Here’s what you have to consider: Rod Serling has less than 25 minutes to tell a story, get you invested and hit you with a punchline, something to zing the audience. Almost anyone can tell a short story: “A horse walks into a bar. The bartender looks up and says ‘why the long face?'” At best you giggle and move on. You don’t care about the characters. I didn’t have to put it to screen nor did I have a time limit and certainly no special effects were needed. But Serling pulls off a compelling story in The Purple Testament, with very little action, creates characters for us to care about and hits us with a “gotcha” moment all in under half an hour. That’s incredibly skillful.
What adds to it is the remarkably clever special effect. It’s literally a light on a face yet it creates a sense of dread like no light should be capable of. We follow the story of Fitzgerald, a man who sees death before it happens and he’s broken up about it. He calls it a skill they don’t teach that he picked up out of nowhere and he isn’t happy about it. When he sees death coming for his squad mates, he has a hard time coping. I knew what was coming too and was on the lookout for a mirror; it was the only logical way to wrap that story, but that made it no less compelling.
When the story started, I have to be honest: I had no interest. War stories don’t really do it for me. I think I’m primed to expect a lesson that I don’t want, but that’s not what happens. I mean, we know war sucks so do we have to be told it? Luckily no. Serling crafts a real story about real people. The war aspect is a byproduct; there is literally less than 30 seconds of combat on screen. So we are shown the drama of a man emotionally wrecked by war, not a story about war. But even those scenes about the war have moments worth noticing. Pay attention to when one of the soldiers lights a cigarette, they cover it with a helmet. That’s to keep the light from being seen by the enemy. That’s clever writing and scripting. Since the story is not about war, but merely taking place during a war, it would have been so easy to ignore that and move on. But they didn’t.
This is not an episode that I think would ever warrant multiple repeats. It’s not one of the best. What it does do is show the skill of a writer who cared enough to release a quality product. It is amazing to me to think that this series was at the forefront of the rise of science fiction television; I would have expected many more to precede it to lay the groundwork for what actually makes a good series. Amazingly this was one of the first and may still be in a class by itself.. I truly hope Serling knew that he created something special that will live forever both in and out of The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Lt. Fitzgerald is fighting in the US Army, in the Philippines, 1945. He has an ability that is more of a curse than a superpower: when he sees a light shining on somebody’s face, they are about to die. And that’s it.
This is one of those Twilight Zone episodes where the writer had one idea, wrote down his idea and followed it to its logical conclusion, and deemed that sufficient. With the short episode format that can sometimes work perfectly fine, but here it feels lacking, perhaps because it’s so predictable. We follow exactly the course that any viewer would expect: nobody believes Fitz, his friend dies, and then he dies. That last one is supposed to be the twist ending, but it’s really no twist at all.
Partly the problem is the technology available at the time. A light being shone on somebody’s face is just too subtle and humdrum an effect to indicate an imminent death. Nowadays you could put together a really creepy episode with basically the same script, just by making Fitz see a distortion of the person’s face or something of that nature. Think about the photos of people in The Ring, which has the same premise as one element of a bigger story.
But there is a much bigger problem here: Fitz is entirely passive, and for a lieutenant in the US army who has basically been presented with an enemy he could fight, that just doesn’t sit right. Yes, that enemy is death, but what else does a soldier do but fight death? Apart from trying to tell people about his ability, he makes no attempt to do anything with it, so the power he has is ultimately pointless, both in terms of the script, and his life. Why would he have been granted his power in the first place? As a random ability, it’s horrendously cruel, but he doesn’t even stop to think that maybe he has been given his power so he can change things, perhaps save a few lives. Even at the end, he just heads off to be blown up by a mine. Now it may well be that if he had tried to change his fate or that of somebody else, we would have seen fate reassert itself in a different way, and the person die in some other way, or even somebody else take their place to redress the balance, but we just don’t know because Fitz settles for being an observer in the story of the last days his own life. If he was ready to die, so be it, but a driver goes with him, so that’s not good enough either, and any motivation he might have for choosing not to fight against fate is completely unspoken. In the end, Fitz’s reaction to the situation he faces is almost as illogical as a man asking “did you hear that?” after a massive explosion (yes, I think they did), or Rod Serling’s invention of “beard” as a shade of black.
What colour paint would you like, sir?
Hold on a second! I don’t just want any shade of black. Do you have beard black?
Sorry, sir, we do not.
In that case I’ll take some fear-yellow white.
Sir, we stopped stocking that after the Second World War, although some people still choose to open old cans and paint their lives with it. We call those people “racists”.
There was one good question hidden away here: “how many coincidences add up to a fact?” I pondered on that one for a moment, and then realised that there probably isn’t an answer, and if there was Rod Serling certainly wasn’t going to offer it to us. At times he was an enormously frustrating writer, who seemed to believe that “idea” and “storyline” could be synonymous. We are left with little point to anything that happens here, unless you’re happy to watch 25 minutes that simply show the horror of war. It does that effectively, and maybe its purpose as an episode has become more useful as time has gone on, but in 1960 this was broadcast just 15 years after the events it was depicting, and showing that war is hell was most definitely preaching to the converted. They knew. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Elegy