Original Air Date: May 1, 1964
Writer: Martin M. Goldsmith
Director: Robert Butler
“I’m just as much American as anybody.”
On a hot summer’s day, Arthur “Taro” Takamori (George Takei) arrives at the home of Mr. Fenton (Neville Brand). He has been sent by a neighbor from down the street named Ms. Bowles to help Mr. Fenton mow his lawn for $10 per month. Mr. Fenton, an uncouth working class World War II veteran, invites Arthur up to his attic for a beer while he cleans out some old memorabilia.
“Two men alone in an attic, a young Japanese-American and a seasoned veteran of yesterday’s war. It’s twenty odd years since Pearl Harbor, but two ancient opponents are moving into position for a battle in an attic crammed with skeletons, souvenirs, mementos, old uniforms, and rusted medals. Ghosts from the dim reaches of the past, that will lead us into the Twilight Zone.”
Mr. Fenton reveals himself to be a rather self-loathing man, referring to himself as a “tub of rancid lard” but he was once a well-traveled American soldier fighting the Japanese in the Pacific Theater. He continuously and condescendingly addresses Arthur a “boy,” even though Arthur is an adult man, and Mr. Fenton asks him to read some Japanese script on an antique sword (apparently it reads: “The sword will avenge me”), even though Arthur was born and raised in the United States and he only speaks English. Mr. Fenton has clearly harbored nasty racist sentiments toward all Japanese people after his experiences in World War II. He is also apparently disgusted by foreign immigrants being allowed into the United States –people from Mexico, Portugal, China, and so on. However, there is nuance to Mr. Fenton’s personal history, he is not purely evil. He has been sadly pumped full of racist propaganda for years. As a soldier he was firmly instructed to regard all Japanese people are sub-human, akin to some species of ape, and now all of a sudden he is expected to view Japanese people as morally upstanding and highly cultured. He is as much a victim of the war as is Arthur. In truth, Mr. Fenton respects the Japanese, in particular their steadfastness during the war. Recently, Mr. Fenton has been laid off his blue collar job driving a CAT, his wife has recently left him, and he has been drinking a lot. His life appears to be falling apart.
Next, we turn to Arthur. He was born in Honolulu where he was raised, and he was in fact at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed. At first, he claims his father was a war hero who was killed when the first wave of Japanese bombers attacked the harbor, but moments later, after a powerful vision of the past (with some brilliant acting by George Takei), Arthur breaks down and admits that his father was actually a “traitor” who was signaling the Japanese planes to attack the harbor –note: this is an pure fabrication and a remarkable revision of history.
Mr. Fenton and Arthur discuss the sword he picked up off a deceased “Jap” soldier (it is later revealed that he actually killed the soldier), but when Mr. Fenton leaves the attic to grab a beer, Arthur picks up the sword and it seems to have deeply affected him. Now under the mystical power of this sword, Arthur smiles and utters, “I’m going to kill him.” Things grow more and more tense until both men start to attack each other, Arthur with the sword and Mr. Fenton with a smaller blade. The door locks them inside the attic keeping them both trapped. Mr. Fenton finally explodes and calls Arthur a “dirty little Jap” and they struggle over the sword which falls to the floor pointed upward, impaling Mr. Fenton when he falls. Arthur then slowly picks up the sword and shrieks “Banzai!” as he leaps out the window to his death. Slowly, the camera pans over the attic door which gently opens itself.
“Two men in an attic, locked in mortal embrace. Their common bond, and their common enemy: guilt. A disease all too prevalent amongst men both in and out of The Twilight Zone.”
“The Encounter” is a deeply powerful and justifiably controversial episode, but in my view this is The Twilight Zone at its best especially during the less-than-stellar fifth season. In this episode we are offered a deep and nuanced glimpse of two men who have are facing the deeply troubled and personal legacy of war. Mr. Fenton’s racism is shown to be a mere offshoot of his own personal failings and as a means to feel elevated or superior like he once did as a soldier. However, racism is also exacerbated by the strange, otherworldly forces possessed by his antique sword. The Twilight Zone seems to invite and encourage a conflict between these two men, and perhaps that is in part why it is so controversial. It is a somewhat distinct episode from the supernatural moral fables we have seen in other Twilight Zone episodes.
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- “The Encounter” sparked intense critical rebuke from fans, history buffs (primarily for the false claim of a traitorous fifth column of Japanese Americans at Pearl Harbor), civil liberties advocates, and others for its controversial take on the difficult theme of racism. The criticism was so severe that CBS pulled this episode out of circulation and it was not shown on television again for over five decades. It was finally re-run in 2016 during a SyFy channel marathon.
- Actor George Takei is best known for his role as Lt. Sulu on Star Trek but he also appeared in shows like Perry Mason and Playhouse 90 where he first met Rod Serling and Neville Brand. As a child, Mr. Takei was one of thousands of Asian Americans rounded up and detained in remote prison camps by the United States government during World War II. He was also one of the thousands of former internees who received an apology and a check in the amount of $20,000 during the Ronald Reagan administration. Mr. Takei donated his check to the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles. Like his character in this episode, Mr. Takei was also 4 years old when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred. Mr. Takei is the first actor to have appeared in both the original series of The Twilight Zone as well as the Jordan Peele reboot in the 2020s.
- Actor Neville Brand (1920-1992) was a highly decorated soldier in World War II (in fact the fourth most decorated American soldier), an experience which influenced many of his later roles in Hollywood. His wartime experiences caused him to develop a stutter, thus a friend initially suggested he start acting to remedy the stutter. Throughout his career he appeared in a variety of celebrated films such as Stalag 17 (1953), Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). He often played gruff, alcoholic, morally troubled characters in war films and westerns. Much like his characters, Mr. Brand was an alcoholic himself. During his lifetime he amassed a massive book collection of some 30,000+ books to populate his library in Malibu but many were unfortunately destroyed in a house fire. He was initially slated to appear in the earlier Twilight Zone episode “Execution” but he came down with the flu the morning of the shoot and so he was given another opportunity with “The Encounter.” He died in 1992 of emphysema.
- Director Robert Butler (1927-Present) is still alive as of the time I write this post. He directed two Twilight Zone episodes, both in Season 5 (“Caesar and Me” and “The Encounter”). He also directed the unaired pilot episode of Star Trek “The Cage” which had scenes which were later prominently featured in “The Menagerie Parts I and II.” During his long career he directed episodes for many other popular television shows, as well.
- Writer Martin M. Goldsmith contributed two scripts to The Twilight Zone, both in Season 5 (“What’s in the Box?” and “The Encounter”). According to Marc Scott Zicree, Twilight Zone Producer William Froug was so impressed with Mr. Goldsmith’s first script for “What’s in the Box?” that he was invited back for a second episode. However, he was actually out of the country when “The Encounter” aired so he never actually saw it, but he received quite a lot of critical feedback about the episode.
- Pearl Harbor is discussed several times in this episode. Six years later actor Neville Brand appeared in the epic Pearl Harbor film Tora! Tora! Tora!
Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.
I’ve finally seen The Encounter in this century. But somehow I can’t remember whether it was on TV or YouTube. Thanks to iTunes it’s now in my Twilight Zone collection. An understandably very powerful episode and especially for George Takei. Thanks for reviewing it.
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