Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"King Nine Will Not Return"

Robert Cummings as Captain James Embry
"King Nine Will Not Return"
Season Two, Episode 37
Original Air Date: September 30, 1960

Captain James Embry: Robert Cummings (as Bob Cummings)
Psychiatrist: Gene Lyons
Doctor: Paul Lambert
Nurse: Jenna McMahon

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Buzz Kulik
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: Philip Barber & George W. Davis
Set Design: Henry Grace & H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: Kurt Neumann, Jr. 
Casting: Ethel Winant
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Charles Scheid
Music: Fred Steiner

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"This is Africa, 1943. War spits out its violence overhead. The sandy graveyard swallows it up. Her name is King Nine, B-25 medium bomber, 12th Air Force. On a hot, still morning she took off from Tanzania to bomb the southern tip of Italy.
An errant piece of flap tore a hole in the wing tank. And like a wounded bird this is where she landed. Not to return on this day or any other day."

            Captain James Embry awakens while laying on the ground under the hot sun a vast, North African desert. Nearby is the King Nine, a World War II bomber plane that Embry piloted and whose five man crew he captained. The plane has crashed and lies damaged and broken in the sand. The rest of the crew is nowhere to be found.
            Confused and disoriented, Embry searches the plane and the area around the plane for the missing crew, calling for the other men and attempting a mayday call on the radio, both to no avail. The more he tries to remember and logically reason his way through the situation the more confused and afraid he becomes. One thought in particular tortures him and that is his responsibility to look after the other men. Eventually, he does find signs of the men. He finds a canteen on the ground and a makeshift grave, both belonging to one of the crew members named Klein. As Embry's grip on his situation grows threadbare, he begins to see what appear to be the crew members but may be no more than hallucinations. He sees a crew member sitting in the pilot's seat but as Embry runs toward the plane the man disappears. He later sees the collective crew members standing a ways off from the crashed planed on a small sand dune but they disappear as Embry frantically approaches.
            Above him in the sky, Embry sees the strangest sight yet. Three jets soar overhead and though Embry knows what these aircraft are, he also knows that this knowledge is impossible since there are no jets in 1943. Seeming to be psychologically broken by his situation, Embry falls to the ground in desperation.
            When he regains consciousness, he finds himself lying in a hospital bed in present day (1960). A doctor and a psychiatrist are at his bedside. It seems that Embry's nervous breakdown was caused by the daily newspaper. The headline story was the recent discovery of the King Nine, a World War II bomber plane that disappeared in the African desert in 1943. Embry never did pilot that flight and that crew. He was supposed to pilot the plane but was sick at the time and another pilot took his place. The guilt of missing that flight and the subsequent disappearance of the plane and her crew has haunted Embry endlessly in the intervening years. The psychiatrist tells Embry that his guilt caused a nervous breakdown and that, however real it felt, Embry went back to that crash site only in his mind. A final reveal, however, seems to prove otherwise. As the nurse takes Embry's clothes back to his room, an overturned shoe spills out desert sand.

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"And enigma buried in the sand. A question mark with broken wings that lies in silent grace as a marker in a desert shrine. Odd how the real consorts with the shadows, how the present fuses with the past. How does it happen? The question is on file in the silent desert and the answer. . . the answer is waiting for us in the Twilight Zone."

            The Twilight Zone was most successful when the episode provided an equal dose of the supernatural and the psychological. The show's vastly talented writers included this successful mix in their most memorable scripts. Rod Serling's "King Nine Will Not Return" was the opening salvo of the second season and he chose a subject matter with which he was intimately familiar, Serling having served as a paratrooper in World War II, and one taken from the daily headlines, as it was based upon the Lady Be Good, a B-24 bomber mysteriously lost in April of 1943 and rediscovered in the Libyan Desert in 1959. Eight of the nine crew members of the Lady Be Good were found a year later. Thematically, it is an episode with resemblances to past Serling plays and represents a theme that Serling would build upon in the future.
            It was important for Serling to choose a script that built solidly upon the success of the first season and one that would be easily accessible to new viewers of the show. Just as "Where is Everybody?" was the perfect opening to the first season so is "King Nine Will Not Return" to the second season. The episode strongly resembles many of Serling's other episodes and though it is not, once the twist ending is revealed, strictly a story of time travel, it shares many common traits with Serling's other time travel episodes. Those which come to mind include "The Time Element," a teleplay written by Serling for the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse in 1958 and a show that is often viewed as the unofficial pilot episode for The Twilight Zone. In it, a man travels back in time through his dreams in a failed attempt to prevent the deaths incurred in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. "Where is Everybody?," also not strictly a time travel episode, concerns an astronaut who, while confined for a long period of time in an isolation chamber, constructs an entire fantasy world in order to escape from his claustrophobic environment. "Walking Distance," "Back There," "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim," "One More Pallbearer," and "The Arrival," to name but a handful of other similar Serling-penned episodes, all concern a psychological battle within the main character when confronted with a slip in reality, be it a trip back in time or the physical manifestation of inward guilt.
            Robert Cummings, as Captain James Embry, solely drives the show as it is basically a one man episode and, in the hands of a lesser talent, may have failed completely. Cummings, born in Joplin, Missouri on June 10, 1910, found success as a comedic actor first on Broadway and then in Hollywood in the 1930's and 1940's, using a pair of stage names and even a fake British accent before reverting back to his given name to host his own show, The Bob Cummings Show, in the 1950's.  A second, and unsuccessful, incarnation of the show appeared for a short time a few years later. He found later recognition in the 1960's television show My Living Doll. There are two interesting points about Cummings' involvement with The Twilight Zone. The first is that Cummings was a licensed pilot and avid flyer. This certainly lends credit to his excellent portrayal of an embattled World War II pilot. The second is that Cummings is credited as Bob Cummings, which the actor typically used for what he considered lighter fare, opting instead to use his full name, Robert Cummings, for dramatic roles. It is interesting to think that Cummings may have considered his stint on The Twilight Zone, or perhaps television work in general, to be consistently light fare. Cummings died on December 2, 1990 in Los Angeles.
            Director Buzz Kulik began his career directing television commercials after World War II before becoming a prolific and successful director of live plays for early anthology shows such as the popular Playhouse 90. It was here during the "Golden Age of Television" that Kulik met Rod Serling, then a prolific and Emmy award winning writer of live television plays. "King Nine Will Not Return" was the first opportunity for Kulik to direct a Serling script since the director was unavailable for the first season of The Twilight Zone because of a production contract with CBS. Kulik later found success in television movies, creating his most lasting work with Brian's Song in 1971.
            "King Nine Will Not Return" was shot on location near Edwards Air Force Base, located on the border of Los Angeles County. Located there was a vast piece of dry salt bed that was used for many western and adventure films as it was the perfect location to give the impression of a vast desert. The episode took five days to create, two days rehearsal and the typical three days to shoot. Production Manager Ralph W. Nelson provided a very efficient manner of moving the production along its scheduled course of time. The cast and crew were taxied from Santa Monica to the set by a DC-3, which landed directly on the highway near the set. Belongings for the cast and crew were kept twenty miles away at the nearest town, Lone Pine, a location which was previously utilized for the second season episodes "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" and "The Rip Van Winkle Caper." The vintage B-25 bomber was disassembled, flown to the set, and reassembled on site. Temperatures climbed above one hundred degrees while filming. In order to provide the realistic reaction of Robert Cummings to the cues presented by his voice-over narration, the voice track was recorded prior to filming and played on-set so that Cummings could react to his own voice as though it were the thoughts of his character. It is also probable that, in some instances, an assistant read aloud the lines of voice-over narration from the shooting script in order for Kulik to more effectively direct Cummings's portrayal of the character. The footage of jets flying overhead was stock footage. The musical score by Fred Steiner is masterful and poignant and should sound familiar to frequent viewers of the show as it would be recycled for future episodes.
            On a final note, it seems interesting that there has been no mention whether or not Rod Serling's older brother, Robert, served in any capacity, most likely as technical advisor, to this episode. His contribution to a later episode dealing with aviation, "The Odyssey of Flight 33" is well documented, but it seems unlikely that he was not at least consulted by Rod in some respect when "King Nine Will Not Return" was being produced. Robert Serling was a prolific and highly successful writer and expert on matters of aviation and aeronautics. In 1960, he became full time aviation editor for United Press International and wrote a handful of novels, some with aviation themes, including the bestseller, The President's Plane is Missing, later made into a successful television movie.
            "King Nine Will Not Return" is a solid piece of work and a showcase for the talents of Robert Cummings and Buzz Kulik, the latter of whom would return to the director's chair on the show, not to mention Rod Serling who, as executive producer and principle writer on the show, proved he could still produce a memorable and tightly written script while being weighed down with the responsibilities inherent in his executive role. It was a strong start for what is perhaps the show's strongest and most successful season.

Grade: B

Grateful acknowledgement is made to Marc Scott Zicree for information contained in The Twilight Zone Companion (2nd revised ed.). 

--Buzz Kulik directed eight additional episodes of The Twilight Zone, some of which represent the finest the show had to offer, including "The Trouble with Templeton," "A Game of Pool," "A Quality of Mercy," "Static," and "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim." His other episodes include "The Mind and the Matter," "Jess-Belle," and "On Thursday We Leave for Home."
--Robert Cummings can be heard several times in the episode mispronouncing the Spanish name Jimenez. It is not clear whether this was something he was directed to do or a mistake the actor himself made.
--"King Nine Will Not Return" was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama by Dennis Etchison, starring Adam Baldwin.

--Jordan Prejean


  1. Nice work, Jordan! I always liked this episode. I enjoyed Bob Cummings in this and also in Sabatoeur.

  2. Thanks, Jack. You know, this episode viewed a lot better than I remembered as it had been a while since I'd last seen it and that is mostly because of Cummings' performance. It's a shame he didn't come back to do another show. "Sabatoeur" is great and came out of that dark '40s period of Hitchcocks' career. Cummings doesn't have a lot of genre credit but he also worked with Hitchcock in 1954 on "Dial M for Murder." Buzz Kulik really makes this episode go as well and he was a nice addition to the show's realiable and talented stable of directors. Thanks for reading!

  3. I agree with you guys that Bob Cummings worked well in King Nine. The episode itself I found somewhat of a slog, no fault of the actor or, especially, the director. Both did fine work. It was too much talk,--and just one man talking--and it lacked the sort of "deep focus" atmosphere of the previous season's kickoff ep Where Is Everybody? Still, King Nine's a decent entry even as it for some inexplicable reason,--and I'm not the first person to say this (in writing, I mean) it feels rather more like a One Step Beyond than a Twilight Zone.

  4. As you know, we covered this episode last year "when it came out." It was a pretty weak opener to Season Two.

    That said, your commentary continues to be excellent and educational. Thank you so much!


    1. Thanks, Gideon. I agree that it's weak relative to the fact that it's a virtual remake of "Where Is Everybody," but I still enjoy this one. They were in danger of opening the third season in a similar way with "The Arrival" but wisely pushed it back a bit. The story wears very thin the third time around.