Enter a group of soldiers led by a swaggering officer who challenges the authority of Goldsmith, mocks him and his old man in the cave. A power struggle ensues and Goldsmith is debunked as a fraud. The old man is revealed to be no more than a computer, and thus the people, led by the soldiers, are "liberated" and are free to eat whatever they please. In the end, well,--here's the rub--we see Goldsmith walking about, surveying all the dead bodies, thus as things turn out the "old man computer" was right after all.
Many have interpreted this episode as a religious parable; others as a defense of the "nanny state"; and some as a veiled attack on big government. Those points are well made but I view matters in simpler terms, as a moral tale which may or may not have religious implications: prior to the arrival of the soldiers the people in the story were for all intents and purposes kept alive by messages from a computer, jealously guarded by one man, and those messages, as things turned out were correct. As the people were ignorant as to what was good for them to eat and what wasn't they were in a good place even as they were living in hard times.
As I see it, the man, Goldsmith, may or may not have been an egotist but he did know what was good for his people even as he fooled them by not telling them that it was a machine that was doing the thinking, not an old man. In the end I don't see what difference it makes whether Goldsmith was lying. The system worked, everyone was alive and well, and that's all that matters. Is this a defense of authoritarianism and big government? I don't think so. Big government had already failed; the nuclear war had happened. No, it's more the old expression "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" applied to an extreme situation, and working nicely till challenged by the soldiers. The community was safe so long as Goldsmith and his Magic Computer were around and functioning. All the people had to do was follow their orders, albeit blindly, without question, and they might have survived till the radiation wore off and the world once again be a fit place to live in. In the larger scheme of things, with the survival of the human race at issue, is this such an awful thing?
Food for thought, in the form of a K-ration, courtesy of The Twilight Zone.
"The Old Man in the Cave" is one of the more thought-provoking episodes in the Twilight Zone series. At first glance, it seems that Goldsmith is doing his best for his followers by keeping them away from the contaminated food. As the story evolves, however, it becomes readily apparent that he has sinister ulterior motives himself. Since he's the only one who has access to the "Old Man", he has all the power. Major French's untimely arrival offsets this delicate balance of authority and Goldsmith soon finds himself on the outside looking in. It also seems that his followers were more than happy to see his "reign" end and not a moment too soon. Of course, there are severe consequences for all involved when the "Old Man" can't give his daily dose of advice anymore. But Goldsmith can't blame anyone other than himself for the final devastation of his little community. That'll teach him for not sharing information and acting like "Big Brother." Good performances all around make this an above average Zone entry. Coburn, who could play villains and heroes with equal aplomb, does fine work as the cynical Major French. John Anderson is his usual stoic stern self as Goldsmith. John Marley is also in the cast as one of Goldsmith's underlings who decides that it's more fun to have the Major ruling the roost.
For ten years, Goldsmith (John Anderson, looking appropriately weakly and wearied) has received instructions from what he calls the old man in the cave regarding what the citizens in his ghost town can eat, grow, and how to survive under the conditions left to them by "the dropping of the bomb". Then drives in on his jeep Major French (a fierce, cocky, and authoritative Coburn; his brash commandeering of command away from Goldsmith through the force of his men and their guns seemed to be a proper foreshadowing of how destructive he'll become in quick order) and some soldier boys, ready to usurp control from Goldsmith and give orders to the tiny accompaniment of survivors in his midst. While Goldsmith tries and fails to convince his people not to listen to French, they are so ready to rip into the available contaminated canned foods and bottled liquor there seems to be no hope for their survival. While I think many will know the way this episode ends, the revelation of the old man in the cave and the way French is able to motivate "his" destruction I figure will maintain a certain potency (if the shot of bodies strewn about a desert town isn't enough), symbolic of mankind's inability to survive under the harshest conditions, embracing the easing of hunger and avarice when all evidence says that doing so encourages certain death. John Marley has a supporting part as one of Goldsmith's miserable township who factors heavily in leading the revolt against the old man in the cave, furthermore condemning himself in the process. Anderson's final scene--as he must overlook French's handiwork, acknowledging that if it wasn't him it probably would have been somebody else, left to ponder if perhaps mankind's total annihilation due to their own weaknesses and inability to escape a grim fate was inevitable--is really haunting.
For the second time in the fifth season of the series, Rod Serling positioned his story in the way distant future of 1974. You may recall 'Steel', the tale of a robot boxer following a mid-Sixties ban on human pugilists in the Twilight Zone. It's curious to me how Serling's apocalyptic vision didn't require the passage of decades. The mere passing of ten years was enough time to cast Man's fate to the uncertainty of global annihilation. I have to wonder just how pessimistic he was about the human condition.
Interesting performance here by James Coburn as the ruthless interloper on behalf of the 'State', but perhaps more accurately, representing only himself. The more intriguing aspect of the story may relate to the appearance of a room size computer with the ability to perform the tasks of your average calculator today. The Jonestown-like finale preceded the real thing by more than a decade, and effectively managed to convey the futility of blindly following a single despot, whether the intention was malevolent or not.
I see this as people abandoning science for a quick fix because they are tired or they are frustrated beyond reason, and commit communal suicide.
The same is happening today in slow motion. When the 'old man' helps the community, this help is taken for granted. People are more frustrated that the 'old man' (i.e. science) is right, rather than the fact that they paid for their own ignorance of his knowledge. When the 'young man', thug (i.e. ignorant politicians/religious leaders), shows up and says everything is okay, everyone falls in (what an apt expression) and conforms to authority.
The authority figure even mocks the old man with the false death...the fact that death from radioactive food takes days is ignored...ignorance again.
It's easier and less frustrating with the young man than dealing with the old man...the community doesn't need to worry about listening to advice or facts. In their ignorance, their abandonment of reason, and their primitive pecking-order faith in the young man, the community runs straight over a cliff.
Suspense is really heightened by not just the premise, but by powerful turns from both Anderson's forceful dignity and Coburn's aggressive authority. Their clash is unusually riveting for series TV. That there's a subtext seems obvious. Should people have faith in an unseen authority on matters of life and death. Also, should they trust intermediary, Goldsmith, the apparent voice of authority. The parallels with certain varieties of organized religion and faith in the unseen appear embedded in the subtext, particularly as they compete with pleasure pursuit which also becomes a factor.
The eventual reveal of the old man surprised me and seems particularly applicable to our day and age. Usually by the fifth year, a series is running dry. Not TZ. Check out the many memorable episodes including this one that characterize year five. For sure, Mr. Serling belongs in some kind of TV hall of fame.
You can easily find real world counterparts to Major French and Mr Goldsmith but I grew a little tired of this post-apocalypse preachy stuff.
The issue I have is this. It bolsters bureaucratic statism while it tries to portray its cousin, martial statism, as bad. I guess that's about what one could expect from a 1960's teleplay, Liberal Statism, but it is the fact that it still is accepted at face value today. I have found no criticism of this episode and its lesson.
It is Major French and his hooligans who are manifestly bad. Their brand of roughshod militarism and short sightedness is held up for ridicule. That is all well and good. But what about Goldsmith? He is portrayed well, and has all the moral high ground by the end of the episode.
Why? Goldsmith represents the brainwashing of bureaucratic statism, Nanny Statism, Big Government Statism, whatever you want to call it. By the end of the episode it is clear that he knew how to open the door, and it may be implied that he knew it was a computer all along. Why the ruse? Why not let the survivors know right off that it was a computer, one that could clearly show what was radioactive or not? I can't help but think that the townsfolk, being rational, would have gladly followed the analytics of the machine, especially when it had been proved right.
It stands that Goldsmith had desires of his own. To be THE MAN. The mouthpiece of the Oracle, and gain position and prestige thereby. He is the bureaucrat, the one who carves out a niche for himself out of nothing. He had no reason not to let the rest know exactly what was up, but then he has no position of glory. The carrier of the Old Man's messages. That's the brand of Statism we have in the US (with a dash of Jackboot now and again). Keep the people in fear and ignorant and take the credit when things go good, whether they had anything to do with it or not. Mr. Goldsmith basically intercepted the credit that belonged to the machine. He also must have had a very low opinion of everyone else and a high opinion of himself, typical traits of the bureaucrat.
And when he revealed to be a liar (or a "half-truther"), the people throw off his smoke and mirrors, much to their detriment. And at the end, Goldsmith, the failed bureaucrat, who lied and distorted to the people so that they didn't know what to believe in, is left pondering where everyone else went wrong.
This, and others like it, is the moral message of the 60's, carried through television into the psyche of America. The seeds sown then are still bearing fruit today. "Have faith in the bureaucrats. Have Faith in general. Don't worry your little heads about the details, that's what we're hear for. WE know the Truth, just listen to us and all will be well."
"The Old Man in the Cave" is set following a nuclear holocaust. People around the world who did not die initially have mostly died off since because of radioactive contamination of the food and water supply. Oddly, however, one town seems to be thriving. No one has succumbed to poisoned food or water and it's all because "the Old Man" tells them what they can and can't eat or drink--but only one man is allowed into the cave to see him. So, naturally, folks eventually decide they must see this old man for themselves--and eventually respond like a pack of wild dogs when some outsiders stir them.
Overall, this is very well written and acted. A fine example of the series.
In terms of execution, John Anderson and James Coburn do what they do best. It's a well acted episode.
As sci-fi, it leaves something to be desired. A computer has been running for years, in a cave, apparently without a power source and without the sort of climate control that big computers need. It also has the ability to know which cans of food are tainted and which aren't, without any apparent method for making this determination. It can predict the weather, without any apparent method for collecting world climate data. As sci-fi, it's all "fi" and no "sci."