Thursday, May 10, 2007

5.31 "The Encounter"

Season 5, Episode 31

Directed by: Robert Butler
Written by: Martin Goldsmith

A caustic vituperation of war and dehumanizing military propoganda, The Encounter just barely qualifies as an episode of The Twilight Zone, thanks to a samurai sword apparently possessed by the spirit of a slaughtered (Japanese) soldier and a mysteriously locked door that can't be opened. The supernatural aspects seem perfunctory additions to what is otherwise a tense, theatrical confinement drama, played out between two guilt-ridden men: Fenton (Neville Brand), a square-jawed All-American type who served in WWII, and his prospective gardener Arthur (George Takei), a Japanese-American. The two meet while Fenton is cleaning out his military-memento filled attic—sorting through the ghosts of the past, as it were—and over beers they engage in battles of barbs and blades, forcing one another to confront each's personal shame: Fenton, for having killed a surrendering soldier in cold-blood; Arthur, for the treasonous sins of his father. (Those Japanese and their ancestor complexes!) The war may be over, as Fenton says, but the fighting hasn't stopped. Serling narrates: "It's twenty-odd years since Pearl Harbor, but two ancient opponents are moving into position for a battle..."

It was a risky program for CBS to air in 1964, as the Johnson Administration was escalating US involvement in "the conflict in Vietnam", and a popular antecdote posits that the episode received such an incensed response from viewers that it was subsequently removed from syndication. Watching now, it feels a tad dated, though it's refreshing to see something on television deal with WWII outside of the presently predominant paradigm of "The Greatest Generation". The Encounter dares to present an American veteran of the Second World War as something other than an unambiguous hero which, despite its Vietnam parallels, is its most striking aspect. (And I would assume what elicited so much mail.)

Fenton's only defense against his guilt is to do now what he did then—demonize the other, and the racist shots he takes at Arthur still sting, despite Takei's exaggerated indignation. Confronted with Arthur, Fenton goes on the proverbial emotional roller coaster, defensively bitter one moment and the next calmly telling Arthur, looking for validation, "I'm not such a bad guy"; he's confused, and has trouble accepting responsibility, whether for what happened in Japan twenty years prior or what happened yesterday; he drinks heavily to forget the war that haunts him (the episode includes him experiencing an aural flashback), and when the alcoholism costs him his job, he blames the influx of cheap, foreign labor—and when it costs him his wife, he blames her.

For good reason, though, The Encounter is not out to point fingers at individuals. Fenton is the result of the conflict between a military complex that brainwashes its soldiers into hating the animals on the other side of their guns, and a liberal, civilian culture of tolerance that teaches respect for other societies. "In the Pacific we were told you guys weren't even human—you were some kind of ape," Fenton tells Arthur, "and that we shouldn't worry about burning you out of your caves. Now all of a sudden, you're fine people—highly cultured!" It'd be interesting to see a capable writer/director update this material, changing Japan to Iraq, but as all modern wars are, despite their particular differences, essentially the same, The Encounter still hits pretty hard.

For Netflix purposes:
On Image Entertainment's "Treasures of the Twilight Zone, Vol. 1".

1 comment:

SisterBoy said...

I just finist seeing this episode. A great one.