Original Air Date: September 30, 1960
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Buzz Kulik
“King Nine Will Not Return” is a terrific opener for the second season of The Twilight Zone. It shares a great deal in common with the pilot episode for Season 1 “Where Is Everybody?” Both episodes concern the maddening quest of one lone, disoriented man who experiences a psychotic episode. This was Buzz Kulik’s first time directing a Twilight Zone episode. It was particularly challenging task because most of Bob Cummings’s lines occurred as inner monologue. The voice-overs were pre-recorded at MGM and then played back during filming.
“This is Africa, 1943. War spits out its violence overhead, and the sandy graveyard swallows it up. Her name is King Nine, B-25, medium bomber, Twelfth Air Force. On a hot, still morning, she took off from Tunisia to bomb the southern tip of Italy. An errant piece of flak 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.”
The setting is 1943 during World War II. We find a crashed B-25 bomber called the “King Nine” sitting alone in the remote desert of Africa. Captain James Embry (played by classic Hollywood star Robert Cummings) is stranded among the wreckage in the desert. He scrambles, searching for his crew while he steadily goes insane. He begins having visions of his fellow crewmen as they appear in the cockpit and standing over their own graves.
High up in the sky Capt. Embry spots a jet flying overhead, though jets did not exist in 1943. Has he traveled through time? Is he the victim of a cruel experiment? How did he wind up alone in the desert? In a fit of madness he collapses in the sand and then awakens on a hospital bed seventeen years later. Apparently, he has been suffering from hallucinations triggered by a newspaper headline about the discovery of a World War II plane in the middle of the desert. Back in 1943, Capt. Embry was set to board the “King Nine” when he came down with a fever and was replaced at the last moment. The plane disappeared and there were no survivors. Capt. Embry has been living with survivor’s guilt but the doctors reassure him that he merely had a strange hallucination. However, in a twist at the end a nurse pours a pile of sand out of Capt. Embry’s shoe leaving it up to the viewer to decide what truly took place. Similarly in the pilot episode of Season 1 “Where Is Everybody?” Rod Serling initially intended for the protagonist to pull movie tickets out of his pocket after attending a movie theater in his hallucination. In “King Nine Will Not Return” Serling was granted his double twist ending.
“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 Trivia:
- This was the first episode where Rod Serling appeared on camera at the beginning, rather than introducing the episode in a voice-over narration.
- This is the first episode of The Twilight Zone to feature the legendary theme music, composed by Marius Constant.
- The bomber aircraft used in this episode was a North American Aviation B-25C-10NA 42-32354, which still exists in storage with Aero Trader, Borrego Springs, California.
- This episode was based on the discovery of the B-24 Liberator bomber Lady Be Good and her crew’s remains, which had crash-landed at night, deep in the Libyan desert after running out of fuel, while returning from a World War II bombing mission over Naples, Italy. In the episode, the marker of a grave of a member of the crew of King Nine is dated “5 April 1943,” the day on which the Lady Be Good was lost. Lady Be Good had been found in 1958, and the bodies of 8 of the 9-man crew were discovered between February and August 1960 – the eighth crewman being found just a few weeks before “King Nine Will Not Return” aired. The Air Force called the discovery “one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history.”
- With the exception of the final hospital scenes, the episode was filmed entirely on location in the desert near Lone Pine, California.