February 15, 2015

Battle of Little Bighorn in Twilight Zone

I saw this Twilight Zone episode for the first time a couple of years ago.

The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms[T]hree United States Army National Guard soldiers (MSgt. William Connors, Pvt. Michael McCluskey, Cpl. Richard Langsford) are an M3 Stuart tank crew participating in a war game being conducted near the Battle of Little Bighorn, the site of Major General George Custer's last stand. Their orders coincide with the route of Custer and his men. As they follow the route, they hear strange things such as Indian battle cries and horses running. As nobody is there, the men examine the possibilities. Connors wonders if they've somehow gone back in time. When they return, Connors reports to his captain what occurred and is reprimanded. The following day the trio goes out and again begins to experience strange phenomena. The captain contacts them via radio and orders them to return to base when Connors tries to explain what is happening. Connors breaks contact and the captain sends his lieutenant and two men to bring them in. However, the tank crew abandon their tank and continue on foot with their side arms and rifles. They find a group of teepees and McCluskey goes to investigate; he soon returns with an arrow protruding from his back. The men climb a ridge where they see a battle taking place below. They join it and are never seen again.

Later, the captain enters the Custer Battlefield National Monument. A soldier reports that all they found was the abandoned tank. The two of them notice the names of their missing soldiers on the monument with the names of Custer's men. The captain states that it was a pity the missing soldiers couldn't have taken the tank with them to the battle.

Comment:  Alas, this episode doesn't include any Indians. Not even Latinos, Italians, or Greeks dressed as Indians.

The captain has the best line when he says to Connors:And if you meet any Indians...if you meet any Indians, will you take it very slow? Because they're all college graduates and they're probably running tests on the soil.So we know the episode has a somewhat modern sensibility. And kudos for including two black soldiers, including Greg Morris (soon to star in Mission: Impossible).

But a few odd things:

  • The "group" of tipis consists of six of them--no Indians, horses, campfires, or anything else. In reality, the Indian camp had some 2,000 lodges. I know that was beyond the budget of The Twilight Zone, but this is ridiculously small.

  • McCluskey approaches the "village," is out of sight a few seconds, and then appears and calmly ascends the slope. Only then do the others realize he has an arrow in his back.

    This is silly on several fronts. Why would Indians shoot an arrow in the confines of a tipi rather than, say, use a knife? Why would they attack a lone, unarmed stranger at all? How did it happen without a single outcry or shout of pain? Why did the Indians let McCluskey go? How is he able to function with an arrow in his back? And why is there no arrow the next time he's shown?

  • A reviewer agrees:

    The Twilight Zone: “The 7th Is Made Up Of Phantoms”/“A Short Drink From A Certain Fountain”It’s not much of a village; just a cluster of maybe a dozen teepees, with no living being in sight. McCluskey (the young one of the three) takes it at face value and offers to go scout the area. Now, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense: it’s broad daylight, there’s no cover, and the three men are already standing no more than a couple hundred yards from the “village.” By this point, Connors and the rest believe that they’re on the trail of General Custer on his last doomed assault against the Sioux, and they’ve decided they’re going to join up with Custer and the others and fight alongside them. So if they believe enough to consider that the Native Americans are real, and that they’re dangerous, why would McCluskey go wandering over without any real reason or protection?

    He gets an arrow in the back for his troubles (although for once, this isn’t immediately fatal), and it’s ridiculous, but it’s also deeply creepy in a way that a more conventionally structured sequence would not have been. We never see a single Native American throughout the episode, just the effects of their passing, and as unfortunate as the story’s politics are (it’s weird to see something these days that treats “fighting alongside Custer” as a worthwhile and heroic goal), that lends the whole half hour a general air of creepiness that makes it compelling even when the writing fumbles.
    The last stand

    Actually, the soldiers haven't decided anything yet. They stumble over a ridge and see the battle in progress. They check their weapons before Connors shouts:All right, fellas...let's do it!This leads to the key point:

  • The soldiers are excited by the battle they see off-screen and say so--but they don't say which side they're eager to join. Would they have been thrilled to die within minutes like the rest of Custer's regiment? Or would they have preferred to help the Indians kill their fellow Americans?

    If the Indians stripped the soldiers of their gear, leaving only their dog tags, the soldiers would've looked like anyone else. Those who surveyed the battle site would've assumed they were part of Custer's troops. So their choice isn't clear.

    I guess the names on the monument imply they joined Custer. It's just funny that no one is willing to say it.

    An earlier exchange offers an alternative and shows the episode's ambivalence:LANGSFORD: All right, Connors. Okay, let's say, let's say that you're right. Let's say that this thing is happening just like you said it is. Let's say that we're gonna follow this trail, just like, uh--well, just like they did it, huh?!

    LANGSFORD: Now what I wanna know is, what's gonna happen next?

    CONNORS: We're gonna wind up at a massacre. That's what.

    LANGSFORD: You gonna stop it?

    CONNORS: Yeah. Stop it, or ... join it.
    In 1963, when this episode was made, people were beginning to realize that the Indians were right and Custer was wrong. Perhaps Serling or someone understood it would sound bad to cheer the killing of Indians. So they filmed the episode but left out any references to aiding or opposing Custer.

    Anyway, I agree this episode is flawed. The producers spent too much time on the opening and not enough on the ending. They should've handled the Indian "village" differently--said it was an outlying camp, and shown arrows fired from afar and missing the soldiers.

    Most important, they should've said which side the soldiers were joining. Either way, it would've made for a provocative message. Viewers could've learned a lesson about doing the right thing...or the wrong thing.

    P.S. You can see images from the episode here:

    The 7th is Made Up of Phantoms--Quotes and Sound Clips

    Below:  McClusky foolisly goes to scout the Sioux "village."

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