The Twilight Zone: Season 3, Episode Fifteen “A Quality of Mercy”

Original Air Date: December 29, 1961
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Buzz Kulik

“This is war and you kill until you are ordered to stop killing!”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“It’s August, 1945, the last grimy pages of a dirty, torn book of war. The place is the Philippine Islands. The men are what’s left of a platoon of American infantry, whose dulled and tired eyes set deep in dulled and tired faces can now look toward a miracle; that moment when the nightmare appears to be coming to an end. But they’ve got one more battle to fight and in a moment we’ll observe that battle. August, 1945, Philippine Islands. But in reality it’s high noon in the Twilight Zone.”
-Rod Serling

August 6, 1945. We meet a cohort of disillusioned, battle-hardened, war-weary soldiers on the island of Corregidor in Manila Bay. They have been fighting the Japanese for some 24 months, and now they have surrounded about two dozen sick and half-starved Japanese soldiers in a cave but they refuse to surrender. The American troops hope not to invade and attack the Japanese, but then a fresh-faced leader named Lieutenant Katell (Dean Stockwell, a famous Hollywood actor who actually just passed away about a week ago as of this writing). He arrives and plots a foolhardy plan to attack the Japanese, despite the nearing end of the war. He is openly disrespected by the troops (one of whom is played by the great Leonard Nimoy, predating his role as Mr. Spock on Star Trek).

Before they can launch the attack at night, Lieutenant Katell drops his binoculars and by the time he picks them up a strange supernatural event has occurred. He has suddenly become a Japanese infantryman named Lieutenant Yamuri. The year is now May 1942, and the Japanese are prepping to storm the very same cave which is filled with Americans. When the young Lieutenant protests, he is slapped in the face and forced to eat his own words –there will be no mercy.

Moments later, Lieutenant drops his binoculars again and miraculously he is transported back to 1945 as Lieutenant Katell. The company has just received word that the Americans have dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. There is now no reason to attack the Japanese soldiers in the cave. “I wouldn’t fret,” says one of the soldiers sardonically. “I’m sure there’ll be other wars, other countries, other human beings you can knock off.” As the company prepares to retreat, Katell, empowered with his newfound perspective, quietly says to himself, “I hope not. God help us, I hope not.” Lieutenant Katell has been given the rare opportunity to experience the ferocious madness of human warfare from both sides, and it quells his lust for battle.

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.’ Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice. But applicable to any moment in time, any group of soldiery, to any nation on the face of the Earth. Or, as in this case, to the Twilight Zone.”
-Rod Serling

The Twilight Zone Trivia:

  • This episode was one of four episodes to be remade into The Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983.
  • The title is a reference to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
  • War was a key theme for Rod Serling. He was a young supporter for American involvement in World War II, he enlisted and spent three years in the 11th Airborne Division of the Army, from 1943 until his discharge in 1946. He served in the Pacific Theater in 1944, though his commanding officer’s believed that Serling’s temperament was unfit to make a good soldier –he was too “sensitive.” During the war, Serling witnessed the accidental death of a friend when a supply fell upon him, crushing him to death. Nevertheless, Serling was twice wounded before deploying to Tagaytay Ridge in 1945 to march on Manila. After about a month, the Americans reclaimed the city and began a celebration with local inhabitants. It was during one such celebration that the celebrants came under fire from Japanese artillery which Serling braved in order to save a particular performer. Serling’s cumulative actions while serving would yield him the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Philippine Liberation Medal by the time of his discharge in 1946 (for these facts I owe a debt of gratitude to The Twilight Zone vortex blog).
  • Sam Rolfe, a television writer, gave Rod Serling the idea for this episode.

Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.

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