Shadows From The Twilight Zone – Ep. 3
“King Nine Will Not Return” (S2, Ep1)
In 1943, Rod Serling enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was eighteen years old, had been a high school graduate for only a few hours by that point, and was brimming with the ideals and optimism of a young man with the best of intentions but with no idea what he was signing up for. The brutal realities that he would be exposed to during his time in the service would shape his outlook on society, sharpening his sense of morality and sparking within Serling a life-long passion for social justice. His time as a solider would lead him to turn to writing for a way to communicate his anger to the world and to cope with the nightmares he had seen. But those days were far ahead of him; at that moment in 1943 he was just a kid hoping to do some good for his country and the people he loved.
Unsurprisingly, the impact of war is visited in many of the Serling-penned Twilight Zone episodes, and the best of these examine its toll on the individual soldier. To Serling, one of humanity’s most important traits is our ability to empathize with others. War, however, is not fertile ground for empathy to thrive in; if it is not completely snuffed out in the soldier it can lead to emotional and mental breakdown as the surrounding horrors are internalized. Such is the case for Captain James Embry in “King Nine Will Not Return.”
Our introduction to Capt. Embry comes in the form of a tight shot panning across the wreckage of a downed plane laying in the middle of a sun-scorched Tunisian desert. The camera slowly moves across the wreck and its trail of debris until finally settling on the body of the officer as he slowly begins to regain consciousness. As Capt. Embry takes in his surroundings, his memories begin to flood back: he is the captain of the B25 medium bomber King Nine, and he and his crew had been in the middle of a mission when they were apparently shot down. But where are his men? Capt. Embry searches the King Nine and finds no sign of them. He is stranded, with nothing but the metal husk of his fallen plane and the ever-present sun for company, and as strange occurrences begin to take place he wonders whether his sanity has left him as well.
The premiere of season two (as well as the first TZ episode to feature Rod Serling performing his hosting duties on camera), “King Nine Will Not Return” is another example of that Twilight Zone staple: the story of a single isolated character and the battle being waged within that person’s mind. Like “Where Is Everybody,” “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room,” and the second half of “Time Enough at Last,” the story’s success rests in the insight of the actor’s portrayal, the strength of the story’s writing, and the skill of the director’s presentation all working together in perfect unison. Because the audience has only that one character to follow, if any of the combination of these elements is lacking the viewer’s attention will wander and the episode will be a dud.
Fortunately, all of these elements are strongly present in “King Nine,” and they make the episode soar. It’s hard to take your eyes off of Robert Cummings’s Capt. Embry, whose mixture of genuine concern for his missing crew and borderline hysteria caused by his situation give the character a sense of humanity that may have been lost in a less committed portrayal. Buzz Kulik, director of nine TZ episodes in total (as well as the 70’s tear-jerker Brian’s Song staring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams), paces the build-up to Capt. Embry’s breakdown and the episode’s eventual climax beautifully. And the haunting shots of the wreck of the King Nine that bookend the episode should rank with the most iconic images from The Twilight Zone’s five season run.
Now Entering the Spoiler Zone
However, what shines brightest in “King Nine” is the writing itself. Inspired by the real-life story of the Lady Be Good, a World War 2 bomber discovered after missing for nearly fifteen years, Serling used the tale as a springboard for examining survivor’s guilt and the crippling effects it could have on soldiers returning home.
After he wakes up in a hospital bed, we realize the ordeal that Capt. Embry has been going through has all been in his head. It was a hallucination triggered by a newspaper’s story about the recently stumbled upon wreck of the King Nine, finally found after going MIA years ago during a mission that Capt. Embry was supposed to be on. In the time since the war, he’s been shouldering a tremendous amount of remorse for not being on that plane with his men, to the point where he’s forced the memory so far down that he had almost forgotten about it himself. That is, until that morning’s paper made its way into his hands.
Perhaps the most moving moment of the episode comes when his doctor, after listening to Capt. Embry’s story, tells him to let go of the guilt he feels. That he had no way of knowing what would happen to his crew and that it wasn’t his fault. We see Capt. Embry take this in, and though the likelihood of him taking the advice to heart may be slim, we hope that he will take that moment to let go of the demons he’s been struggling with. He deserves that much.
Of course, it wouldn’t be The Twilight Zone if there wasn’t one last twist to be had, one that would call the neat and tidy outcome we just witnessed into question. Of course, I’m not going to give everything away; you’ll have to go watch the episode. But trust me—it’s a good one.
Then comes the closing narration, punctuated with eerie shots of the wreck of the King Nine half buried in the Tunisian desert, highlighting one of the many sad truths of war; that an exchange is always made between the battlefield and the soldiers that survive it. The latter will carry the former with them for the rest of their lives, just as the wrecks of the people they once were will be left behind in the dirt long after the battle has ceased.
“Enigma buried in the sand, a question mark with broken wings that lies in silent grace as a marker in a desert shrine. Odd how the real consorts with the shadows, how the present fuses with the past.”