“A Hundred Yards Over The Rim” (season 2, episode 23; originally aired 4/7/1961)
In which the past comes to the present
This week, we have two episodes that use exactly the same idea—someone travels 100 years into the future—yet use that idea in different ways to say different things. In this episode, the time traveling conceit is the whole point. Sure, there are a few other things that happen here and there, but time travel is basically the deus ex machina required to get our cowboy time traveler back to the past, where he can deliver penicillin to his dying son. In the next episode, time travel is just a device used to fuel an ironic twist ending. The second episode is quite a bit better than the first, but I’m not immediately sure just why that is.
One of the interesting things about these two episodes is that they both appear to have been filmed in roughly the same wilderness locations. Twilight Zone occasionally headed out into the desert to create landscapes that seemed alien, and here, the show used the desert to make us feel the isolation of America’s past and its potentially post-apocalyptic future. The show’s smart location work has always been one of its greatest assets, and I’m tempted to say that the best thing about “A Hundred Yards Over The Rim” is how it’s filmed. Director Buzz Kulik (who would later direct the classic made-for-TV movie Brian’s Song) isolates his star in lots of long shots that show off the landscape. My favorite is the one screencapped above, in which the lost cowboy stumbles down a long sand dune, looking for all the world like that famous shot in Lawrence Of Arabia where Lawrence can be spotted coming across the desert almost like a mirage. The episode doesn’t have the time to indulge in that that shot had, but it follows the same principle: one man amid the endless.
The other ace in the hole for “A Hundred Yards” is its stellar cast. Cliff Robertson plays the lead, Chris Horn, a man who embarks on a desperate search for water to save his ailing son and stumbles over 100 years into the future, landing in 1961. Robertson was no stranger to science fiction, and his likable everyman persona always suited the weird premises he ended up working with well. He’s probably most famous for his work in Charly, an adaptation of the science fiction story Flowers For Algernon that won him an Academy Award, or his work as Uncle Ben in Spider-Man. He’s not enough to save “Hundred Yards” from a repetitive story and one of the most obvious depictions of time travel ever, but he sure makes everything that much more fun to watch.
The rest of the cast is full of ringers as well. John Astin turns up for a bit as Charlie, and he’s always a fun presence. That’s to say nothing of the quietly commanding John Crawford, who plays the café owner who seems so intrigued by the idea that this guy who wandered into his café could really be from the past. Edward Platt—best known as the Chief on Get Smart—also turns up as a doctor who gradually realizes he’s in a Twilight Zone episode. It’s the sort of role Rod Serling tossed into episodes like this quite often—since he often needed a traditional voice of authority to say, “Hey, all this wild stuff is really happening”—but Platt makes the man warm and somewhat funny. The only cast member I’m not a fan of is the awesomely named Evans Evans (as the café owner’s wife), who did good work in other projects but seems to strain to play along here.
The best portion of the episode comes early on, after Chris leaves behind the wagon train he’s traveling with for a desperate search and then lands in the future through no fault of his own. The first scene sets up the stakes of the episode nicely, and I like the way Serling’s script reminds us that lots and lots of pioneers died on their way out to California or other parts of the west. When you don’t have modern comforts or major highways, the western half of North America is a bear to get across, and the episode places us perfectly in the midst of this predicament.
Even better are the moments after Chris makes it to 1961. As he looks upon the electrical wiring or the long stretch of black highway that seems to have no purpose to him, the episode takes on an eerie, almost surreal quality. Saying, “Think how strange all of this would look to someone from the past!” is one of the older clichés out there in time travel stories, but the episode so effectively roots us in Chris’ head space that once he’s kneeling on that highway, trying to ascertain its purpose (shortly before a truck very nearly runs him over), you’re right there with him. Say, what is this strange strip of black rock laid out very straight in the middle of nowhere? It might seem like a road, but did aliens build one out here with the shifting sands all around?
Once Chris ends up at the café, however, the air slowly sinks out of the episode. The stark beauty of the first 10 minutes is replaced by an overly gabby section where Chris wanders around, remarking upon the crazy things all around him, and the locals just think he’s daft. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this—indeed, you need to have a scene like this in a time travel movie, if only so the protagonist doesn’t seem like an incurious idiot—but it goes on far, far too long, when all it really needs to establish are three things: what penicillin is, what happens to Chris’ son in the future, and what the people at the café ultimately conclude about Chris’ state of mind. I liked the idea that Chris was able to find out what his son will become in the future, which lets him know that he’s going to save the day, even if he doesn’t know how just yet. Yet the bulk of this is mostly there to remind us that, yes, people from the past would find our modern comforts strange and fascinating. Put another way, it’s like if Robert Zemeckis had made the scene where Doc Brown finds out Ronald Reagan is president in 1985 in Back To The Future go on for 15 minutes.
There’s a pretty good chase sequence to close out the episode, as Chris races up that twisting dune, dropping his rifle and choosing to grab the pills that will save his son instead, but then he simply ends up back in 1847, back with the wagon train, back to where he started from. At least in this case, he has some knowledge that the wagon train will make it out of its current predicament, that his son (or at least his future grandchildren) might live someday to see a world of highways and miracle drugs that tamp down infections and can even help with minor gunshot wounds. Yet the whole story closes with one of the most blatant up-and-back storytelling devices the show has deployed yet. No one really changes, and nothing really happens. There are moments of sheer beauty and wonder in “Hundred Yards”—moments that remind the viewer of the very best this show is capable of—but they’re crowded out by the approach of the rest of the scenes. Something like “The Invaders” worked so well because it chose to be stark throughout, and I wonder if that sort of approach wouldn’t have worked better here.
What a twist!: Chris escapes back into the past by running back over the rim. The café owner finds his gun lying in the sand, but the gun now comes apart as if it’s been lying in the sun for over a century.
- I like how Chris seems like he can recognize the people in the calendar hanging on the wall, when it’s a painting. “Yes! This is based on all of my friends back home!”
- The little scene at the start that lays out Chris’ place in the wagon train’s leadership and the relationships between him and the other people in it is really smartly written, directed, and acted. It lays out this little world with great economy, and we come to care about it quickly.
- Chris’ hat is pretty awesome. I wish to have one of my own.
“The Rip Van Winkle Caper” (season 2, episode 24; originally aired 4/21/1961)
In which the present goes to the future
As mentioned, this episode has a lot of superficial similarities with “Hundred Yards.” There’s the general idea of someone time traveling a century into the future. There’s the desert location. There’s the long sections filled with stark beauty, as the characters walk through the wasteland in which they find themselves. But the story here is an actual story, with twists and turns and things happening. Yes, it’s a rough cover version of Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, but that’s one of the greatest films of all time, and it features such a primal, appealing story that it seems tailor-made for TV shows to do very cursory spins on the whole concept. I’m not entirely sure what “Hundred Yards” had as its major theme, but it seemed to be something like, “The present seems pretty incredible when seen through different eyes.” Here, however, the theme is much simpler and much more powerful: “Human beings will always be possessed of certain terrible traits, and greed is chief among them.”
Our protagonists are four gold thieves, who have robbed a major stash of gold bars off a train headed to Fort Knox from California. Naturally enough, everybody in law enforcement in the tri-state area is after the guys, so they head for their hideout: a conveniently placed cave with an entrance that opens and closes, the better to allow them to hide their hiding place from the world at large. The cave is in the middle of nowhere, so it’s unlikely anyone will stumble upon it. In this cave, they plan to carry out the most daring part of their plan: They will enter suspended animation in several chambers provided for them by a professor named Farwell. They will sleep for 100 years. When they awake, no one will be looking for them, and they can head out into the world with their gold bars and no one being the wiser. (This is the stuff Glenn Beck advertisers’ dreams are made of.)
I’m starting to think the demarcating line between good and disappointing episodes of this show is really rather simple to define: The good episodes are ones that take the science fiction idea and treat it as a necessary bit of background information, while the disappointing ones are the ones that take the science fiction element and make it the whole point of the episode. “Hundred Yards” has its good qualities, but it’s ultimately done in by its inability to do anything with time travel that hasn’t been done 100 times before (and 100 times better). The time travel element in “Rip Van Winkle” is almost entirely incidental to the plot. It mostly exists to set up the ironic twist ending (which works so well because you’ve largely stopped thinking about how the guys are in the future) and to give a plausible explanation for why no one is looking for the biggest criminals in the area. We’ve all heard stories of criminals who pulled off some amazing heist, then seemingly evaporated into thin air. This episode suggests they’re just literally sleeping beneath a mountain.
Once you get past the suspended animation bit, however—and it’s a lovely bit of “realistic” time travel—the episode settles down to be a much more straightforward tale of human greed. The men ascertain that they are, indeed, in the future, thanks to the fact that a rock cracked one of their capsules and caused the man inside of it to die and wither down to his bones. They at first think they’re all alone, that the world might have destroyed itself through nuclear war, but once they see jet trails making lines across the sky, they realize there must be civilization somewhere. And so they set out on their trek across the desert to find it, gold strapped across their backs. If you’ve ever seen a story that proves there’s no honor among thieves, you probably know where this is going already.
The episode works so well because it very quickly boils everything down to a conflict between the older, smarter Farwell and the younger, darker DeCruz, who doesn’t hesitate to run over one of the other thieves when he insists that DeCruz drive the getaway car. There are some good stunts here—particularly for the TV of the time—and the car crash that DeCruz barely escapes from is legitimately thrilling. Farwell and DeCruz make sense on an archetypal level, and stranding them in the middle of a remote wilderness gets everything down to brass tacks very quickly. When Farwell loses his canteen and DeCruz taunts him with the water still sloshing around in his, you realize that things are going to head south very quickly, but the episode toys with you, prolonging the men’s agony and giving DeCruz more and more of Farwell’s gold bars (which he trades to the younger man for sips from his canteen).
When Farwell snaps and kills DeCruz, it’s one of the episode’s less convincing moments, perhaps because director Justus Addiss has to shoot around the violence, thus blunting it of some of its impact and savagery, but it’s still a moment that works because you’re sympathizing with Farwell, even as you’re realizing that, yeah, he probably should just give up on the damn gold and go get some water before he dies. He’s got a highway to walk on, so shouldn’t he come to a town sooner or later? But the episode gives you a good sense of his stubbornness and his refusal to give up on the fortune he lugs with him, even when you’re pretty sure he could just bury it and come back for it later. (Since the car crashes so close to the cave, I’m unsure why the guys don’t just put the gold back inside, seal it, and come back later, but that’s for wiser men than I to figure out.) Once again, Addiss makes the most of his bleak locations, and the actors really sell the notion that they’ve been walking for many miles without even the slightest sight of civilization, but for some planes in the sky. You really start to think they might have come to a world ravaged by war, with only a few survivors and military installations hanging on somewhere.
The ending is… well, it tries a little too hard to put an ironic twist on everything. I don’t hate the twist, and I like that it preserves the moral of greed being more trouble than it’s worth, but the idea that gold is easily manufactured in the future and, thus, nobody really cares about it at all is sort of silly to me. It feels a little too much like when episodes of ‘70s cop dramas would tell an essentially serious story about racism or something, then end with all of the cops smiling over a joke one of them just told. It’s not awful, but it feels like it wanders in from a different episode entirely. The stuff here that works works so well and is so damned bleak that it’s hard to get with the tone of the ending, which treks straight back to the center of the show’s wheelhouse. At the same time, there’s so much good here that it’s hard to hold the ending against the episode. This one isn’t spoken of in the same breath as the show’s best-known classics, but it deserves to be.
What a twist!: The gold Farwell labored so much to bring 100 years into the future turns out to be worthless. In the year 2061, we’ll all have gold, made for us at gold manufacturing plants.
- Oscar Beregi, Jr., does good work as Farwell. I like that he’s calibrated his accent to “foreign,” apparently. (Beregi was Hungarian, so I suspect it’s his natural accent, but it still sounds like an appealing European mish-mosh.)
- I’m wondering about the production realities of these two. Did Serling and company have a chance to shoot in some incredible location for a couple of weeks, so he wrote scripts to accommodate that reality? Anyone know anything?
- I like to imagine an alternate episode that’s about some kids in the year 2012 stumbling upon this cave and these four men sleeping inside it. I know the episode takes pains to explain how that wouldn’t happen, but it still got the part of me that wants to go back to 1945 and write stories for Amazing Stories thinking about it.
Next week: Zack finds out if the show needs its science fiction trappings to work in “The Silence” and heads to prison for “Shadow Play.”