The genius of The Twilight Zone is that it can introduce a few characters each week and make us care about them then pulls a fast one with some element of the fantastical. It’s an interesting storytelling technique because we are typically meeting very regular people of very ordinary backgrounds. Here we have Mr. Bolie Jackson, a boxer who is feeling his age. He’s taken more hits than he cares to remember and he’s going to add a few more to his overly scarred face. We are also introduced to little Henry Temple who idolizes Jackson. Henry makes The Big Tall Wish to keep Bolie safe during his latest fight, but things aren’t looking good. After hurting his right hand, he is only half what he could be and even that might not have been enough. When he goes down, the ref counts to 10… when the winning fighter finds himself on the ground and Bolie stands over him, the reigning champ.
Had the story ended there, the magic would have been nice but perhaps a little too contrived. There needed to be a moral and I think we get one… maybe more than one in fact! Bolie goes home to bask in his victory and refuses to think Henry’s “magic” had anything to do with it. We are seeing the effects of pride. Bolie can’t accept that the little boy’s faith was so strong that it changed the very fabric of reality. This becomes a very sad episode at this point because Bolie tells Henry that he’s too old to believe in magic which ends up breaking the spell. Bolie suddenly finds himself back in the ring; the loser of the fight. He goes home to Henry who still idolizes him, still so proud of his friend, no matter the outcome of the fight. The episode ends with Henry acknowledging that he’s too old for wishes, which is also heartbreaking. The thing is, through that sad story, there’s also a beautiful message about the love of a child. Henry’s love of Bolie is so strong that it didn’t matter if he won the fight or not; to Henry, Bolie was always a champ. In less than 25 minutes, Serling made us care about these two regular people.
Maybe there are multiple lessons to be found in this short story too: be careful what you wish for, don’t let fame go to your head, measure success by the love of a child, and perhaps most importantly, never stop believing in magic, especially if that magic is from the heart. Perhaps that’s the most magical magic of all. Stephen Perry, who plays Henry, was the star of this episode but I hope Henry changed his mind and continues to wish, making all the big, tall wishes his heart desired because the world needs more magic both in our reality and in the Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
I am going to admit straight away that I’m probably the wrong person to be writing about this episode of The Twilight Zone, because I can’t stand boxing. I think the human race has long since moved beyond a point where the spectacle of two people hitting each other should be a thing that we allow in a civilised society. I’ve heard all the arguments in favour of the “sport” and none of them negate the fact that it’s a form of entertainment that involves one person attempting to smash a fist into another person’s face. Allowing the young Henry Temple to even watch the match on television, which either way ends with a man collapsed on a blood-spattered canvas, is a failing on the part of his mother, let alone allowing a relationship to develop in which the child idolises a man who makes his living doing that. If you don’t think it’s a problem, consider this: at what point in the episode does Henry spare a thought for the man his magic wish reduces to a bloody mess? Now think about what’s going on in the mind of that child and tell me he’s not damaged by what he sees.
Even if I set aside my distaste for a story that involves two men trying to break each other’s noses, which have already been broken several times before, I can’t find much to enjoy here. Rod Serling’s messages were often ironic or negative, but this is an instance where he crosses the line into downright miserable. Having set up the relationship between Bolie, Henry and Frances, there was so much he could have done with that. Bolie sees his life as a failure and refers to himself as a “tired old man”, which is clearly absurd, but he has been mentally scarred as well as physically scarred by his sport (tell me again how it’s a good thing). Serling gets halfway towards doing something interesting with that. Bolie clearly has two people in his life who love him dearly, and they appear to be the only two people who like him for who he is, let alone love him. Note how all his friends and neighbours treat him as a returning hero when he wins the fight, but won’t even look at him when he loses. Those friendships are all fake, but Frances and Henry greet him as a returning hero either way. He’s still their Bolie, whether he wins or loses. When I say Serling was halfway there, the other half was of course to have Bolie realise that life maybe isn’t so bad after all, seeing as the two most important people in his life don’t fall out of love with him just because he fails at something, so maybe there is a future for him where his loved ones can be proud of him for something other than an attempt to draw blood from another man’s face. That could have been a lesson for Henry too, and an important one for a young boy: not to emulate Bolie’s path in life, and instead to realise that happiness does not depend on getting one up on a fellow human being.
So much potential. So much. And that makes it even more of a bitter pill to swallow. Instead Bolie teaches a child that magic doesn’t exist and the real world is going to smash his face downwards into the concrete. Lovely. Serling just couldn’t resist the path to the most ironic ending, showing a man so beaten down by the world that he can’t believe the truth of a lucky break and lets his golden opportunity slip through his fingers due to self-loathing. In doing so, he destroys a child’s belief that there is some magic in the world. And the irony of the situation is that Bolie is wrong. He isn’t living in a world without magic. He’s destroying the magic himself.
There is something wistful about watching a story that shows a relationship between a man and a child who is not his own, because I don’t think it would get made like this nowadays without making Bolie the literal step-dad. I look back on my childhood, when some of my best friends and role models were adults, and mourn the loss of that world for children of the future, who instead inhabit a world where the media has stirred up paranoia to a point where we fear and suspect anyone outside of the immediate family unit. The world where a Bolie can take a Henry off to play some sport or see a film is almost entirely lost to us, and that deprives children of a wider sphere of influence and inspiration that is potentially so beneficial. The original Miracle on 34th Street comes to mind as a perfect example of that kind of a bond. It also comes across in this Twilight Zone episode, albeit slightly skewed by the negativity.
One final thought: isn’t it interesting how Bolie refuses to admit the possibility of magic, in the face of strong evidence that it has just happened to him, and yet when the world is set back on its original course he says this:
“Maybe there is magic.”
He denies the evidence of his own eyes, but will accept the possibility of the existence of magic when he loses that evidence. Maybe we’ve just hit upon a definition of faith. The more evidence we have of something the more we deny it, and the less we have the more we can accept the possibility of the unproven. Actually, that’s not faith. That’s just how some people react to the news. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: A Nice Place to Visit