaties. Why, we should’ve had 20 George Custers and 100,000 men, and we should have just swept across the plains, destroying every redskin who faced us. And then we should’ve planted the American flag deep, high, and proud!”
Miss Sloan speaks up: “I think the country is tired of fighting. I think we were bled dry by the war. I think anything we can get by treaty as long as it saves lives is the proper course to pursue.”
This doesn’t sit well with Hanford: “Here, now, young lady. I trust this isn’t the pap you spoon-feed to your students. Treaties, indeed! Peace, indeed! Why, the virility of a nation is in direct proportion to its fighting qualities. We’ll live to see the day when this country fields an army of a million men, sweeping everything … *waves arm, topples glass* I’m sorry, Mrs. Chamberlain, I, uh — I get carried away.”
He looks across the table: “You some kind of pacifist, are you, Driscoll?”
“No, I’m just some kind of sick idiot who’s seen too many young men die because of too many old men like you who fight their battles at dining-room tables,” Driscoll retorts.
“I take offense at that remark, Mr. Driscoll,” Hanford says.
Replies Driscoll: “And I take offense at armchair warriors who don’t know what a shrapnel wound feels like, or what death smells like after three days in the sun, or the look in a man’s eyes when he’s minus a leg and his blood is seeping out. Mr. Hanford, you have a great enthusiasm for planting the flag deep. But you don’t have a nodding acquaintance with what it’s like to bury men in the same soil.”
“I’ll not sit here and take talk like that.”
“No, no. You’ll go back to your bank, and it’ll be business as usual until the next dinner time when you’ll give us another of your vacuous speeches about a country growing strong by filling its graveyards.”
He stands: “Well, you’re in for some gratifying times, Mr. Hanford, you can believe me. There’ll be a lot of graveyards for you to fill in Cuba and in France. Then all over Europe, and all over the Pacific. You can sit on the sidelines and wave your pennants because, according to your definition, this country is going to get virile as the devil. From San Juan to Incheon, we’ll show how red our blood is because we’ll spill it.
“There are two unfortunate aspects of this. One is, you won’t have to spill any. And the other is, you won’t live long enough to know I’m right.”
Driscoll walks off. In a nice touch of irony, the unnamed boarder says as he gapes after him: “A violent man!”
One can easily imagine a character like Hanford fitting in well in a time of social media. He seems to thinks the fact that he keeps up with the news is enough to make him an expert on national policy, and he’s only too eager to preach his warped, bellicose views to anyone in his immediate vicinity.
And, like so many others today, he has zero tolerance for an opposing point of view, no matter how calmly it’s stated. He refuses to ponder anything that doesn’t come from his own mouth. He scoffs at Sloan for teaching “pap” to her students, and he denounces anyone who doesn’t want to start 15 different unnecessary wars as a “pacifist.”
Small wonder that Hanford and his modern-day counterparts (which can be found on both ends of the political aisle) behave like bullies and resort to name-calling and insults when anyone dares to disagree with them. Their opinions rest not on research, reason and facts, but on emotion, bigotry, and misconceptions.
Something has been planted “high and deep,” all right, but it’s not the flag.
“No Time Like the Past” may not be a Twilight Zone classic, but this particular scene is a memorable one. “I enjoyed playing the jingoistic boarder,” actor Robert Cornthwaite later said.
And I think we can safely assume that Rod Serling — who certainly knew what a shrapnel wound felt like — enjoyed writing this dinner-table dust-up. For me, at least, it’s one of Season 4’s standout moments.
You can find other “Spotlight on Season 4” posts here.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!