Monday, July 23, 2007

3.15 "A Quality of Mercy"

Season Three, Episode Fifteen

Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Buzz Kulik

Pedantically taking its name from a line in The Merchant of Venice, A Quality of Mercy is an ineffective anti-war episode that, for all its brotherhood of man ideals, is detrimentally gimmicky, not to mention dated in its (unconscious?) racism. Set during WWII, Dean Stockwell is a gung-ho, cutthroat lieutenant in the American army who is sent to take command of a war-weary regimen bunkered down in the Philippines. The war is winding down, in its "last grimy pages," as Serling says in narration, and the Americans are restively watching a cave that's housing a group of sick and dying Japanese soldiers. The Americans want to bypass the cave when they move on, seeing an attack as cruel and unusual, but Stockwell won't have it. "We're gonna kill Japs, that's my job!" he shouts, berating his fellow Americans for what he sees as their cowardice, their having gone soft. "You talk like this is a football game," Albert Salmi's compassionate sergeant tells the odious Stockwell, "but this isn't a football game."

There are many more examples of that kind of popping, animated exchange in the opening scenes set in the American camp:
"They're Japs," says Stockwell.
"They're men!" answers Salmi. Or:
"How many men have to die before you're satisfied?"
"All of 'em!"

But Stockwell's lieutenant, in his bloodthirst, is a little cartoonish, though Stockwell restrains himself and avoids chewing the scenery. Serling's writing, however, is not so understated; Stockwell, through unspecified magic, is transported three years into the past and...as if it weren't enough to transport a man through time, I think he's turning Japanese, I really think so! Using Finian's Rainbow's ham-fisted theatrical conceit (but this time not played, at least intentionally, for laughs), Stockwell, now somehow Japanese, is forced to literally see the world, and specifically the war, through his enemy's eyes. A Quality of Mercy repeats its first half, nearly word for word, as Stockwell finds the Japanese in an analogous situation to the one he found himself in previously: in preparations for mopping up a cavebound group of wounded Americans. This time, Japanese lieutenant Dale Ishimoto plays the Stockwell part, leading the ruthless massacre, while Stockwell, in yellowface, finds himself playing the Salmi role of merciful dissenter. Oh, now he understands that men are still men, even in war, and that murdering the enemy is nothing to revel in, nor does it make you more of a man. (Too bad Truman didn't learn the same lesson, as the episode ends with Stockwell back on the American side as reports from Hiroshima come in.) I can appreciate Serling's misoguerric sentiments, but not the pompous script or silly execution, including, despite its noble intentions, a Mickey Rooney turn from Stockwell. Despite an affecting final few moments, like Stockwell's Japanese accent A Quality of Mercy is a bit too ridickerous.

For Netflix Purposes:
On Disc 13 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

it takes a questionable amount of moral superiority to present a narrative which assumes moral equivalence -- which serling's story does -- to wit, that if there were a place for salmi's war weary, compassionate, and outspoken sergeant in the u.s. army in 1945 after retaking the philippines (maybe), that there would also have been a place for his equivalent in the Japanese Imperial Army before the fall of Bataan in 1942 (very unlikely) -- stockwell is very good as the over eager junior american officer, and affective and admirably understated in his short bit as a japanese soldier

Brian said...

Excellent review of the episode. This blog is a gem! Thanks for your work.

H. Stewart said...

Thanks a lot.

Heraldblog said...

I just caught the last two mins on MeTV, and had to Google the title. Thanks for the review. Now I don't mind so much that I missed the whole episode.

And nice job on the blog!