Throughout the years, the concept of love and relationships has popped up in many shows, often as Valentine’s Day approaches.
In February of 1963, it just so happened that the broadcast date for a new Twilight Zone episode, fell on that fated day. And with it, brought the tale of an Appalachian love triangle, between flaxen-haired Ellwyn Glover (Laura Devon), the handsome Billy-Ben Turner (James Best), and the raven-haired Jesse-Belle Stone (Anne Francis).
At the Glover’s annual barn dance, Luther Glover (George Mitchell) praises the bountiful harvest that he and his neighbors have collected, along with an announcement: his daughter Ellwyn Glover, is to be wed to Billy-Ben Turner.
However, not everyone in attendance is happy for the couple, notably Jess-Belle Stone, who quickly leaves. Billy follows her outside, where Jess claims that she still longs for the time when they were together. She feels that Billy is only marrying Ellie for her family’s wealth, but Billy claims that isn’t so.
Before he returns to the dance, Jess asks Billy to tell his bride-to-be, not to start making her wedding dress just yet.
“Why should I tell her a thing like that?” replies Billy, curiously.
“She ain’t married you yet, Billy-Ben,” says Jess, sternly. “Maybe she never will.”
It is then that Rod Serling’s voice is heard, as we see Jess watch the lovers embrace, before storming off:
The Twilight Zone has existed in many lands in many times. It has it’s roots in history, in something that happened long, long ago and, got told about and handed down from one generation of folk to the other. In the telling the story gets added to and embroidered on, so that what might have happened in the time of the Druids is told as if it took place yesterday in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Such stories are best told by an elderly grandfather on a cold winter’s night by the fireside, in the southern hills, of the Twilight Zone.
Jess-Belle is next seen at the home of a woman named Granny Hart (Jeanette Nolan), whom the locals claim to be a witch. Granny just laughs this off, and inquires why the girl has come to her.
Jess claims she wants the old woman to help her make Billy-Ben love her again, but upon being asked for money for the old woman’s services, the girl claims she has none…but is willing to pay ‘any price.’
With those words, Granny pulls out a small bottle from a covered shelf. Jess drinks it’s contents, but suddenly flinches! After a few moments, her eyes open, and Granny Hart claims that once Billy sees her, he’ll never have eyes for another.
Jess-Belle then returns to the barn dance, where she interrupts a dance-circle, and catches Billy’s eye. Just as Granny Hart promised, he becomes enchanted by her, and as Ellwyn and the others watch, the two walk out of the barn!
Ellwyn’s mother and father immediately have harsh words for Billy turning his back on their daughter, but Ellwyn claims she knows what happened: “Jess-Belle bewitched him.”
Some ways off, Jess-Belle and Billy lay in a field, talking of their future together. Suddenly, Billy notes the moon overhead going down, causing Jess to suddenly claim she has to get home.
Once there, she rushes for her room, ignoring the entreaties of her mother. As the clock tolls The Witching Hour, Jess collapses to the floor of her room, and in a puff of smoke, turns into a leopard.
Some time later, Billy comes to Jess, and gives her the ring he had given Ellwyn, claiming it now belongs to Jess. He also speaks how he has made plans with a preacher, and how her mother will make her a wedding dress, but Jess seems perturbed by all this.
She claims she needs to go away, but as Billy grabs her arm not wanting her to leave, she lashes out a hand at him…leaving three claw marks raked across the side of his face!
She then rushes back to Granny Hart, claiming she feels an emptiness inside. It is then that Granny claims that she really is a witch, and reveals the price Jess paid for Billy-Ben: her soul. Granny also reveals that because of this, Jess has also become a witch!
“You paid the price,” she tells the girl. “Take what you paid for.”
After several days of doubt, Jess puts aside her fears, and decides to heed the old woman’s advice, soon giving in to Billy’s request to be wed soon.
Sometime later, Jess-Belle comes across Ellwyn Glover picking wildflowers. The two trade ‘quiet barbs’ with each other, before Jess tells Ellwyn to watch out for a wildcat that’s been seen in the area.
However, Ellwyn claims her father is rounding up a number of men (including Billy) to take care of the creature, before morning the next day.
Jess returns home, where her mother works to hem her wedding dress. When she claims she saw Ellwyn out in the fields looking ‘sickly,’ her mother thinks maybe she should take the girl some tonic.
“You and your tonics,” laughs Jess. “You’re worse than Granny Hart-”
The slip of her tongue causes an awkward silence between mother and daughter. When Jess’ mother finds out her daughter has knowledge of the old woman, she soon deduces what her daughter has done in getting Billy to love her again.
When the girl reveals the price she paid, her mother says they should pray for her, but Jesse claims that will do not good. Instead, she asks her mother to lock her room door, so that she cannot get out until morning.
Though her mother does as she wishes, Jess (in her leopard form), escapes out her bedroom window, and ends up in the Glover’s barn, spooking the horses, and scaring Ellwyn.
The girl’s screams attract her father and the men hunting the cat. Billy and another man fire at it, and are surprised as the creature vanishes in a puff of smoke!
“A witch,” exclaims Ellwyn’s father. “That cat, was a witch!”
Billy examines where the wildcat disappeared, and finds the ring he had given to Jess. As the other men leave, Billy begins speaking to Ellwyn…a sure sign that his connection with Jess-Belle has been severed.
A year passes, and Ellwyn and Billy are set to be wed. As Billy prepares for the wedding, he is visited by Jess-Belle’s mother, who gives him her daughter’s silver hairpin as a gift…along with a warning.
As talk turns to Jess-Belle, her mother claims that she does not believe her daughter is dead. Though Billy claims one of his bullets hit the wildcat in the Glover’s barn, Mrs Stone tells how she saw a toad in her daughter’s room, and upon trying to kill it, it turned to smoke, and flew away!
Billy tries to put this thought out of his mind, but at the wedding, he notices a spider crawling on Ellie’s veil. Plucking it off and holding it in his hand, it then disappears in a puff of smoke, leading Billy to believe that Mrs Stone was right.
After the ceremony, the newlywed couple returns to Billy’s house, where strange things begin to happen. Ellie finds herself attempting to slap Billy, and a clock in the room suddenly falls to the floor! Billy then gives Ellie their Bible, and tells her not to leave the house, as he rushes off.
Billy seeks out Granny Hart, wanting to know how to kill a witch. She asks for a lock of his hair as payment, but Billy instead pays her in coins. Hart then tells Billy that he needs to make a figure of the girl, wearing something she wore, then stab it in it’s ‘heart’ with something of silver.
Billy then goes to Jess-Belle’s home, where her mother gives him the wedding dress she hemmed for her daughter. before he leaves, she tells Billy that she is sure her daughter would appreciate what he is trying to do.
Billy returns to his house, where he finds Ellwyn standing outside. He tells her that he knows how to be rid of Jess’ spirit, but is shocked when Ellie starts speaking, with Jess-Belle’s voice!
Billy rushes into the house and locks the door (with the possessed Ellwyn pounding on it from the outside). Putting the dress on a seamstress’ mannequin, he then stabs it in the heart-area with the silver pin. Suddenly, Jess-Belle materializes, before the figure crumples to the ground and disappears, leaving behind the empty dress.
Billy then finds Ellwyn outside, having no recollection of what happened since her wedding. As he embraces her, the girl’s eye is drawn to the heavens, where she witnesses a star, streaking through the sky.
My mama says when you see a falling star,” she tells Billy, “that means a witch has just died.”
“So I’ve heard tell,” replies Billy, sure that he and Ellwyn are now safe, and that Jess-Belle is truly gone, but also finally at peace.
I’ve often been a fan of stories with a “be careful what you wish for” storyline. Of course, this wasn’t the first Twilight Zone episode to handle the concept of love and potions.
In Season 1, there was the modern-day story called The Chaser, where a young man gets a love potion to get a girl he lusts after, to love him. In the end however, her constant fawning over him gets to be too much, and he ends up paying for something called, “the glove cleaner,” to fix his dilemma.
Writer Earl Hamner Jr, wrote eight episodes during the last few seasons for The Twilight Zone, and in one interview, he claimed that Jess-Belle was his favorite one to write.
It was also done relatively quickly. When another script fell-through, Hamner pitched, wrote, and finished Jess-Belle in a week’s time (with no time for revisions!).
There was also an issue with the kind of cats considered for Jess-Belle’s nightly transformation. The original idea for a tiger was dropped, when the producer Herbert Hirschmann claimed they were hard to work with. After this, there was consideration for a black leopard (to match the color of Jess’ hair), but none could be found, leaving the production to settle on the spotted leopard in the episode.
Along with writing the episode, Hamner also wrote the lyrics to several musical interludes throughout. As the story progresses, a female voice sings bits of a small ‘ballad,’ about the story. It is notable that in place of a closing narrative by Serling, we get a reprise of part of the ballad, heard in the beginning of the episode:
Fair was Elly Glover, dark was Jess-Belle.
Both they loved the same man, and both they loved him well.
Hamner also uses some creative wordplay, when it comes to Jess and Ellwyn. They never get into a shouting match over their love of Billy-Ben (being decent young women), but Earl gives them a small moment of trading barbs, through wordplay.
This comes when Jess-Belle finds Ellwyn in a field by herself.
“Lots of wildflowers around here,” notes Jess. “Saw a patch of ‘old maid’s fern’ up on the mountain.”
A few moments later, Ellwyn responds with: “I notice a lot of ‘vixen-wort’ around here m’self.”
Buzz Kulik, the director, also was a Twilight Zone alumni, directing nine episodes during the show’s run.
In several of his episodes, he had a way of having the camera play among people’s faces, having the actors say plenty with just their expressions.
This type of storytelling is seen in the opening scene especially, when we see Billy-Ben looking a bit nervous, locking eyes with Jess-Belle, after his and Ellwyn’s engagement is announced.
It’s the look of a young man who seems to have possibly made a snap-decision, without telling the other party.
The overall story plays out almost like an Appalachian ‘fairy-tale,’ but it does feel like it stretches the story a bit long for the hour-long format of Season 4. Some areas feel a little repetitive, though one wonders if maybe there could have been more of Jess-Belle in her leopard form, and how her late-night presence affected the locals.
Word is that Earl Hamner was also planning to adapt the story into a musical at one point. When Anne Francis (who played Jess-Belle) heard this, she told him she’d love to play the role of Granny Hart in it…only for him to say he didn’t feel she would have been right for the role. However, this venture was never completed (as far as I know).
Out of all the characters in the episode, it is Jess-Belle and Granny Hart that stand out the most.
The character of Jess-Belle could easily have been a vindictive and over-the-top girl who is willing to knock aside anything and anyone in her way. One can easily see the girl’s name is a take on the word ‘jezebel’ (meaning ‘an impudent, shameless, or morally unrestrained woman,‘ according to Merriam-Webster), but the character here is crafted to be little more than a young woman, whose yearnings end up being her downfall. She thinks all her troubles are behind her once she has Billy-Ben, but it feels like everyday after, she is stuck living with the consequences of her actions, making her a tragic figure.
Jeanette Nolan seems to have the more ‘fun’ role in the episode, as she plays Granny Hart as a witch with a spirited personality. There is a devilish mischief Nolan imbues on the old woman. She seems to delight in causing mischief, and a naive young woman who wishes for a man’s love, gives her some entertainment. It doesn’t help that she seems to smile a great deal, a Cheshire grin that makes one wonder what is going on in her mind.
There is even an interesting juxtaposition, as we first see her in black robes conjuring something, before she pulls the robes away, and simply looks like a kindly old woman, expecting company.
Jess-Belle is not one of the more popular episodes of The Twilight Zone, but it feels like it was somewhat ‘experimental’ in it’s execution. And for that, it sticks out in my mind.
It’s cautionary tale about how love can sometimes blind people to the consequences of their actions, proves to be an intriguing story that the episode’s cast and crew, wove together, all those years ago.
I like to think when it came to some areas of entertainment regarding popular culture, I inherited some of my tastes from my parents. While my Mom turned me on to the wonders of Walt Disney and his animation studio, my Dad I feel, opened my eyes to adventure, and science fiction.
One series that we often watched over the years when it’d show up on television, is Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. Serling’s anthology series enthralled my Dad as a young man, and during my early years, they came to entrance my own imagination as well.
As I got older, I found myself drawn to Serling’s tales that explored humanity, and oftentimes, how simple it could be for things to break down, or even how dangerous some people could become, for want of attention or respect.
Serling’s hand was often behind many of those introspective tales. In The Twilight Zone’s 4th season, he explored the possibility that an enemy that was once thought to have been extinguished after the second World War, could very well be lying in wait, ready to instigate those seeking power, or manipulate those who are easily led astray…
As the episode starts, we see that it’s a hot night on a city street corner, and a small group of neo-Nazis are giving a speech to a small crowd.
Presiding over the gathering, is a young man named Peter Vollmer (Dennis Hopper). Peter preaches about ‘foreign control,’ and that a conspiracy is under way by minorities, to take over the country.
Several people throw vegetables at Peter and laugh at him, causing him and his men to rush out into the crowd, where a fist-fight breaks out.
The ruckus causes the Police to show up, and the citizens scatter. When they inquire to Peter who started the fight, he nonchalantly claims they were ‘all Communists,’ and walks away.
Peter and his men reconvene in a side alley. One of them claims that the heat brings out ‘the stiffs in the crowd,’ but Peter blames himself, claiming he couldn’t verbally get through to the people he saw.
As Peter sulks, Rod Serling appears, delivering our opening monologue:
“Portrait of a bush-league Fuhrer named Peter Vollmer, a sparse little man who feeds off his self-delusions and finds himself perpetually hungry for want of greatness in his diet. And like some goose-stepping predecessors he searches for something to explain his hunger, and to rationalize why a world passes him by without saluting. That something he looks for and finds is in a sewer. In his own twisted and distorted lexicon he calls it faith, strength, truth. But in just a moment Peter Vollmer will ply his trade on another kind of corner, a strange intersection in a shadowland called, The Twilight Zone.”
Peter then heads to the apartment of a man named Ernst Ganz (Ludwig Donath).
Upon seeing Peter, Ernst demands that he wash his face, and provides him with some medication for his wounds.
The older man begins to lecture Peter on getting into trouble, but the young man doesn’t want to hear it. However, he requests if he can stay the night at the old man’s place.
Peter claims that he and the old man are ‘good friends,’ but one can see Ernst is questioning that statement. Ernst recalls how as a young boy, he’d take Peter in: a rock in the storm of an abusive father, and a mentally-deficient mother. He recalls how Peter was a scared, lost little boy.
“Now, you peddle hate on street corners, as if it were popcorn,” he sighs.
It’s not hate,” defends Peter. “It’s, ‘a point of view.’ It’s a, ‘philosophy.'”
Ernst claims there were men who said the same thing…and because of it, he ended up in the Dachau Concentration Camp for nine years.
After Ernst leaves Peter to go to bed, Peter gets a strange feeling, like he’s being watched. Going to the nearby window, he sees a man in shadows, standing on the sidewalk.
When Peter asks who he is, the figure claims he’s ‘a friend,’ and wants to talk. Going downstairs, the figure tells Peter that he believes in much of what he was talking about earlier, and wants to help his cause.
The shadowy figure then gives Peter speaking tips, claiming he should speak to the people, like he was one of them.
“Speak to them in their language, on their level,” says the dark figure. “Make their hate, your hate. If they are poor, talk to them about poverty. If they are afraid, talk to them of their fears. And if they are angry, Mr Vollmer…if they are angry, give them objects for their anger.”
Peter takes the figure’s advice, and at the next meeting in a local hall, he claims that many say his group is biased towards minorities. Peter takes these words and turns them around, telling those in attendance, that ‘they’ are the minorities! He tells them that ‘patriotism’ and ‘love of country’ is not a majority notion anymore, and that his group, will make it so again.
This draws applause, and Peter’s associates are also energized by his fiery rhetoric.
The shadowy figure returns a little while later to help Peter, quietly giving him the money he needs to keep speaking at the hall, and praising how he speaks to the people.
It is then that the figure claims their ‘party’ needs something more, in order to ‘cement the organization’: they need a martyr.
“How do you find a martyr?” asks Peter.
“You do not ‘find’ one, Mr Vollmer,” the figure replies. “You ‘choose’ one. You take one of no value, and you make him into a symbol. You wrap him in a flag, and you make his death work for you. Find a man who is of no value while he’s alive, but who can serve you when he is dead.”
Of the men in his employ, Peter decides that one named Nick, will be their martyr. Peter then lies to a cohort named Frank, telling him that Nick has been telling the Police about their meetings, and must be taken care of.
Frank does as he’s told, and some time later, the Police find Nick’s body in an alley, with a note pinned to his jacket, making it look like someone is trying to send ‘a message’ to Peter’s group.
Though Frank and Pete are able to put Nick out of their minds, their associate Stanley misses his friend. Trying to act stoic, Peter claims that Nick was a traitor, and not worthy of being mourned.
However, moments later, Peter is using Nick’s death to electrify the crowd, claiming that those in the room, will carry on in his honor. His words do their trick, and the audience applauds loudly!
We then cut to some time later, to a candy shop across the street from the hall. Ernst is sitting at the counter talking to the store’s proprietor, while across the street, Peter’s voice bellows out from the open door, over which hangs a large portrait of the young man in uniform. As Peter’s voice continues to spill out into the night, Ernst and the proprietor have a conversation.
“Used to be, people would laugh at him,” says the man behind the counter. “But lately, he gets the crowd…and not many people laugh, either.”
“I’ve seen it before,” says Ernst, thoughtfully. “I’ve seen it all before.”
“That was another time, Mr Ganz,” says the proprietor. “Another place. Another kind of people! That doesn’t go here.”
“That’s what we said, too,” says Ernst, bowing his head. “We called them ‘brown scum.’ ‘Temporary insanity,’ part of the passing scene, too monstrous to be real. So, we ignored them, or laughed at them….because we couldn’t believe there were enough insane people to walk alongside of them! And then one morning, the country woke up from an uneasy sleep…and there was no more laughter. The ‘Peter Vollmers’ had taken over. The wild animals had changed places with us in the cage!”
As he thinks, Ernst rises from his seat, and goes to the window.
“But not again,” he says, a tone of defiance rising in his voice. “It mustn’t happen again. We can’t let it. We simply can’t let it happen again!”
Determined to do something, Ernst enters the crowded hall through the stage entrance, and catches Peter off-guard.
Ernst tells Peter that he’s heard these kinds of rantings before. Peter quietly pleads with Ernst to stop talking, but the old man addresses the audience, with Peter watching, unsure just what to do.
“Let me tell you about ‘this one,” preaches Ernst, pointing at the scared young man. “About the breed, the species. They’re all alike…they’re all alike! Problem children. Sick, sad neurotics, who take applause like a needle!”
Peter once again pleads for Ernst to be quiet, but the old man threatens to tell about Peter’s ‘weaker’ side, claiming the young man can only find strength in the ‘show’ he puts on…leading Peter to strike the man (whom he called ‘a friend’) across the cheek!
“The only sort of answer ‘your kind’ know how to give,” says Ernst, before walking out through the front door, followed by the audience.
Afterwards, Peter is alone in the hall, when he hears the shadowy figure call to him. Peter is still upset at what has transpired between him and Ernst, but the figure shows no sympathy, sharply criticizing Peter for his timidity at what took place.
“And you…what are you!?” cries out Peter. “You direct traffic from the darkness! You plan the battles and you’re never there when they’re fought! Why don’t you come out in the light? Why don’t you come up here alongside of me!? Why don’t you give me a name, and a face, and a reason WHY!?”
“Mr Vollmer!” responds the figure, sharply. “I was making speeches before you could read them. I was fighting battles, when your only struggle, was to climb out of a womb! I was taking over the world, when your universe was a crib! And as for being in darkness, Mr Vollmer…I, INVENTED DARKNESS!!”
It is then that the figure steps into the light, and Peter’ eyes go wide with fear, when he sees that his mysterious benefactor…is Adolf Hitler!
When Peter claims that Hitler picked him, the dictator claims it to be the other way around.
“You chose my ideas,” he says. “You invoked my name, you stole my slogans! So now, you must take whatever else comes with it.”
The old dictator then gives Peter a gun, and orders him to kill Ernst, promising that if he does not, the old Jew will keep returning to ruin their meetings.
Peter then goes to Ernst’s apartment, where the old man claims he showed the crowds how weak Peter really is. When Peter pulls his weapon on Ernst, the old man falters slightly, claiming that the young man won’t kill him.
“Just goes to show you don’t know me very well, Ernst,” claims Peter.
“I know you,” says Ernst, quietly. “From a ravaged little boy wanting love, to a torn man, craving respect, identity, pride. Peter…I don’t fear you. So you may do what you have in mind, anytime you wish, but this last reminder to you: you can never kill an idea with a bullet, Peter…never.”
“I’m all steel now,” Peter stoically counters. “Ernst, I’m made of steel. No sentiment, no softness…just purpose, and will.”
With that, Peter fires, and Ernst collapses to the floor.
As he dies, the old man utters his last words: “All steel. All Strength…but at the expense of the thing most other men have. Some…fragments of decency, to tell them right from wrong. To make them feel guilt at dishonor…to make them…that make them love. Yes, Peter, you have steel…but you have no heart.”
Peter then returns to the hall, where he tells his Fuhrer, that killing Ernst made him feel “immortal.”
“Mr Vollmer,” screeches Hitler’s voice. “WE! ARE! IMMORTAL!!”
Suddenly, the hall’s lights come on (and Hitler disappears). Peter turns towards the doorway, to see several Policemen, who have come to arrest him in regards to the murder of his comrade, Nick.
However, when face-to-face with the Police, Peter does not act as an “immortal,” but as a coward, fleeing through the nearest door! The Police chase Peter into the nearby alleyway, where he is shot, and falls into a pile of trash.
As the officers come over to him, Peter looks at his hands, covered in blood.
“There’s something, very wrong here,” he gasps. “You’ve made a terrible mistake. I’m made out of steel. Don’t you understand…that I’m made out of steel?”
The officers walk away to radio in what happened, but as they do, Hitler’s shadow falls over Peter’s dying body, and slowly, walks away. As he does so, Serling’s closing monologue is heard:
“Where will he go next, this phantom from another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare. Chicago? Los Angeles? Miami, Florida? Vincennes, Indiana? Syracuse, New York? Anyplace, everyplace, where there’s hate, where there’s prejudice, where there’s bigotry. He’s alive. He’s alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He’s alive because through these things…we keep him alive.”
It is notable that in his closing narration, Serling strays from his regular path. The closing narration would normally make mention of The Twilight Zone, but here, Serling chooses not to tell us that what we’ve witnessed has safely been contained in another dimension. His narration confirms, the ‘monster’ of this episode is alive…and he is walking amongst us!
When I saw the episode many years ago, it was not one that stuck out in my mind, but after recent events, I revisited it, and found it to be surprisingly eerie, regarding the story that Mr Serling had written (and broadcast over 50 years ago).
Sometimes people say Serling’s writing can become a little heavy-handed, and it feels that way with the character of Ernst. Then again, Serling portrays Ernst as Peter’s ‘last friend,’ the one who may still see some small shred of humanity in him…and when he dies, so too it seems, does any hope of redemption for Peter. While Peter did order Nick to be killed as a martyr, it is Ernst who dies by his hand.
I’ve never been a big fan of Dennis Hopper. For much of his career, he seemed to usually end up being cast as “the crazy guy,” in everything from Easy Rider, to Apocalypse Now. With his role as Peter Vollmer, this may be the most ‘toned down’ I’ve ever seen Hopper (in his quieter moments anyways).
Hopper manages to sell the desperation, and the longing to be somebody. He channels Vollmer’s ‘strength-through-repression,’ with the character dismissing these faults as if they were just overreactions.
It is notable that we encounter Vollmer a ways into the movement he’s taken a part in. Serling keeps it ambiguous if Peter originated this movement, or maybe, it was ‘inherited’ from another neo-Nazi on the streets. I could see that possibly being the case, and maybe Peter was enthralled by those same ‘poisonous promises.’
Of course when it comes to the figure of Hitler, Serling keeps it ambiguous if his spirit is still alive, or if he is just a figment of Peter’s imagination, almost like a ‘devil’ on his shoulder, in the guise of an ‘angel,’ claiming to show him ‘the right path’ to go down.
Over the years, television show and film viewers have often found pieces of popular-culture, and elevated them to a new status, given ‘current events.’
While many are quick to point out more popular Twilight Zone episodes like The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, or To Serve Man, I feel He’s Alive may gain more traction these days, given it’s cautionary tale (of course, the big question is: is it too late?).
Even though he brought the story to his anthology series, Rod Serling was also considering giving Hes Alive a second life, as a longer, feature-length film.
Th film would have added an FBI agent, investigating Vollmer’s ‘movement.’ However, the film proposal was turned down.
Even so, one has to wonder what Serling would make of current world events, and maybe even wonder if we truly have all been spirited away into…The Twilight Zone.
One of writer Rod Serling’s most famous contributions to popular culture, may have been his television anthology series, The Twilight Zone.
For 5 seasons, Serling’s show would often take unsuspecting people into ‘another dimension,’ where all manner of strange and unusual things could happen. These tales would go on to inspire a number of people, including Steven Spielberg, and Stephen King.
Along with it’s tales of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, many of the show’s episodes often reflected on ‘the human condition,’ providing cautionary tales, in the same way as fairy tales.
One of the traits that can be both a blessing and a curse to humanity, has been ‘control.’ For centuries, we’ve seen human beings do horrible things, often at the behest of their own petty whims. Once in power, some are thinking of only a select few, and ignoring the needs of the many, that surround them.
That seemed to be what Serling was looking to convey, in his Season 3 episode, The Little People.
In a rocky canyon on an alien world, a rocket has touched down. Standing outside of it are two men: William Fletcher, and Peter Craig. Both are at odds with each other, over what has brought them to this place.
While Craig chastises his commander for landing them in a canyon, Fletcher counters that Peter got them into this mess, by navigating them into a meteor storm, causing them to seek a place to land for repairs.
Craig continues to complain (even about the food rations), leading to Fletcher demanding that he stop with the attitude. While Craig sees negatives, Fletcher is the optimist: they’ve walked away from their ship in one piece, and are on a planet that is able to sustain them while they make necessary repairs to their craft.
While Craig gives an affirmative to being told to ‘knock it off,’ Fletcher notes that taking orders seems to not be one of his co-pilot’s strong suits. When Craig mentions how he’d like to make ‘a few changes,’ the commander plays a game with him.
“What do you hunger for most, Craig?” he asks, introspectively.
“Try this one, Fletch,” says Craig. “I’d like a whole lot of people at my elbow. The more, the merrier. The louder, the better. And I’d like Yankee Stadium right alongside…but I’d like them on ‘my terms.'”
“That’s what I’m getting at,” replies Fletcher, looking into Craig’s face. “What are ‘your terms?'”
“I’d like to be the number one ‘straw boss,” he answers. “I’d like to give the orders.”
“I’ll bet you would,” replies the commander.
As the conversation trails off, Craig begins to look around, claiming he hears a strange sound, that sounds like…people.
The camera then whip-pans over to Serling, as he delivers his opening monologue:
“The time is the space age. The place is a barren landscape of a rock-walled canyon that lies millions of miles from the planet Earth. The cast of characters, you’ve met them: William Fletcher, commander of the spaceship; his co-pilot, Peter Craig. The other characters who inhabit this place you may never see, but they’re there, as these two gentlemen will soon find out. Because they’re about to partake in a little exploration into that gray, shaded area in space and time…that’s known as the Twilight Zone.”
When we return to Fletcher and Craig, we find a few days have passed. Fletcher is still making repairs, while Craig seems to have given in to shirking his duties, and has returned from another trip away from their landing site.
As he looks up at the twin suns beating down on them, Fletcher realizes that for how hot it is, he hasn’t seen Craig dip into their rations, and finds his canteen is still full!
Fletcher suspects that Craig is holding out on him, and has found a source of water. Craig soon gives in, claiming he was simply testing it to make sure it was drinkable, but Fletcher isn’t so easily convinced. He also finds some small plants that his co-pilot has collected.
While Craig claims they’re “just lichen,” Fletcher examines them under a magnifier, and finds something startling: they’re clumps of miniature trees!
Realizing that his secret’s out, Craig pulls something out of his jacket, and shows it to the commander. Though it is the size of an ant, looking through the magnifier, Fletcher finds the tiny object to be a truck!
Craig seems to be enjoying the look of awe in his commander’s face, and soon leads Fletcher to another part of the canyon. Spread out on the ground, is what appears to be a small civilization, complete with miniature houses, and even a marina (observed by Fletcher through his magnifier).
Craig tells how he’s still deciphering their language, but they do understand mathematics. He goes on to tell how cooperative the little people are, and in looking for edible plants, they directed him to the trees that Fletcher was looking at.
As Craig continues to talk about the people they are observing, his voice quivers with excitement.
“They’re scared, Fletch,” he says. “Petrified. And so they do as they’re told! Because this giant, is like some avenging angel to them. I’ve graduated, Fletcher, from a slob with a slide rule to…to…to a god!”
“Craig, they’re people,” replies Fletcher, trying talk sense to his co-pilot. “They’re flesh and blood. In that respect, they’re no different than us.”
“Sure they are,” says Craig, his eyes growing wider. “Because they’ve been created, ‘in my image!””
Mad with power, Craig begins stomping down on the miniature world. Trees and houses collapse beneath his feet, as a chittering cry rises up from the unseen masses below! Fletcher is forced to knock out his partner to stop his ‘reign of terror,’ and the co-pilot collapses to the ground nearby.
“You’re no god, Craig,” he says. “That’s not what you are at all! The only trouble is, that by now you’ve probably gotten them to believe in the devil.”
Fletcher addresses the little people, telling them that he’s sorry, hoping they can forgive them for what has happened.
Some time afterwards, We see Fletcher making final repairs to the ship. Calling out to Craig, he receives no answer. Returning to the spot where the little people are, he comes across a life-size statue of Craig, towering over the miniature landscape!
As he looks over the statue, Craig smugly tells how the little people, constructed it overnight.
It’s too bad they don’t know who they’re breaking their backs for,” says Fletcher.
“Meaning what?” asks Craig, the smile disappearing from his face.
“Meaning they’re worshiping a heartless slob whose insides are made out of the same stuff as that statue,” replies Fletcher. “Yeah, it’s a good likeness, Craig…and an hour from now they can sell it for junk!”
Fletcher then tells Craig that with the ship fixed, conditions are right for them to blast off soon. However, Craig pulls his laser-pistol on his partner, claiming he isn’t going back.
Fletcher tries to reason with his co-pilot, claiming that left alone, he’ll end up losing his mind, but his pleas are met with a laser-blast from Craig’s gun, that knocks the head off the statue.
“This is a monotheistic society here,” claims Craig. “Just room for one god.”
Soon afterward, Fletcher takes off, and Craig glowers over his miniature ’empire,’ a look of ‘mad power’ spreading across his face.
Declaring that ‘The Age of Peter Craig’ is upon them, he proclaims that there will be a lot of projects for his little minions to begin work on.
Craig gleefully stamps down on parts of the miniature world again, claiming that he will continue to give these ‘little reminders’ periodically, to remind them to be subservient to his whims.
Suddenly, the sound of a ship can be heard overhead. Craig claims it’ll quickly go away, but he soon plugs his ears, as the sound of the craft reaches a fever pitch! Finally, the sound dies away, but is replaced by an earth-shaking, rumbling sound. As Craig looks around for what is causing the sound, he is shocked!
Above him, stand two men, towering giants to his eyes, dwarfing the canyon walls!
“Go away!” demands Craig, trying to keep some semblance of control. “Don’t you understand?! I’m the god! I’m the god, don’t you understand?! I’m the god!!”
Craig screams in terror as one of the giants notices him, and reaches down to pick him up. However, in the process, the enormous man accidentally crushes him to death. As the giant looks down at the now-silent Craig, his partner tells him that they have repairs to make. And like a dead fly, the giant tosses Craig’s lifeless body to the ground, where he lands in a crumpled heap, not far from the little people’s world.
Some time afterward, we see a number of small ropes attached to Craig’s statue, and small, triumphant cries go up, as it comes crashing down, breaking across the body of the dead ‘tyrant.’
Rod Serling’s voice then returns to us, closing out the segment:
“The case of navigator Peter Craig: a victim of a delusion. In this case, the dream dies a little harder than the man. A small exercise in space psychology that you can try on for size, in the Twilight Zone.”
Size and scale have often factored into a number of episodes of The Twilight Zone, though of course, the logic of what is shown here may be a bit ‘pedestrian.’
Though we are dealing with a miniature civilization on another world, it is strange that they would have such Earthly creations as trucks and boats. However, given that we don’t actually spend time among the little people, this may have been a simplified way to make us feel sympathy and association, for the unseen masses that Craig mistreats.
The effects work in the episode may seem primitive by our standards (Fletcher’s staring at the sun is simply a static image of two ‘lights’), but it is in how both of the actors sell the piece that makes it work.
The episode is one of many, written by Serling himself. Much of the story is contained in several little ‘moments,’ as we cut to scenes that actually matter to the story. It’s possible the episode could have been stretched out in the longer, Season 4 format, but for fitting into the 25-minute frame work of the 3rd season, It gets the job done.
Both Claude Akins and Joe Maross are veterans of The Twilight Zone series, with each of them having starred in a Season 1 episode (The Little People would be their final appearances in the show).
In this episode, the voice of reason, falls on Claude Akins as Commander William Fletcher. Akins had already appeared in another cautionary episode of The Twilight Zone, with the first season’s The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. In both cases, he tried to serve as the calming voice, though in this story, he manages to escape with his sanity and reasoning intact. Akins’ voice had that deep, commanding tone I heard in a number of things from the 50’s, and it works well when he tries to talk sense into his delusional co-pilot.
Maross’ first role in the series, was in the first season’s Third from the Sun episode. There, he played a more calm role, while here, he gets to act quite unhinged. There are times in his performance, where one wonders what the space agency was thinking, pairing him up with someone like Fletcher. Given how Craig doesn’t like to take orders, it seems odd that he’d be cleared to co-pilot the ship….but then again, maybe in this world, there are less restrictions on who gets to go into space.
Maybe it’s the pacing of the episode, but Craig’s delusional rantings of becoming a god, feel like they come on a bit too quickly. At times, he chews the scenery, much like some over-the-top Stephen King villains do…though one has to wonder if maybe Mr Craig, may have inspired some of the crazies in King’s novels.
Like most Twilight Zone episodes, the concept of The Little People found it’s way into popular culture.
On the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000, Joel Robinson would sometimes use Peter Craig’s cries of “I’m the god,” when he’d riff on some film characters in the cheesy movies they’d watch.
Even TV show creator Matt Groening’s series The Simpsons and Futurama, borrowed from the episode.
The Simpsons had a Treehouse of Horrors segment titled The Genesis Tub, which saw Lisa Simpson create a miniature society, and her brother Bart quickly caused mayhem within it.
In an episode of the Futurama series titled Godfellas, the robot Bender ends up floating through space, where a stray asteroid crashes into him, upon which are a number of tiny creatures. They think him to be a god, and Bender revels in having a number of tiny underlings that will do whatever he commands…however, he soon finds out there are consequences to his actions.
Though a simple episode, The Little People still serves as a good cautionary tale, about size and power, and like many of Serling’s works, it’s a story that can still be used to teach morals and lessons today.