Retro Recaps: The Twilight Zone (Season 5, Episode 7) – The Old Man in the Cave
With recent developments revolving around COVID-19, this country has found itself in a deadly game of tug-of-war. With people demanding their “freedom” to do whatever they wish in the face of a pandemic that (as of this posting) is still infecting and causing deaths with no signs of a readily-available vaccine, I couldn’t help but feel that even here…I was thinking of a Twilight Zone episode I hadn’t seen in years.
It turns out that on Social Media, some others were thinking the same as I was…leading me to craft this little Retro Recap of the Season 5 episode, The Old Man in the Cave.
In an unnamed town with nary a working automobile or electricity, we see a number of disheveled people huddled around some boxes of canned food. One person claims the food is “pre-bomb,” and safe to consume. However, another says they should wait to hear what The Old Man has to say about the food.
Eventually, a man named Goldsmith (John Anderson) returns to the townspeople to deliver a message from The Old Man in the Cave. Along with advising them all to prepare for inclement weather (which could spread radioactive contamination), Goldsmith says the Old Man has proclaimed that the canned goods are toxic, and are not to be consumed.
It is then that the camera whip-pans, and we find Rod Serling standing in the street, delivering his opening monologue:
What you’re looking at is a legacy that man left to himself. A decade previous, he pushed his buttons, and a nightmarish moment later, woke up to find that he had set the clock back a thousand years. His engines, his medicines, his science, were buried in a mass tomb, covered over by the biggest gravedigger of them all: a bomb. And this is the earth 10 years later, a fragment of what was once a whole, a remnant of what was once a race. The year is 1974, and this…is The Twilight Zone.
As the townspeople begin to dispose of the cans, a Jeep pulls into town, with four armed men. One of them gets out, and introduces himself as Major French (James Coburn). He claims that the town is now to be placed under a Constabulary, and expects full cooperation from the people.
When Goldsmith speaks up against this declaration, French threatens to hang him for insubordination if he doesn’t cooperate. Claiming that there are only around 500 people left alive after the bombing, French says that his command is the new way to retain order in a lawless country. Upon seeing the canned goods, French inquires why the townspeople haven’t partaken of them yet.
Hearing about how The Old Man in the Cave cautioned the town against this, French laughs, telling how he’s heard tales of other “cults” the meager populations across the country have gathered into, and assumes that this is more of the same.
When Goldsmith offers scant details as to the identity of The Old Man in the Cave, French demands they find out more about the town’s reclusive benefactor.
French, his men, and the townspeople are led to the cave, which is sealed shut by a metal door. When French asks how the Old Man can survive inside the cave, Goldsmith claims he does not know…only that notes and messages are given to him, and this information he relays to the townspeople.
French’s men then use a hand grenade to blast open the door, but the metal holds strong. Yelling through the door to The Old Man that ‘this is just the beginning,’ French and his men return to the town with the citizens…where they then start passing out the canned goods to the townspeople!
Goldsmith claims that the canned goods could be poisoned by Strontium-90 (a radioactive isotope), but French calmly eats from one of the cans, and feeling no ill effects, once again claims the stoic man is overreacting.
Goldsmith however, does not relent. He claims that they don’t know where the cans came from or who processed them. If the food has been poisoned by radiation, they’ll be dead in 10 days.
But French’s words and actions, are more than enough to cause the starving townspeople to ignore Goldsmith. He again pleads with them as they begin scooping up the canned foods, before one of French’s soldiers breaks into a store with the words “contaminated” on the door, and starts passing out liquor bottles from inside!
By nightfall, the townspeople (sans Goldsmith), have opened the food and drank from the liquor supplies. During this time, French has a conversation with a man named Jason (John Marley), before Goldsmith comes over to him.
French taunts Goldsmith for not partaking in the food and spirits, claiming he (French) has helped these people, and inquires why the stubborn Goldsmith does not “unbend.”
“You came as intruders,” says Goldsmith, “But now you’re murderers. Only God knows how many people will die because of tonight. The Old Man in the Cave warned us about this food dozens of times. He warned us.”
The talk irritates French who then loudly calls for attention, claiming Goldsmith has lied to the townspeople, and has made up The Old Man to hold sway over them all. Soon, he has riled up the townspeople, and they take Goldsmith back to the cave, demanding he open the metal door.
Once again, Goldsmith pleads for reason, claiming that they should think logically. Though they have suffered hardships over the past 10 years, The Old Man has succeeded in helping to keep them alive. He claims they shouldn’t need to intrude, but his words fall on deaf ears, and he consents to their demands.
Activating a hidden switch in the nearby rocks, the metal door opens, and the townspeople and soldiers rush inside. What they find causes them to come to a halt.
There is no Old Man…only a large computer, it’s lights blinking, and the sound of information processing through it’s system.
French demands that the people need to kill their ‘tyrant’ if they are to be free of it, and Goldsmith quietly watches as the townspeople destroy the machine.
Some time later, we see the town, with it’s citizenry strewn about it’s streets, unmoving…including Major French and his soldiers.
We then hear movement, and see Goldsmith, walking about, quietly looking at those who have been poisoned by the canned food and liquor. As his eyes fall upon French’s corpse, he speaks aloud.
“When we talked about the ways that men could die,” says Goldsmith, “we forgot about the chief method of execution. We forgot faithlessness, Mr 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…I guess I’ll never know.”
As Goldsmith walks further among the dead, Serling delivers his closing monologue:
Mr Goldsmith: survivor. An eyewitness to man’s imperfection, an observer of the very human trait of greed, and a chronicler of the last chapter. The one reading, ‘suicide.’ Not a prediction of what is to be, just a projection of what could be. This has been…The Twilight Zone.
And that was The Old Man in the Cave.
The episode does leave several questions unanswered, such as the relationship Goldsmith has with “The Old Man.” The image of the perfect-and-clean machine sitting in a cave feels quite “artificial,” let alone we do not know how the computer stays powered on. Did Goldsmith craft it? Did he know of it’s capabilities prior to the bombing, and hid it in the cave? There are a number of questions here that Serling chooses not to answer, instead focusing on the battle of wills between Goldsmith, and Major French.
Throughout the episode, Anderson’s portrayal of Goldsmith is one that never wavers in his “faith” (or the chiseled, placid look upon actor John Anderson’s face). Though he does give-in and open the metal door in the end, he presides over the townspeople mainly like a priest trying to keep his “flock” alive in these troubled times. He will offer words of encouragement, but he will not strike back at those in the town who come against him.
It is notable how Serling has given these people a man-made savior in the form of the machine, but unlike man himself, it is not prone to emotions like selfishness or greed…just giving calculations and information that is able to keep the people alive, even through the worst of conditions. It’s information looks to be a help to everyone in the town, and survival is not based on a caste or class system.
It is also notable that some in the beginning of the episode, defend The Old Man. It’s prediction at the start of 80% inclement weather shows it doesn’t always get everything perfect, but has gotten enough right to keep the people willing to listen to Goldsmith for over 10 years. There is talk about how the people attempted to grow crops in areas that were deemed unsuitable by The Old Man, resulting in dead or mutated vegetation that most likely made them put more faith in the machine’s messages.
The portrayal of Major French could easily have been turned into a belligerent tyrant, but Coburn imbues his character as a man who is looking for logical answers to Goldsmith’s hold over the people, even as he and his men are brandishing weapons.
We even find out that French went to college and that he seems well-studied, with a personality that is more realist. French has to see The Old Man in order to believe Goldsmith. He has to taste the food before he’ll believe it to be poisoned. Without the proof, French believes he is justified in his actions, and that he is “helping” instead of “hurting.”
The Old Man in the Cave is an episode that uniquely blends together faith and logic, leaving the viewer to ponder the events of what has happened. In the end, with The Old Man destroyed, Goldsmith is on his own, with the viewer to assume that he will most likely try to get by as best he can, but now runs the risk that without guidance, he may die soon.
Much of the episode feels pretty simplified in where it’s going, with the townspeople’s mob mentality putting me in mind of other instances in The Twilight Zone, from the episodes The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, or The Shelter. Unlike those episodes, the violence here does not reach the nightmarish levels we’ve seen before, as the people here are merely looking for hope, guidance, and a possible break from the miserable life they’ve lived after the bombs fell.
Much like Serling’s underrated episode from season 4 titled He’s Alive, The Old Man in the Cave is a story that shows there are themes made almost 50 years ago, that can still resonate in today’s time, but just under different circumstances.
Times may change, but there are certain elements of humanity it seems, that are everlasting…and in some cases, some of those elements can still prove dangerous to many.