“The Incredible World Of Horace Ford” (season 4, episode 15; originally aired 4/18/1963)
In which nostalgia ain’t what it used to be…
Do you remember your favorite toy? I do: a stuffed, foot high Roger Rabbit doll. I used to carry it everywhere, and sleep with it, and talk to it, and probably plot crimes with it. When I thought about running away, I’d work through my escape plan with Roger at my side. That toy was my best friend. I wasn’t young enough to think it was actually alive, but I was emotionally invested in having it around, in a way I don’t really feel about anything I own anymore. (Well, I did just get a MacBook, so…) Sometimes I wonder what happened to it, in a “Oh, I just watched Toy Story” kind of way. Sometimes I wish I still had it sitting on my bed at home. And yet, if I did find Roger again, somehow, I don’t think I’d know what do with him. With it, really. I have a few toys still kicking around my apartment, but they’re up on shelves, gathering dust, more collectibles I like to look at than objects with entertainment or emotional value. I don’t know how to be a kid that way anymore, and even if I miss it, I suspect I wouldn’t much want to go back to those days. There were too many monsters then. Everything was bigger than it needed to be.
Horace Ford (Pat Hingle, at his most gloriously unhinged) doesn’t share these reservations. From the moment we first see him in “The Incredible World Of Horace Ford,” he’s talking about the past: about the lingo they used as kids, about all the cool games they used to play, about who did what when and how everything was better once upon a time, everything was keener than it is today. His enthusiasm is impressive and even, at times, winning, but there’s something fundamentally exhausting about Horace’s view of the world. He’s relentless in his need to regurgitate the past, obsessed over repeating the same dozen anecdotes to anyone with the misfortune of coming within earshot. Hingle plays it like a man who’s desperate to believe there’s a little boy trapped inside him; he’s not so much childlike as childish, his eagerness dominating every conversation, blotting out the rest of the world. It’s often infuriating, but given the arc of the story, that’s intentional. There’s something fundamentally wrong at the heart of Horace’s fantasies. He’s clinging to an idea that doesn’t really exist.
Not that this is a new thing for the Twilight Zone; the series has a long history of men and women dreaming bad dreams. (Although actually, “The Incredible World Of Horace Ford” is a remake of a script first filmed in 1955 for Studio One, starring Art Carney as Ford.) And even if the story isn’t original to the show, its vision of the way nostalgia can corrupt a seemingly happy life is something Serling has touched on before. What’s most striking about “Ford,” is how little we know why the title character does what he does. From the first time we see him, he’s berating his apparent best friend with anecdotes, and from there until almost the end of the hour, he doesn’t really stop. While Hingle manages to keep this engaging, there’s no instigating incident or overt justification as to why he’s become so one note. And he is one note, to a degree that has to be a new thing in his life. After all, he’s happily (presumably) married to a woman (Nan Martin) who loves him very much, and he’s managed to hold onto a job and a best friend, so he can’t always have been such a disaster. But all we ever see is the ranting, the daydreams, and defensiveness that creeps in whenever anyone tries to call him on his behavior.
Then again, maybe there are reasons; you just have to dig a little for them. The most obvious clue is the fact that Horace’s birthday is coming up. He’s not quite at 40 yet, but he’s nearing it, and that sort of time can do things to a person. Maybe he’s stressing out about getting older, about not making all his dreams come true. Maybe he’s yearning for an age when it was possible to wish big without worrying about practicality and consequences and common sense. And his mother living with him and his wife, that’s got to be frustrating. The pacing of “Ford” has its ups and downs, but one of the advantages to the running time of all the episodes this season has been the occasional glimpse of depth that might not have made it through in a half hour episode. Here, it’s the breakdown of Horace’s mom when she realizes he’s lost his job. While there’s no question Horace acted selfishly, and that, if they knew the real story, his wife and his mother would have every right to criticize him, the older Mrs. Ford collapses to a degree that isn’t entirely justified by the situation. She’s terrified about her future, about what this all means for her, and it’s not hard to extrapolate out from this that Horace’s childhood maybe wasn’t quite as idyllic as he’d like everyone to believe. Which, paradoxically, would make it all the more necessary for him to imagine otherwise. The worse your present seems, the more you want that escape; and the easier it gets to reconstruct how much better things used to be.
This is confirmed in the episode’s climax. The supernatural hook of the story has Horace revisiting the street where he grew up, and finding it somehow unchanged. More than unchanged; he appears to be stepping back into his own past, and every time he visits, he watches the same scenarios unfold. During his final visit, when he sticks around long enough to briefly transform into his childhood self, the whole fantasy falls apart. All the kids he thought were his friends are actually just a bunch of bullies pissed off at him for not inviting them to his birthday party. (No reason why is given, although it’s not hard to infer that Horace’s mom had something to do with it. Maybe they were just too poor to afford more than a few guests.) Despite his apologies, they beat the shit out of him, and when Horace’s wife, Laura, finds him, he’s a bruised, changed man, willing to admit that being a child wasn’t as great as he wanted it to be. It’s an ending that works a bit better for all that’s left unsaid. The past was the past; now it’s time to move on.
“Ford” suffers some for its running time. Rose, whose best known for writing 12 Angry Men, does a good job filling the minutes, but there’s still a certain amount of repetition that wears thin after a while, especially in the episode’s middle section. The biggest flaw is how often the script repeats the same basic beats: Horace is at work, Horace goes home, Horace visits Randolph Street, and again, and again. It’s possible to justify this to an extent, as each subsequent run through of the pattern gives us a slightly different take on what’s happening, and makes Horace’s need all the more palpable, which in turn makes the final discovery all the more bracing. (There’s also some inherent suspense in wondering if he’ll figure things out in time to save himself.) There’s also a growing sense of strangeness in the way everything on Randolph Street keeps repeating the exact same way, like a record skipping. But it’s still too much, and the diminishing returns kick in before Horace finally gets beat up by his old “friends.” After a while, the story becomes as one note as its main character, and the frustration of watching him ignore the advice and love of people close to him spreads becomes more distracting than engaging.
One’s appreciation of this entry depends largely on how much enjoyment you can get out of Hingle’s performance. In retrospect, this is a slight idea to hold an hour on; man finally gets what he wants, realizes he doesn’t want it anymore, the end. It’s certainly not a message that’s new to the show. Yet, in its most effective scenes, Rose’s script suggests a gratifying level of complexity, and there are moments throughout that stick in the memory. Like Horace’s young friend, Hermes, who keeps bringing Horace’s watch home every night, and who ends the episode watching the Fords leave Randolph Street for good. There’s a suggestion of more going on under the surface that helps elevate the whole story. And for my money, Hingle is fantastic, giving into the character’s selfishness completely in a way that makes him irritatingly, undeniably human. Sometimes, even when everything is fine, we wish we could go back to who we used to be. It was better then. At least, that’s how I remember it.
What a twist: Horace finally manages to relive some of his childhood, and it’s awful.
- In the original version of Rose’s script, the one that was used on Studio One, Horace never comes back from Randolph Street; the episode ends with Hermes giving Laura the watch (which has finally become the Mickey Mouse watch that Horace keeps going on about), and that’s it. I’d be curious to see how well this worked. You could make a case that a downbeat conclusion makes more sense structurally than an upbeat one; the story of a man destroying himself through nostalgia has more weight to it than the story of a man who almost destroys himself, but then learns his lesson. But I really like the more upbeat ending, and I like the implication that Hermes has somehow orchestrated all of this as a gesture of kindness to a friend he once treated badly.
- She doesn’t get much more to do than be a long suffering wife, but Nan Martin is great. I found myself rooting for Horace to pull it together just so he could make their marriage work again.
- “Because when I was a kid, it was an ugly, sad, unbearable nightmare.” -Horace, coming to his senses.
“On Thursday We Leave For Home” (season 4, episode 16; originally aired 5/2/1963)
In which you can save everyone except yourself…
It’s rarely a good idea to try and wonder how important you are. Because you aren’t, at least by most scales of judgement. The majority of us are insignificant figures in a vast and chaotic existence, and while our lives may, at times, seem rich and valuable and above all meaningful, there are people less than half a mile away who don’t even know you’re alive. And that’s fine. Once you get past the ego-damage, there’s something gratifying about being small, about not having to worry about more than a handful of lives at a given time. (This is assuming you aren’t in a miserable situation in which your powerlessness directly and continuously affects your existence in awful ways. If you are in such a situation, my sympathies.) The protagonist of “On Thursday We Leave For Home” doesn’t have this luxury. There more are than just a handful of lives under his watch, and if he doesn’t hold them together, through leadership and guidance and sheer force of will, they’ll die. It’s a terrifying, agonizing life, a picture of existence hanging by a thread. Then someone comes and offers to save them, and everything just gets so much worse.
There’s no twist in “On Thursday We Leave For Home,” not really; Benteen (James Whitmore), the “captain” who spent thirty years keeping his people alive before collapsing in the face of success, doesn’t go back to Earth with the rest of the colonists, but that isn’t a shock. That’s all to the good. Rod Serling’s script is his best hour-long episode that I’ve seen, and one of the best of the season so far (only “Miniature” tops it, and not by much). What makes it so impressive is that it never feels too long, or forced, or padded. Serling makes perfect use of the time, and the way he builds to the inevitable conclusion is nothing short of devastating, in part because we get to see Benteen doom himself step by understandable step. Some Twilight Zone stories gain strength from shocking twist endings, or from sudden reversals that force us to question our assumptions about what was going on. Nothing like that happens here. As soon as the ship from Earth arrives, and the friendly Colonel Sloane (Tim O’Conner) is greeted as a hero, the doubt sets in; once Benteen starts to talk about his people as “children,” there’s no doubt where all of this is going. That can make the hour hard to watch at times, but it’s never dull, and its saving grace comes directly from its length, and the way the extra time allows Serling a chance for nuance.
The key, apart from Serling’s script, is Whitmore. A warm, soothing presence, the early scenes of him comforting the locals, guiding maintenance work, and offering stories of life back on Earth, clearly convey how critical his role is in keeping everyone alive. He’s so perfect in the role of group father that his transition into tyrant almost shouldn’t make sense. Yet it does. Serling gives us a hint early on, after one of the colonists kills herself, another objects to Benteen’s proscription against suicide and the captain takes a hard line. He’s not being unreasonable, exactly, but there’s a steel in him that borders on monomania, a grim refusal to bend or break that can’t survive in any other context. Whitmore makes it work. Even when Benteen is at his most condescending and deluded, he’s never less than human, and he never becomes completely unsympathetic. Seeing Whitmore at his most inspiring makes his fall more tragic, and turns the episode from the story of a foolish man making an awful mistake, to something more fatalistic: the people of the colony needed a Benteen to survive. Now, they no longer need him, and a man without a purpose gets left behind.
The nuance here is that Benteen is never a simple villain. He’s not some petty dictator, mad to hold on to his power in the face of change. Throughout the season, we’ve seen episodes flounder when they needed to fill up the extra air-time, and it’s certainly possible to imagine “On Thursday We Leave For Home” shrunk down to half an hour. But I doubt it would be as affecting, and that’s because instead of wasting scenes on characters who aren’t hugely important to the plot (there’s Benteen, Sloane, and a few of the colonists, and that’s it), Serling focuses on establishing what kind of man Benteen was before the arrival of rescue of ship, and what kind of a man he is after. He makes sure we understand that the intensity of Benteen’s resolve was absolutely necessary, without justifying the man’s sudden desire to play god. Often, Twilight Zone features leads who delude themselves into ironic fates, or suffer because of some inherent weakness in their character. Benteen is someone who really was a hero, and really did matter. Given Whitmore’s performance in The Shawshank Redemption, the prison connection is easy to make. He was a big man in a small jail, and now a whole world looms before him. There’s freedom out there, but it’s terrifying. It means losing his whole idea of who he was. It means the risk, the eventual certainty, of losing all the people he cares for.
This isn’t the most fun episode to watch, and you could quibble that Benteen’s humiliation goes on for a little longer than necessary; but that length of time makes his decision to stay behind more believable, even if he does regret almost immediately. The only serious complaint I can come up with is that the conclusion uses the same absolutes so many episodes of the show have used to guarantee the most devastating conclusion possible. Sloane tells Benteen that once the ship leaves they won’t ever be coming back, and that’s plausible enough; it must cost tremendous amounts of resources and time to travel that far, and to return to save just one man—a man who willingly hid himself to avoid going back to Earth the first time someone tried to rescue him—isn’t reasonable. But the fact that there’s such a hard and fast deadline for leaving is goofy, and you’d think that maybe people would’ve realized Benteen was having some kind of a nervous breakdown after he tried to attack the ship; if he’d been locked up on board, there would’ve been no danger of him disappearing. As it is, Sloane seems to regret having to go, but he’s also kind of pissed off. Maybe that’s understandable too, but it’s not hard to see an authorial hand nudging everyone into the worst position.
Yet none of this really diminishes the impact of the episode. It’s haunting simplicity is worth the occasional stretches in plausibility, as is true of all the best episodes of this show. The best moments stay with you, like Whitmore’s monologue about the beauty of Earth that he uses to sooth the other survivors; and the way that monologue comes back as he repeats himself in an empty cave, the sound of the spaceship rising up behind him. The final minute, as he realizes his mistake and pleads for someone to come back, someone to take him home, is hard to take. He was a selfish, demanding, condescending jerk. He was also a savior. And now he’s just a lonely man who will die on a rock in a dark, dark place.
What a twist: Everyone leaves but Benteen.
- It’s ugly, but not unbelievable, how quickly everyone turns on Benteen when he starts trying to play tyrant. In a way, it almost confirms his harshest judgment of them: They act like children, dismissing someone as soon as he becomes difficult. Yet his willingness to not just hector them but actually lie about their future makes him harder to sympathize with.
- The meteor storm is well done, in that I fully expected most of the cast to end up dead.
- Sloane says they have to leave or they’ll lose their “orbital position.” Ah, science. (Actually, I’ve never tried to pilot a flying saucer off the planet before, so what the hell do I know.)
- Whitmore is remarkable. Just watching a little of the scene above to grab a screenshot gave me chills.
- “Don’t leave me.”
Next week: Todd closes out the season with “Passage On The Lady Anne” and a visit from “The Bard.”