Entry 29: Lost Causing It in the Fifth Dimension

The Twilight Zone. “Still Valley,” Season 3, Episode 11. Directed by James Sheldon. Written by Rod Serling and Manly Wade Wellman.

Release Date: November 24, 1961.

Now that Mercy Street is over, I thought we could use a palate cleanser, and what better way than with a guest post by prolific historian, editor, and blogger Matthew C. Hulbert. Matt has a book coming out in the fall that’s right up my alley, The Ghosts of Guerrilla Memory: How Civil War Bushwhackers  Became Gunslingers in the American West, but he’s also a Twilight Zone fan. So, we decided to do a post on the series’s most famous Civil War episode, “Still Valley.” It’s a great piece and I’m always happy to feature other scholars on this blog. Enjoy!


 

“Still Valley”—one of just three episodes of The Twilight Zone to deal directly with the Civil War or its legacy—starts with an opening monologue from the show’s iconic creator and lead writer, Rod Serling:

 The time is 1863. The place: the state of Virginia. The event is a mass blood—later known as the Civil War, a tragic moment in time when a nation was split into two fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.

Halfway through Serling’s intro, viewers catch up with a worn-and-weary pair of Confederate cavalrymen; they’ve been sent on a scouting mission with orders to report any and all Union troop movements. When the sounds of men and horses on the march reach their camp, we learn everything we think we need to know about their respective mettle. The first man, Dauger (Ben Cooper), is young, fidgety, and doubting his dedication to the cause. When the war began, it had been like a “game”—but now months of death and destruction, capped by his experience at Second Manassas, have transformed Dauger into a shell of his former self.

The second man, Sergeant Paradine (Gary Merrill), is older, calmer, and intent on fulfilling his duty—regardless of the cost to his personal well-being. He seems to understand Dauger’s emotional plight, but responds violently to the proposition that they walk into town and surrender. Slapping Dauger across the face, Paradine replies somberly that too many Confederates have died too honorably to think of giving up now. As he prepares to scout the enemy force, Paradine sends Dauger back to their unit and Serling concludes his monologue:

This is Joseph Paradine, Confederate cavalry, as he heads down toward a small town in the middle of a valley. But very shortly, Joseph Paradine will make contact with the enemy. He will also make contact with an outpost not found on a military map—an outpost called—The Twilight Zone.

In town, Paradine finds a company of “Yank” soldiers. Some are marching, others drinking from canteens, and still more are unloading a supply wagon. But the one thing all the men have in common is they’ve been frozen in place, unable to move a muscle or utter a sound. Eventually, Paradine finds an old man (Vaughn Taylor)—whose unkempt white hair and blackened teeth hint at something evil—and learns how the Union troopers came to be living statues. The quick answer: black magic. With spells from a leather-bound book, the old man claims to be a warlock capable of doing the same to every soldier in the entire Union army. With Lincoln’s forces supernaturally incapacitated, R. E. Lee and company could stroll into Washington, DC, and claim victory for the Confederacy.

Excited—and confused—Paradine asks the warlock a logical question: why hasn’t he done it already (after all, the warlock hates the Union men too, whom he calls “thievin’ skunks in blue”)? The old man says he can’t do it because he’s going to die this very day before the sun sets (which actually didn’t answer the question, but we’ll skip that for now) and chooses Paradine to inherit the book and its power. Unsure what to do, the cavalryman takes the book, but tells the old man that “something doesn’t seem right” about these spells, almost as if “you’d have to be in league with the devil” to wield them. Grinning—there are those teeth again!—the warlock tells Paradine he’s exactly right; “that’s who we’ll have fighting on our side: the devil!”

As night falls—and we’re left to assume the old man has gone down with the sun—Paradine reports back to his lieutenant. No one believes his fantastical story until another officer, Mallory, returns to camp with a bizarre report: several Union men were found frozen on a nearby ridge. Prior to Mallory’s arrival, Paradine told the lieutenant that he’d tested the book’s power against men on that very ridge.

With victory seemingly at hand, the Confederates desperately attempt to justify unleashing the book’s dark magic. The reasons come fast and easy. They don’t have the guns, the food, or the manpower to win the war anymore. The Confederacy, they agree, “is cracking up right in front of their eyes”—so what could an assist from the Prince of Darkness hurt? Paradine momentarily consents, saying he “doesn’t know much about Satan” but the cause is definitely dying. He begins to read from the book, “Satan I call upon you, and in so doing I revoke the name of…” but draws to a chilling halt. In order to fully wield black magic, he—and by extension the Confederacy—will have to revoke the name of God.

In the end, Paradine simply can’t do it. “If this cause is to be buried,” he concludes, “let it be put in hallowed ground.” Having come full circle back to his initial, honorable outlook, Paradine tosses the book of sorcery into the campfire. As the evil tome burns, Serling returns to throw a final, ironic twist into the story.

On the following morning, Sgt. Paradine and the rest of these men were moved up north to a little town in Pennsylvania, an obscure little place where a battle was brewing, a town called Gettysburg, and this one was fought without the help of the Devil—small historical note not to be found in any known books, but part of the records in, The Twilight Zone.

Right off the bat, there are a few historical problems with the episode. While Dauger’s mea culpa implies that the Battle of Second Manassas had been a crushing, demoralizing defeat for the Confederacy, that simply wasn’t the case. The August 1862 showdown between Lee and John Pope had delivered shocking casualties—but was considered enough of a Confederate victory to serve as a springboard for Lee’s first invasion of the North and a meeting with George McClellan’s army at Antietam. Moreover, in June 1863, just days before the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3), the Confederacy had admittedly suffered setbacks in the Western Theater, but was by no means in the destitute shape described by Paradine, Dauger, and the unnamed lieutenant. Finally, a pair of problematic insinuations arise concerning the Battle of Gettysburg too. First, on a broader level, the battle has become a turning point toward overall Confederate defeat in traditional narratives of the war. But even after the loss, made notorious by Pickett’s Charge on the third day of fighting, the Confederacy’s fate was by no means sealed. Second, on a more intimate level, the initial impact of Serling’s final comment comes from thinking the men could have spared themselves a spot in line for Pickett’s Charge. But as we well know, Sergeant Paradine wasn’t an infantryman.

These flaws will undoubtedly vex some viewers—most of whom need to relax and, just occasionally, let a good story be a good story (better to direct your antipathy at whatever docu-drama is on cue from the History Channel). For my part, as both a diehard fan of The Twilight Zone—I watch the marathon every 4th of July and it’s on my short list for “smartest TV show of all time”—and a professional historian of the war, I’m willing to overlook these shortcomings of veracity as artistic embellishments, because they make the plot/ending more memorable and because they’re actually just paying homage to their original source: “The Valley was Still,” a 1939 short story penned by prodigious science fiction writer Manly Wade Wellman.

The scholar in me is admittedly much more concerned with what the plot of “Still Valley” reveals to us about the state of Civil War memory in 1961. With the Centennial in its first year, many Americans, north and south, were content—trained, even—to remember the war as a national tragedy triggered by the gradual growing apart of two distinct cultures, not the result of a clash over the preservation of slavery. It was a conflict in which men from both sides fought valiantly and courageously, despite the unprecedented death and destruction wrought by Napoleonic combat at places like Second Manassas and Gettysburg; and, in the end, the sheer might of the industrialized North had simply overwhelmed the idyllic plantationscape of the Old South. Because both sides had behaved with honor, white veterans from the Union and Confederacy could put the past behind them, shake hands, and be brothers again.

How did “Still Valley” stack up with these popular tropes? In Serling’s opening monologue, there is no mention of slavery as the war’s main catalyst—just a nation ambiguously “split into two fragments.” According to Paradine, untold men had died bravely and honorably in battle, we just never really learn why they were fighting in the first place. Later, we do learn that the Confederacy is short of guns and food and ammunition and men—that the cause of the seceded states is “crumbling” and “dying” as a result of the Union’s advantages in material and manpower, not because of fighting prowess or tactical skill. Noble to the last, Paradine and company are tempted by a disciple of Satan with a tool capable of delivering immediate and total victory, but they decline to employ it because to do so would have ultimately meant renouncing the righteousness—even the Godliness—of the Confederate cause. In other words, the plot and moral of “Still Valley” is shot through with Lost Cause mythology.

Realistically speaking, it shouldn’t surprise us that popular television programs and feature films were pulling water from the Lost Cause well in the 1950s and 1960s. Think Raintree County, The Grey Ghost, The Rebel, and The Undefeated among numerous others. And for what it’s worth, “Still Valley” wasn’t even the only the episode of The Twilight Zone with a pro-Southern slant. A 1960 installment, entitled “Long Live Walter Jameson,” starred veteran actor Arthur Kennedy as an immortal history professor who gives his unwitting students a firsthand account of William Tecumseh Sherman. The plot continued a long Lost Cause tradition of downplaying Sherman’s military intellect, instead depicting him as a heartless brute.

On a personal level, what makes “Still Valley” so frustrating is that on many other topics, the series occupied the social and political vanguard of its day. Much of the show’s social conscience emanated from Serling. Raised in a New York Jewish household, a World War II combat vet, and an overt supporter of the ACLU, Serling had a reputation for ruthlessly exposing injustice and hypocrisy in his scripts. In the course of its five seasons, The Twilight Zone warned against the dangers of fascism (“He’s Alive” [1963], “The Obsolete Man” [1961]); lambasted ethnic genocide (“Deaths-Head Revisited” [1961]) and nuclear posturing (“Two” [1961]); laid bare the pitfalls of Cold War paranoia on the homefront (“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” [1960], “The Shelter” [1961]); and, it tackled black-white racism and racial hatred during a pivotal period of the Civil Rights Movement (“I am the Night—Color me Black” [1964]).

With all of this in mind, perhaps the most striking idea of all is that a program with a social conscience so pronounced as The Twilight Zone and a producer/screenwriter as unafraid to stir the pot as Serling couldn’t seem to escape the long arm of the Lost Cause—an arm clearly long enough to follow audiences on their “journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.” This disappointment aside, “Still Valley” is cleverly adapted to the screen, surprisingly well-acted, easily worth 25 minutes of your day, and well-suited for use in the classroom.

Additional Dispatches:

  • Sure, the warlock could have frozen the Union army in the months before his conveniently-timed death. And yes, Paradine somehow tests the black magic on the ridge without having to renounce God. But sometimes a story is entertaining because you ignore the plot holes. It’s The Twilight Zone, after all—use your imagination or little Bill Mumy won’t be pleased with you…
  • Does it Mention Slavery? Though seemingly out of character for the series, “Still Valley” follows the lead of many 1960s TV shows and movies and avoids dealing with slavery as the root cause of the Civil War. The conflict is ambiguously categorized as political in nature; a showdown between rival nation-states, without mention of the social institutions or cultural baggage that informed each side’s motives for war.

Next Entry: “The Battle Cry of Freedom”

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