Monday, January 9, 2012

"The Purple Testament"

William Reynolds as the doomed Lt. Fitzgerald sees death in his own reflection.
"The Purple Testament"
Season One, Episode 19
Original Air Date: February 12, 1960

Cast:
Lt. Fitzgerald: William Reynolds
Capt. Riker: Dick York
Capt. Gunther: Barney Phillips
Colonel: S. John Launer
Smitty: Michael Vandever
Sergeant: William Phipps
Driver of Jeep: Warren Oates
Orderly: Paul Mazursky
Freeman: Marc Cavell
Harmonica Player: Ron Masak

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Richard L. Bare
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and William Ferrari
Set Decoration: Rudy Butler and Henry Grace
Assistant Director: Edward Denault
Casting: Mildred Gusse
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Jean Valentino 
Music: Lucien Morawack (composer) & Lud Gluskin (conductor)

And now, Mr. Serling:
"Next week we show you the face of war, but the kind of portrait we venture to say you've never seen before. Dick York and William Reynolds star in 'The Purple Testament,' the story of a man who can forecast death. That's next week on The Twilight Zone, 'The Purple Testament.' We hope you'll join us. Thank you and goodnight."

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"Infantry platoon, U.S. Army, Philippine Islands, 1945. These are the faces of the young men who fight; as if some omniscient painter had mixed a tube of oils that were at one time earth brown, dust gray, blood red, beard black, and fear yellow-white. And these men were the models. For this is the province of combat and these are the faces of war."

Summary:
                Lt. Fitzgerald returns with an American platoon to base camp with a list of those soldiers injured and those dead after a mission. Capt. Riker, Fitzgerald's direct superior and close friend, notices that "Fitz," as Lt. Fitzgerald is known, has taken the casualties of the latest mission much harder than he'd taken those from previous missions. When pressed about the issue, Fitz reveals a scrap of paper upon which are written four names, the exact four names of the soldiers lost in the current mission. When pressed further, Fitz reveals that he'd written those names down a day before the mission, that he'd had the foresight of who would die the following day. Riker initially scoffs at the idea that Fitz has inexplicably developed the hellish talent to foretell an individual's death. Fitz is unable to explain where the ability came from or what exactly it entails (though he generally describes it as a telling light on the face of man marked for death), seems to be in torment both at his newfound curse and Riker's disbelief. He dreads looking into the faces of the men in the platoon.
                Fearing that his lieutenant and close friend may be cracking under the strain of the war, Riker confides the situation to the chief medical officer, Captain Gunther. Gunther is as skeptical as Riker about the true nature of Fitz's ability but believes that Fitz should be taken off active duty to undergo observation.
                While Riker and Gunther talk, Fitz is in the same hospital visiting an injured member of the platoon named Smitty. Before leaving the young man's bedside, Fitz sees the telling light in the Smitty's face. This causes Fitz to temporarily black out. When he is awakened by an orderly, both men discover that Smitty has died.
                A confrontation ensues when Fitz goes downstairs and meets Riker and Gunther. Fitz, now obviously under terrible strain, tells the men that he saw the warning of death on Smitty's face moments before the young soldier died. He implores the two skeptical men to believe him and storms off after sarcastically suggesting that his eyes be taped closed or plucked from his skull so that he won't have to look into any more faces.
                Fitz is allowed to remain on command for the following mission. Moments before departing a meeting with Riker, Fitz sees the death light on his superior's face. Though he tries to warn his friend, Riker won't hear any of it and insist that when they return from the mission Fitz will see that it has all been a coincidence. Fitz departs hastily. Riker, in a moment of doubt about his own future, takes a moment to leave behind his wedding band along with pictures of his wife and children before departing. In a tense seen outside, Fitz is nervously watched by the members of the platoon while he looks into their faces. One soldier can't bear it and begs Fitz to tell who will make it and who won't. Riker intervenes and attempts to dispel all rumors of Fitz's ability to foretell death. He puts it to Fitz to dispell the rumors and, after a moment of contemplation, Fitz goes along with Riker and says that it's all a misunderstanding.
                The platoon returns a couple of hours later with only one casualty, Captain Riker. Fitz is notified that he has been granted a medical leave of stay and is to pack his bags to report to headquarters. A Jeep has been sent to drive him the four hours away from base camp. While gathering his gear, Fitz peers into a shaving mirror and sees the death light on his own face. At first terrified, Fitz accepts his fate and climbs into the Jeep with a young soldier. They are warned that the road is booby-trapped with mines. When the young driver tells Fitz that they have a four hour trip ahead of them, Fitz tells him that he doesn't think it will be that long.
                A short time later, while the men of the camp are getting some much needed rest and relaxation, they hear a thunderous explosion in the distance. Knowing it to be an explosion, such as the detonation of a mine, the men instead convince themselves that it is only thunder and go back to what they were doing.

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"From William Shakespeare, Richard the Third, a small excerpt. The line reads, 'He has come to open the purple testament of bleeding war.' And for Lieutenant Fitzgerald, A Company, First Platoon, the testament is closed. Lieutenant Fitzgerald has found The Twilight Zone."


The ghost light marks Smitty (Michael Vandever) for death.
Commentary:
                Rod Serling used his harrowing experiences with the 11th Airborne Division during WWII to center much of his writings on the theme of war, a theme thus very prevalent on The Twilight Zone. Though writer Richard Matheson penned the first war episode, "The Last Flight," and other series writers would provide memorable war episodes (notably Montgomery Pittman's "Two"), the majority of the war-related episodes would be penned by Rod Serling. Serling would use war as a backdrop upon which to drop an element of fantasy to bring across the general point that war is hell and if it doesn't outright take a character's life, it will drastically damage it. Serling's war episodes are always character driven, sometimes with little to none of the action set-pieces common to war films. The battleground was simply a stage upon which the characters could act out the particular aspects of human drama that Serling wanted to explore. Though it is poorly paced and certainly a predictable episode, "The Purple Testament" is a powerful meditation on the relationship between war and death, and would be the first of many war episodes in which Serling would display some of his strongest, character-driven writing.
                William Reynolds gives an effective, melancholy performance in the lead as the tortured and doomed Lieutenant Fitzgerald. Twilight Zone repeat performers Dick York and Barney Phillips give serviceable acting support, though, it must be said, York's innate quirkiness feels out of place in a military setting, despite the actor's attempt at a gruff countenance. The episode suffers from a very thin premise and is mainly a collection of circular dialogue leading to an inevitable climax. Still, the dialogue, always the strongest aspect of Serling's scripts, is certainly evocative of character and provides verisimilitude to the setting of jungle combat. Serling's dialogue elicits a strong emotional performance from his actors and, fortunately, the cast for this episode have the skill to bring it off. The simplicity of the premise actually works in the episode's favor as The Twilight Zone was always more interested in the effects of a fantasy element upon the characters than with overwrought explanations or scientific explorations of that fantasy element. It is one of the charms of the show that the viewer is not burdened with a stricture of scientific rationalism in which is explored some extraordinary person or event. In this way, The Twilight Zone functions in the exact opposite manner of an anthology series it is often (unfairly) compared with, The Outer Limits. The latter series dealt largely with the effect of extraordinary people upon the ordinary reality. The Twilight Zone was far more comfortable exploring the effect of something extraordinary upon an ordinary individual. The viewer is given a character they can relate to and a convincing reality to watch both unravel in an enlightening and often terrifying, way.
                Despite the occasional use of stock footage for the brief battle sequences, Richard L. Bare's direction is peppered with some superb camera shots, notably a 360 degree moving shot of Fitzgerald's point of view as he looks over the members of his platoon, and another of Fitzgerald gazing down at the broken remnants of his shaving mirror, each jagged shard reflecting his terrified reflection after seeing the sign of his own impending doom.
                Serling would improve overall with his scripts for other WW-II themed episodes ("King Nine Will Not Return" and especially with the similarly-themed "A Quality of Mercy") and he would also tackle the Civil War ("The Passersby" and "Still Valley") and several times explore the drama of a man-made doomsday ("Time Enough At Last," "The Shelter," and "The Old Man in the Cave"). It is interesting to note here that actor Dean Stockwell was originally cast as Lieutenant Fitzgerald but pulled out of the episode, leaving the role open for William Reynolds. Stockwell would return to the show and put in an excellent performance in the third season episode "A Quality of Mercy," another WWII-themed character study scripted by Serling.
               An interesting story connected with this episode is that William Reynolds and director Richard L. Bare were involved in a plane crash on February 12, 1960, the original air date of "The Purple Testament." Flying back to Miami after filming the series pilot The Islander for MGM, the engines failed on a small passenger plane carrying five people. One passenger was killed while Bare, with two broken legs, and Reynolds, with a broken ankle and several broken ribs, swam on their backs four miles to safety. Reynolds later recounted that although Cayuga Productions agreed not to air the episode upon hearing of the plane crash, out of respect for Reynolds and Bare, as there was no word on survivors at that point, the episode aired as scheduled. The terrible irony had Reynolds not survived the crash would have been airing an episode in which he featured as a man that foresees his own death on the day of his actual death. As it happened, both Reynolds and Bare made a full recovery from their injuries.
                With "The Purple Testament," we begin to see Serling finding a clear thematic niche for his scripts, something the show in general struggled with during a first season in which the series attempted virtually every type of fantasy story. As said before, others attempted the war-themed episode but this type of story on The Twilight Zone was truly the province of veteran Rod Serling.

Grade: C

Notes:
-Dick York also starred in the second season episode "A Penny For Your Thoughts."
-Warren Oates also starred in the fifth season episode "The 7th is Made Up of Phantoms."
-Barney Phillips appeared in supporting roles for three additional episodes, the second season's "A Thing About Machines" and "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" as well as the fourth season episode "Miniature."
-Serling erroneously attributes the line of Shakespeare in his closing narration to the play Richard III when it is actually taken from Richard II.
-“The Purple Testament” was adapted into a short story by Walter B. Gibson for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Revisited (Grosset & Dunlap, 1964). 
-"The Purple Testament" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Michael Rooker. 

--Jordan Prejean

2 comments:

  1. A downer, and The Twilight Zone at its most predictable still doesn't ruin The Purple Testament but it does drag it down somewhat, as it makes the TZ feel like what it was: a television series. Like some other first season episodes this one seems to channel some One Step Beyond vibes, as it feels at time as if Serling is telling a true story, which he isn't.

    There are good and bad things in this one. The bad is that the back lot jungle feels like a back lot jungle, as the absence of realistic looking sets hurts the ep's already strained credibility. On the other hand the acting is as first rate as can be expected. William Reynolds is particularly good. I find Dick York one of the most likable actors who ever stepped in front of a camera and yet I agree that his "quirky" aspects make him less than ideal casting (yet those same qualities works beautifully in his Hitchcock hour Terror At Northfield).

    I've heard better dialogue on the Zone. The writing is realistic, yet it lacks the occasional "throwaway excellence" that was one of the show's best qualities. Nor are there any extended stretches of dialogue nor confrontation and conflict scenes that might have made the episodes jump off the screen.

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  2. Spot on as always, John. I recently re-watched "A Quality of Mercy" for a review and I was very impressed with the jungle sets for that episode as it was filmed on an already standing jungle set at the Hal Roach Studios. When you go back and look at "The Purple Testament" you can see the difference in sets is paramounnt.

    The performance by Reynolds continues to climb up the list of my favorite performances from the series as time goes by. It's such a believable, meloncholy performance that it pretty much saves the entire episode, which, as we agree, is predictable and, in some places, clunky. I don't think Dean Stockwell would have pulled it off as well as Reynolds did but of course Stockwell was excellently cast as the young lieutenant in "A Quality of Mercy."

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