Original Air Date: November 8, 1963
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Alan Crosland, Jr.
“Man cannot live by bread or canned food alone, or freak carrots or mutated tomatoes…”
Set in the “futuristic” post-apocalyptic world of 1974 (!) “The Old Man in the Cave” is a Twilight Zone episode which explores life after a nuclear holocaust while offering a distinctly pessimistic view of human nature or at least perhaps a critique of fanatical mob-mentality. This episode was based on the short story “The Old Man” by Henry Slesar. Mr. Slesar was a celebrated mystery writer and a staff writer for The Edge of Night. In the story, we meet the townsfolk of a remote American city which has barely remained alive surviving upon canned food while desperately attempting to grow crops. They regularly consult a strange “man in the cave” who informs them that their food is contaminated with radiation poisoning via strange written messages. Mr. Goldsmith (John Anderson, the last of his four appearances in the series) is the de facto leader of the town
“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 10 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.”
One day, a band of rogue soldiers arrives in town having recently deprated from Chicago. They are led by Major French (James Coburn) who quickly usurps the authority of Mr. Goldsmith and demands to be brought before the mysterious man in the cave. Major French quickly wins the favor of the townsfolk by proclaiming that their food is safe to eat, and he leads a revolution against Mr. Goldsmith and the “tyranny” of the old man in the cave.
In the end the crowd, now whipped up into a frenzy, invades the cave to find a lone machine –a computer– which has been feeding them information all this time. The folk attack and destroy the computer under the false promise of freedom, but they all soon die of radiation poisoning, just as the machine predicted –all except for Mr. Goldsmith who quietly leaves town while commenting the tragic faithlessness of mankind, wondering if this is to be the true destiny of humanity.
“Mr. Goldsmith, survivor. An eyewitness 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.”
As in other classic Twilight Zone episodes, “The Old Man In The Cave” explores both the dangers and the possibilities of groupthink. On the one hand, if the people had simply refused to trust in Major French they would still be alive, however if they maintained a collectivist faith in the “old man in the cave” without asking questions and yearning for liberation, they would also still be alive. Notably, the man-made computer becomes deified in this episode. Technological progress (i.e. a computer) solves the problems created by modern science (i.e. nuclear war). Lastly, this episode is reminiscent of earlier Twilight Zone “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “The Shelter.”
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- The episode features stock music mostly borrowed from the Season 1 episode “And When the Sky Was Opened.”
- This episode was based on a short story by mystery writer Henry Slesar entitled “The Old Man” while the teleplay was drafted by Rod Serling.
- This was the last of four appearances in The Twilight Zone by John Anderson (previously he appeared in “A Passage for Trumpet,” “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville.”
- In The Twilight Zone Companion Marc Scott Zicree poses an intriguing question: how has the computer in this episode remained in power through the nuclear fallout? Where did it come from?