|Mr. Williams (Geoffrey Horne), who comes bearing gifts.|
Season Three, Episode 97
Original Air Date: April 27, 1962
Williams: Geoffrey Horne
Doctor: Nico Minardos
Pedro: Edmund Vargas
Manuelo: Cliff Osmond
Guitar Player [Ignacio]: Vladimir Sokoloff
Sanchez: Henry Corden
Police Officer: Paul Mazurka
Rudolpho: Vito Scotti
Woman #1: Carmen Danton
Woman #2: Lea Marmer
Man #1: Joe Perry
Man #2: David Fresco
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Allen H. Miner
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Merrill Pye
Set Decoration: Keogh Gleason
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Robert Walker
Editor: Jason H. Bernie
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: Laurindo Almeida
Optical Effects: Pacific Title
Rod Serling’s Wardrobe: Eagle Clothes
Filmed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios
And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week on the Twilight Zone, we tell the story that we think might prove a rather haunting little item in the scheme of things. It tells of a small Mexican boy and a visitor from another planet, and it tells further what happens when this extra-terrestrial traveler is faced with some of the less-personable instincts of human beings, like fear, superstitions, and intolerance. Our story is called ‘The Gift.’”
Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“The place is Mexico, just across the Texas border, a mountain village held back in time by its remoteness and suddenly intruded upon by the twentieth century. And this is Pedro, nine years old, a lonely, rootless little boy, who will soon make the acquaintance of a traveler from a distant place. We are at present forty miles from the Rio Grande, but any place and all places can be the Twilight Zone.”
After an unidentified air vessel crashes in a small, Mexican village a police officer rushes into the local cantina and tells the town postman to deliver a letter. As a crowd of people listen, he explains that he and another officer heard the aircraft land and approached with caution. Shots were fired and the other officer was fatally wounded. He proceeded to fire as the suspect fled the scene. The officer tells the postman to deliver the letter to the military.
Later, a strange man wonders into the cantina. The only occupants are an ugly, overweight bartender named Manuelo, an old blind man playing the guitar, a doctor, and a young boy named Pedro who works there. Manuelo tells the man that they are closed but the man appears dazed and sits at a table anyway. The bartender reluctantly brings the man a bottle of wine and notices that his hands are bloody. Fearing he is the suspected shooter Manuelo runs for door to alert the authorities but the man clubs him with the bottle before he can get anywhere. He tells the doctor and Pedro that he does not wish to harm them and then falls to floor.
Later, the stranger, who calls himself Mr. Williams, awaits surgery in the back room of the cantina. Young Pedro, an orphan, feels a spiritual kinship with Williams because is also without a home. Williams gives Pedro a gift that he says is for the people of town and tells him to keep it a secret until later.
After the doctor has removed the bullets from Williams he tells Pedro that, according to medical standards, his friend should not have survived his injury. Manuelo tells the doctor that he has informed the authorities of the stranger’s location.
When the authorities arrive the people of town turn into an angry, violent mob. Williams tells Pedro to give his gift to the doctor but Manuelo grabs it and set fire to it. Astounded, Williams asks them why they will not accept his kindness. Someone accuses him of trying to harm young Pedro and he is shot dead.
The doctor walks over to the fire and picks up what is left of the gift. He says it is the formula for a vaccine against all forms of cancer. But he can no longer read it because the formula has been burned off.
Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Madeiro, Mexico, the present. The subject: fear. The cure: a little more faith. An Rx off a shelf in the Twilight Zone.”
Many fans and historians of The Twilight Zone have made the claim that as the show approached the tail end of its third season its creative stride began to show signs of fatigue. Although the show would run for another two seasons—a season and a half, really—it would never quite feel the same. There are numerous potential explanations for this. One reason is that after the departure of Buck Houghton, the show went through a quick succession of producers, each with a different idea of how it should be run. Another is that season four saw the show change to an hour-long format which, although it did produce some extraordinary episodes, ultimately did not fit the tone of the show. Another reason is that writers Richard Matheson and George Clayton Johnson both left the show during its fifth season after creative disputes with producer William Froug and prolific Twilight Zone contributor Charles Beaumont had begun to show signs of the disease which would eventually claim his life and he also left the show. This resulted in an almost totally new writing staff at the end of the fifth season.
As for Serling, the constant fight to meet his contractual obligation of writing the majority of the episodes each season had most certainly taken its toll. He had grown weary of the show and had increasingly begun to recycle themes and story lines. When it appeared that The Twilight Zone would not be renewed for a fourth season he accepted a teaching position at his Alma Mater, Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He would reside in Ohio and mail his scripts for the show, which was being rebooted in a different format and under a new producer, back to Los Angeles. By the time the show was cancelled for the third time after the fifth season Serling was ready to let it go. The show had made its mark and was becoming almost a ghost of its former self.
If a specific episode could be used to mark the point at which the series began to decline then “The Gift” would be a good example. It is definitely not the worst episode of the series but it is the worst episode up to this point in the series which is significant. The show had already had a few not-so-great episodes and still had some fantastic episodes left in its reservoir—the following week would see “The Dummy” make its debut and become an instant classic and the remaining seasons each had their share of memorable episodes. But the ratio of good episodes to bad would noticeably shift between the broadcast of “The Gift” and the end of the series two years later.
Seemingly unsure of exactly what it wants to be, “The Gift” is a hybrid of a standard invaders-from-space story and a twentieth century religious parable with undertones of McCarthyism present because it is a Rod Serling script. It seems to have been a story that Serling was somewhat attached to for he attempted to see it made three different times. But the finished product here falls short of the standard that The Twilight Zone had established. The acting is poor, the dialogue forced, the setting awkward and unnecessary, and the heavy religious implications inappropriate and pretentious. At times it feels almost like an imitation of a Twilight Zone episode rather than the real thing.
Serling’s first attempt at getting this story made was as an hour-long pilot episode for The Twilight Zone which he submitted to CBS in 1958 called “I Shot an Arrow into the Air.” It’s the story of a humanoid being from another planet whose space craft crashes near the site of an Earth vessel that was recently launched into orbit. The creature, who goes by the name of John Williams, befriends a boy named David after he rescues the young lad from neighborhood bullies. To return the favor the boy attempts to bring Williams home so he can recover from wounds received after being shot by a police officer. Instead, his father calls the police and Williams is taken into custody. He eventually manages to escape and later reveals to David that he is from another planet. He came to Earth to study human beings but has decided that mankind is not yet ready to be introduced to extraterrestrials. Then, unbeknownst to David, he telepathically instills in the boy the knowledge that will eventually cause him to become an astronaut twenty years later. Upon his first voyage into space he and Williams are reunited.
This script was one of several unproduced pilots that Serling wrote in the year leading up to the premier of The Twilight Zone. He recycled the title “I Shot an Arrow into the Air” for a season one episode of the show, which bears no resemblance to this longer story, and rewrote the plot to fit a half hour format which eventually became “The Gift”—after being changed from “The Guest.” Several years later, in an unsuccessful effort to get a feature-length Twilight Zone film off the ground after the show went off the air, Serling tried to expand this story into a full-length screenplay.
The Twilight Zone produced many episodes over its five season run which featured implied religious themes or motifs among them Serling’s “Escape Clause,” Charles Beaumont’s “The Howling Man” and “Printer’s Devil,” Earl Hamner’s debut episode “The Hunt,” and “Still Valley,” Serling’s adaptation of a story by Manly Wade Wellman. “The Gift,” however, is probably the episode that is the most openly didactic with its religious ideals. Serling’s insistence on making virtually every aspect of this story an allusion to Christianity comes off as incredibly forced and distracts the audience from what would otherwise be a fairly compelling tale about the flaws of humanity. At its core the story has more to do with fear than with religion which is why the religious angle feels so out of place. Among the more obvious allusions to the story of Christ are Manuelo’s betrayal of Williams in a scene where the doctor refers to him as Judas and the camera pans down to reveal him counting out coins on the bar. Another is Williams’s vow to Pedro to return some day when humanity is mature enough to accept him in which he references Christ specifically. Add to this numerous images and references to wine and blood and Williams’s apparent crucifixion-like stance before being killed in the final scene and the episode quickly becomes a caricature of what Serling intended it to be. It is also worth noting that this episode aired just days after Easter and was likely intended to be a holiday episode although it is never referred to as such.
Villainous space invaders have been prevalent in science fiction since before space travel was even possible. But benevolent alien beings were largely absent from the genre until around the middle of twentieth century and appeared significantly less than their sinister counterparts. Probably the most famous story of well intentioned alien visitors is Robert Wise’s 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, a movie whose plot is actually quite similar to “The Gift” including its religious undertones which screenwriter Edmund H. North admits to having snuck into his script when adapting Harry Bates 1941 novella “Farewell to the Master.”
Another reason this episode seems stilted is that by this point in the series fans had already seen this story several times. One of Serling’s deepest concerns as a writer was humanity’s potential to become its own worst enemy. In “The Gift” humble villagers are transformed into a violent angry mob out of fear and paranoia much like the neighbors in “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and “The Shelter.” All three tales feature a paranoid conservative who fans the flames of hysteria, a liberal-minded voice of reason, frightened townspeople who are easily influenced, and children who unintentionally cause the downfall of everyone else. The fact that “The Gift” is set in rural Mexico feels like a mere afterthought simply to differentiate it from the two previous episodes.
Aside from the problems with the script the other fatal flaw of this episode is poor casting. Nico Minardos does an adequate job as the rational Doctor but Cliff Osmond is ridiculously over the top as Manuelo and Geoffrey Horne ridiculously wooden as Williams. Another unfortunate aspect of Serling’s script is that it places several key emotional scenes on the shoulders of young Edmund Vargas. Casting children in roles with a lot of emotional weight is always risky and unfortunately this time it proved to be a bad decision for the scene in the back room between Vargas and Williams feels stilted and very slow. Vladimir Sokoloff also gives a brief but very compelling performance as Ignacio the guitar player. Despite being Russian, Sokoloff played a Hispanic character all three times he appeared on the show. He also appeared in season two’s “Dust” and the season three episode “The Mirror.” Sadly, the day after shooting wrapped for “The Gift” Sokoloff suffered a major stroke and died at the age of 72 ending a career that dates back to the era of silent films.
This was director Allen H. Miner’s only Twilight Zone episode. Miner began his career as a combat photographer in World War II. His camera captured General Douglas MacArthur’s initial landing in the Philippines. His brief career in Hollywood was spent working mostly in television usually as a writer and director of western programs including directing four episodes of Serling’s western series The Loner. Miner directed his first feature film The Black Pirates in 1954 and appears to have left the industry all together in 1972. His direction on this episode is more or less uneventful. He does manage to capture a specific mood in Serling’s script. There is a sense of anxiety present throughout the episode. This is interrupted several times, however, by long scenes of mundane dialogue.
The best thing about this episode is Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida’s restrained musical score. It fits the atmosphere of the episode nicely, never intruding upon the story but moving it along the best it can. Almeida was a Grammy Award winner that managed to flourish as both a classical and jazz guitarist. His music also appeared in numerous western films including Rio Bravo (1959), The Alamo (1960) and Unforgiven (1992). This is his only contribution to the show.
Although “The Gift” has a few minor praise-worthy elements, they are not enough to save it from being a sore spot on the show’s overall catalog. Poor casting and a bad script are ultimately to blame for this episode’s shortcomings. If you are a new fan of the show still making your way through the odyssey that is The Twilight Zone then you can rest easy knowing that "The Gift" is reserved only for the completist. This one, unfortunately, is not recommended.
Grateful acknowledgement to:
The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR Publishing, 2008)
Los Angeles Times; Obituaries, January 16, 2004; Allen H. Miner
--Vladimir Sokoloff also appeared in season two’s “Dust” and the season three episode “The Mirror.” “The Gift” was his last screen appearance.
--Paul Mazursky also appeared in the season one episode “The Purple Testament” and the season four episode “He’s Alive.”
--Vito Scotti also appeared in season one’s “Mr. Bevis.”
--Allen H. Miner later directed four episodes of Rod Serling’s western series The Loner.
--Check out the Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Danny Goldring.