Saturday, June 15, 2024

"The Old Man in the Cave"


“The Old Man in the Cave”
Season Five, Episode 127
Original Air Date: November 8, 1963

Major French: James Coburn
Goldsmith: John Anderson
Jason: John Marley
Evie: Josie Lloyd
Man: John Craven
Woman: Natalie Masters (uncredited)
Harber: Frank Watkins (uncredited)
Douglas: Leonard Greer (uncredited)
Furman: Don Wilbanks (uncredited)
Writer: Rod Serling (based on “The Old Man” by Henry Slesar)
Director: Alan Crosland, Jr.
Producer: Bert Granet
Director of Photography: Robert Pittack
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Walter Holscher
Film Editor: Richard Heermance
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and Robert R. Benton
Assistant Director: Charles Bonniwell, Jr.
Casting: Patricia Rose
Music: stock
Sound: Franklin Milton and Philip N. Mitchell
Mr. Serling’s Wardrobe: Eagle Clothes
Filmed at MGM Studios

And Now, Mr. Serling: 

“Next on Twilight Zone a journey into a future moment, a nightmarish, frightening moment in time, when man sits in his own rubble and surveys the legacy he’s left to himself. James Coburn and John Anderson star in “The Old in the Cave,” recommended viewing for the more imaginative amongst you, on The Twilight Zone.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:

“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 ten 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.” 


            Ten years after The Bomb, in the rubble of what was once an American town, a group of weary, hungry survivors gather to await the return of Mr. Goldsmith, who will bring word from the old man in the cave on whether or not they can safely eat a store of canned goods. The survivors lament their situation, their inability to grow healthy crops, their lack of edible food, and desperately hope this food was canned before The Bomb, and is free of radiation. They hold out for word from the old man in the cave, who has kept them alive with the knowledge of where to plant crops and what food is safe to eat.

            Goldsmith reads a printed message from the old man in the cave and returns to deliver the information. The canned food is not safe to eat. This news is met with groans of despair. The survivors notice the approach of a vehicle. Within are four men in military outfits carrying rifles. The leader introduces himself as Major French of Central State Command and informs those gathered that they will now be under his authority in an effort to unify survivors. 

            Goldsmith tells the soldiers that they should move on, as their authority is not recognized here. Major French first tells Goldsmith that he doesn’t have a choice and then strikes the man, knocking him down. When Major French observes the malnourished condition of the survivors, he asks why no one is eating the canned goods. He is told of the old man in the cave.

            Major French demands to see the old man and forces Goldsmith to lead him to the cave, while the soldiers and survivors follow along. They arrive at the cave to find it blocked by a strong door. Major French attempts to blow open the door with a hand grenade. This has no effect on the door. Major French yells to the old man inside the cave that this is only the beginning of their efforts to get through the door. This draws a fit of laughter from some of the survivors.

            Returned to the settlement, Major French further challenges Goldsmith’s authority by opening a can of food and eating the contents. When the survivors see that no immediate ill effects befall Major French, they give in to their hunger and tear into the food supply that the old man in the cave determined was not safe to consume. At the soldiers’ bidding, a store of liquor is opened and enjoyed by all. Only Goldsmith resists partaking of the food and drink. 

            Later that night, Goldsmith confronts Major French, calling him a murderer and holding him responsible for the eventual deaths of the survivors from eating the food the old man in the cave deemed unsafe. Major French scoffs at this and stands on the back of his vehicle to make a proclamation. “There is no old man in the cave,” he tells the survivors. Again, Major French forces Goldsmith to the cave while the others follow behind. This time, French threatens Goldsmith’s life if Goldsmith doesn’t open the door that seals the cave. Reluctantly, Goldsmith opens the door with a lever hidden beneath a rock at the base of the cave. 

            The survivors rush into the cave. They stop suddenly, stunned by the sight which confronts them. Before them is a large computer, alive with paneled lights. Major French tells the gathered survivors that they must kill this thing and free themselves from its control. In a fit of drunken madness, the survivors rush forward with fists and stones to strike at the computer. Goldsmith can only watch as they destroy the “old man” in the cave, who has kept them alive this long. 

            Later, Goldsmith walks amid the fallen bodies of the dead, spread out across the ground. The food and drink was not safe to consume and has claimed the lives of the soldiers and survivors. Goldsmith is now alone, the only remaining survivor.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:

“Mr. Goldsmith, survivor, an eye witness 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.”


Henry Slesar
(via Wikipedia)

Producer Bert Granet and series creator Rod Serling were likely drawn to the work of writer Henry Slesar by the successful adaptations of Slesar’s stories on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as by Slesar’s numerous appearances in science fiction and mystery magazines of the time. Slesar’s stories, notable for their ironic and convention-defying twist endings, began appearing in 1957 during the third season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, occasionally with scripts by Slesar. Slesar's initial episode was “Heart of Gold,” scripted by James P. Cavanagh from Slesar's story "M Is for the Many," which originally appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Slesar's association with Hitchcock's television programs continued with forty-six additional episodes through the second season of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1964. Readers interested in more information about Slesar’s association with Hitchcock’s television programs are encouraged to visit the Bare Bones E-Zine, where Jack Seabrook has reviewed Slesar’s episodes for the Hitchcock series in detail. 

Slesar’s stories also frequently appeared in the pages of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, beginning also in 1957, as well as in Alfred Hitchcock book anthologies and in other books associated with Hitchcock. Examples of the latter include collections of Slesar’s stories, which often featured the famous director's name more prominently than Slesar's, such as Alfred Hitchcock Hand-Picks and Introduces: A Bouquet of Clean Crimes and Neat Murders (Avon, 1960), Alfred Hitchcock Introduces: A Crime for Mothers and Others (Avon, 1962), and Death on Television: The Best of Henry Slesar’s Alfred Hitchcock Stories, edited by Francis M. Nevins, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg (Southern Illinois University Press, 1989). Slesar also wrote the introduction to Hitchcock in Prime Time, an anthology of stories adapted on Hitchcock’s television programs, including one from Slesar, also edited by Nevins, Jr. and Greenberg (Avon, 1985).

Slesar contributed to hundreds of television scripts for a variety of series, including anthology programs such as Circle of Fear, Tales of the Unexpected, and the revival series of both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. Much of his television work included writing soap operas such as Search for Tomorrow, Somerset, and The Edge of Night, the latter of which netted Slesar a Daytime Emmy Award in 1974. 

Slesar was born Henry Schlosser (later legally changing his name) in Brooklyn in 1927, the son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. He began publishing science fiction and mystery stories in 1955 and won an Edgar Award in 1959 for his first mystery novel, The Gray Flannel Shroud, a novel colored by Slesar’s career in advertising. Slesar’s output of science fiction and fantasy stories are mostly from early in his career (many can be freely read on Project Gutenberg) but he continued to write mystery stories and novels for decades, including such novels as Enter Murderers (1960) and The Thing at the Door (1974), considered by many to be his finest novel, as well as story collections such as Acrostic Mysteries (1985) and Murders Most Macabre (1986). Slesar’s soap opera work informed his novels The Seventh Mask (1969), adapted from a storyline from The Edge of Night, and Murder at Heartbreak Hospital (1993). Slesar also produced work for other mediums such as radio (over 40 scripts for CBS Radio Mystery Theatre) and stage production. He died in 2002.

Martin Grams, Jr., in his book The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic, reports that Slesar’s story “The Old Man” was brought to the attention of Rod Serling by Sybil S. Gurner of Los Angeles, presumably through the copious correspondence the series received from its viewers. What ultimately drew Serling to adapt the story for The Twilight Zone was the opportunity to craft a tale of group dynamics juxtaposed with an event that threatens the survival of the group, a story type featured in several episodes written by Serling, including some of his best. 

via Ebay

Slesar’s story, the “short-short story” selection for the September, 1962 issue of Diners’ Club Magazine (pictured), tells of a society depopulated by an atomic war in which a cabal of “Governors” house and maintain the “old man,” a computer, in a stone house on a hill. The Governors created the myth of the old man to disguise the truth about the computer’s existence while using the machine’s computations to instruct the lives of the villagers who dwell in the valley below. Tango, a spy for the Governors, reports back from a village meeting with news of unrest among the villagers, who rebel against the benign control of the Governors and the “old man.” The old man has existed for generations, leading to questions in the minds of the villagers about the old man’s real age, and the mental decline that accompanies advanced aging. Why should they go on listening to what the old man says they should do, asks Sierra, a farmer’s son with a withered arm, who leads the villagers in a charge on the stone house on the hill. The villagers batter their way inside, killing Tango and the Governors. When the mob discovers the computer in an upstairs room, they destroy it as well. Without the computer’s information, the villagers soon die out.

Slesar’s story presented the foundation upon which Rod Serling built the story he wished to tell, one imbedded with a strong warning in an era of high political tensions. As such, “The Old Man in the Cave” is an episode less instructively compared to the story on which it is based and better compared to thematically related episodes of the series written by Serling.

“The Old Man in the Cave” is frequently compared to Serling’s first season episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” and for obvious reasons. Both episodes concern the growing power struggles within a group of individuals fighting for survival against an unknown or immeasurable threat, as well as the death and destruction that results from the collapse of rational decision-making within the group. Both episodes also contain moments of mob violence. Another episode that offers a comparison, and also contains an unnerving sequence of mob violence, is Serling’s “The Shelter,” from the third season. This episode could serve as a prequel to “The Old Man in the Cave,” in that “The Shelter” examines group dynamics during an imminent threat of The Bomb, while “The Old Man in the Cave” examines group dynamics after The Bomb has fallen.

Unlike these earlier episodes, however, in which the struggle for power within a group is dispersed among several individuals, “The Old Man in the Cave” is primarily concerned with the conflict between two central figures of authority, the benevolent Mr. Goldsmith and the violent and commanding Major French. In this way, “The Old Man in the Cave” closely resembles Rod Serling’s fourth season episode “On Thursday We Leave for Home,” which also concerns a group of isolated survivors under a seemingly benevolent leader whose authority is challenged by the arrival of military officials.

            “The Old Man in the Cave” can be viewed as the inverse of “On Thursday We Leave for Home,” serving as a way for Serling to explore the results of a role reversal between the primary figures of authority. In the earlier episode, the power and control established by the leader of the survivors, Captain Benteen, is threatened by the arrival of Colonel Sloane, the leader of a mission to rescue the survivors. Replace the names Benteen and Sloane with Goldsmith and French, respectively, and you essentially have the story again with “The Old Man in the Cave.” However, the role reversal between these authority figures leads to different and problematic results.

Captain Benteen is ultimately driven to madness and ensures his own premature death through an inability to relinquish his authority as leader of the survivors. Colonel Sloane is the figure of hope, sanity, and rationality in the episode, able to save the survivors but forced to abandon Benteen to his chosen fate. Conversely, in “The Old Man in the Cave,” Goldsmith is presented as the voice of reason forced to contend with madness and premature death brought on by Major French and his men. The viewer is entirely encouraged to sympathize with Goldsmith and to reject the methods of Major French, who attempts to seize control of the survivors through intimidation and bravado. These changes, both from the original story and from Serling’s thematically related episode, ultimately serve the twist ending retained from Henry Slesar’s original story, pithily expressed by the author as: “Then they killed the old man, the computer. It didn’t take the people long to die.”

By the end of the episode, Goldsmith is delivering such dialogue directed to the dead Major French as: “When we talked about the ways that men could die, we forgot the chief method of execution. We forgot faithlessness, Major French.” Dialogue like this, coupled with the messianic figure of Goldsmith and the deity-like existence of the old man in the cave, result in the episode playing like a religious allegory, in which a faith healer is challenged by a figure of secular authority. Though unlikely a direct influence, there are also shades of Ray Bradbury’s “The Man,” a 1949 story collected in The Illustrated Man (1951), in which the brash and skeptical leader of a planet-hopping space crew denies the existence of a messianic figure despite evidence of the man’s good works. As author Marc Scott Zicree wrote in his review of “The Old Man in the Cave” for The Twilight Zone Companion: 

“. . . there are several issues raised by the episode that are hard to ignore. For instance, Goldsmith views the computer as a deity-like authority, and when the people demand to know the identity of ‘the Old Man’ and disregard his instructions, this is considered the ultimate act of faithlessness – the punishment being death. But, in actuality, a computer is not a god, it is a man-made tool, and the townsfolk’s insistence to know the true nature of their leader seems less an act of faithlessness than a natural human curiosity for vital information, a desire for democracy, for self-determination.”           

            Other problematic aspects of the episode result from retaining certain features of Slesar’s story while jettisoning the narrative details that provide context to the events of the story. For instance, it is never revealed why the computer in the cave is called the “old man.” This is explained in Slesar’s story but left unexplained in the episode. Is it a purposeful deception by the computer or by Goldsmith, as it is with the Governors in the original story? If so, deception is hardly an ethical foundation for faith. Also, as pointed out by Zicree in his review, it is never explained by what means the computer receives the power needed to operate in this decimated world. How did the computer get into the cave in the first place? These are trifles, perhaps, but they display the problems that arise in retaining only the barest structure of the source material while also attaching a strong moral message to the narrative.

             The work of Henry Slesar was again adapted for the fifth season of The Twilight Zone for “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross,” scripted by Jerry McNeely and directed by Don Siegel from Slesar’s story published in the May, 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The story tells of the titular rough-hewn loser, played by Don Gordon, who discovers that he can trade attributes with another person through a simple agreement. Ross makes a number of “trades” in an effort to land the girl of his dreams, played by Gail Kobe, but commits a fatal error when he seeks to gain the quality of compassion from the girl’s father, played by Twilight Zone veteran Vaughn Taylor. 

"Examination Day"

            Another of Slesar’s short-short stories, “Examination Day,” from the February, 1958 issue of Playboy, was adapted for the first season of the first revival Twilight Zone series in 1985. Slesar’s bleak story was faithfully scripted by series producer Philip DeGuere and directed by Paul Lynch for the opening segment of the sixth episode. It tells of a future society in which children are forced by the government to take an intelligence test at the age of twelve. Christopher Allport and Elizabeth Norment portray Richard and Ruth Jordan, who anxiously await the results of their son’s test. Their son, Dickie, played by David Mendenhall, is a bright child and his parents are horrified to learn that the government test has determined that Dickie is too intelligent and that the boy will be euthanized. 

John Anderson

            “The Old Man in the Cave” includes some notable and familiar faces among its collection of character actors. Mr. Goldsmith is played by John Anderson, who appeared in three previous episodes of the series. Anderson (1922-1992) was a versatile performer specializing in everyman characters who excelled in eliciting sympathy from the audience. Anderson portrayed the angel Gabriel opposite Jack Klugman’s suicidal trumpet player Joey Crown in Rod Serling’s first season episode “A Passage for Trumpet.” Anderson later portrayed Captain Farver on a doomed flight lost in time in Serling’s second season episode “The Odyssey of Flight 33.” In the fourth season, Anderson appeared in a highly sympathetic role opposite Albert Salmi in “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville,” Rod Serling’s adaptation of Malcolm Jameson’s story “Blind Alley.” Anderson was a hugely prolific actor who appeared in many favorite television series, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Outer Limits, and The Sixth Sense, a series packaged in syndication with Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. 

John Marley

            The character in the episode who most represents the everyman, however, is Jason, as portrayed by John Marley. Marley (1907-1984) previously appeared on the third season of the series as Mr. Cox, the supervisor of Sunnyvale Rest Home, where the elderly residents play a magical game of “Kick the Can,” as scripted by George Clayton Johnson. Marley was an equally prolific character actor whose television credits go back to the early days of the medium with appearances on Suspense and Inner Sanctum. Marley later appeared on such series of interest as One Step Beyond, The Outer Limits, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker.  

James Coburn

            Perhaps the most notable cast member is James Coburn (1928-2002) as the gruff Major French. Coburn’s career was much too long and varied to effectively summarize here except to say that he studied acting at UCLA before beginning his professional career on the New York stage. He appeared in several early television series such as Studio One, Suspicion, and General Electric Theater before he found an enduring niche in television westerns and crime dramas. Coburn appeared in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, “The Jokester,” alongside the aforementioned Albert Salmi, and in an adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Coburn’s film career began in earnest with the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven. Notable film roles include the James Bond-inspired Our Man Flint (1966), and its sequel In Like Flint (1967), as well as an Academy Award-winning supporting role late in his career in Affliction (1997). Also of interest is Coburn’s role as host of the short-lived horror anthology series Darkroom, which ran on ABC for seven episodes in 1981-1982. The series featured scripts and stories by such notable writers as Robert Bloch, William F. Nolan, Fredric Brown, Cornell Woolrich, Davis Grubb, Robert R. McCammon, and Alan Brennert, a writer and story consultant on the first revival Twilight Zone series. 

            Despite fine acting and excellent characterizations, the narrative inconsistencies, lapses in logic, and questionable moralizing in “The Old Man in the Cave” reduce the impact of the episode. Rod Serling brilliantly explored the dramatic possibilities of similar material in three previously mentioned episodes, all of which come highly recommended. The well is here beginning to run dry, however, and the results are further diluted when filtered through the work of another writer. Like much of the material from the final season of the series, a return trip over familiar ground results in diminished returns. Ultimately, “The Old Man in the Cave” remains an engaging yet minor entry in the series. 

Grade: C 

Next Time in the Vortex: A deep dive into the November/December, 1983 issue of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine. Thanks for reading! 

--The Twilight Zone Companion (3rd ed.) by Marc Scott Zicree (Silman-James, 2018)
--The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR, 2008)
--“The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar” by Jack Seabrook (Bare Bones E-Zine (
--“Henry Slesar” by Frances McConachie (Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers (3rd ed.), edited by Lesley Henderson (St. James Press, 1991))
--The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction by Mike Ashley (Carroll & Graf, 2002)
--The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (4th ed.) (
--The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki (
--The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (
--The Internet Movie Database (
--“Henry Slesar” (Wikipedia ( 


--“The Old Man” by Henry Slesar was first published in the September, 1962 issue of Diners’ Club Magazine. The story was included in The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories, edited by Richard Matheson, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh (1985).
--Henry Slesar’s story, “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” (1961), was adapted for the fifth season of The Twilight Zone. Slesar’s 1958 story, “Examination Day,” was adapted for the first season of the first revival Twilight Zone series (1985).
--Rod Serling’s teleplay for “The Old Man in the Cave” was published in volume 4 of As Timeless As Infinity: The Complete Twilight Scripts of Rod Serling, ed. by Tony Albarella (Gauntlet Press, 2007).
--Alan Crosland, Jr. also directed the fourth season episode, “The Parallel,” as well as the fifth season episodes “The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms” and “Ring-a-Ding Girl.”
--John Anderson also appeared in the first season episode, “A Passage for Trumpet,” the second season episode, “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” and the fourth season episode, “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville.”
--John Marley also appeared in the third season episode, “Kick the Can.”
--“The Old Man in the Cave” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Adam Baldwin. 


Additional Images:

Cover art by Jim Bramlet

James Coburn hosting Darkroom