Thursday, March 17, 2011

CULT TV-MOVIE REVIEW: Shadow on the Land (1968)

"These are the symbols of democracy.  A democracy we take as for granted as the water we drink.  But democracy is a living thing; its skeleton an ideal; its bloodstream dissent; its tissue comprised of all the people who inhabit it.  All the people.

But what happens if the life of democracy is paralyzed by fear, or greed, or simple laziness, and the country is yielded up, or co-erced, or persuaded into accepting a dictatorship, a leader whose word alone is all of law? 

The skeleton of democracy is destroyed, its bloodstream, dissent, is bound in the barbed wire of concentration camps.  And the leader's special police...terrorize the bulk of the people into acceptance.  And the flag of the Internal Security Forces -- the symbol of fear and darkness -- will fly over our land."

- A Voice of "God" narration, from the opening of the TV-movie, Shadow on the Land (1968).

The stirring words printed above are accompanied on screen in Shadow on the Land by impressive views of national landmarks that we Americans hold dear: the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument

Yet these words are also accompanied by images that terrify every American citizen, regardless of political stripe or political party:  a giant  black "X" marked through our country's Constitution; red arm-bands decorating the uniforms of  a gestapo-like police force.

This TV-movie created by Sidney Sheldon and written by Nedrick Young contemplates something that we all fervently hope is absolutely impossible: the rise of a fascist, totalitarian dystopia in America.  It's a 1960s TV variation on Sinclair Lewis's classic 1935 literary work, It Can't Happen Here.

In Shadow on the Land, The United States has been a dictatorship for some forty years, ever since the country's Leader exploited a national emergency ("riots in the ghetto" according to the screenplay) to seize total control of the nation and declare martial law.  The people, in essence, gave the Leader "a blank check."

Over the years since the takeover, "discipline" has replaced "freedom" in America as an ideal.  Dissenters -- part of an organized resistance group called "Society of Man" -- are sent to detention camps where they are they are beaten and tortured.  The police force, the ISF, is ubiquitous and well-armed.

As the drama commences, an ISF officer, Colonel Andrew Davis (Jackie Cooper) is arrested by authorities for stealing documents pertaining to the Leader's new top-secret initiative, "Operation Hammer."  

Davis is hauled off to Detention Camp 12, and tortured for information.  The resistance movement attacks the camp and rescues Davis in an extremely violent sequence with overturned cars, soldiers electrocuted on fences and bullet-ridden corpses.  This night-time action scene is impressive as such on its own, but there's one important moment of undeniable real power here as well.

In particular, two nameless Society of Man fighters attempt to bring down the ISF flag and fly our Stars and Stripes instead.  The first man is gunned down viciously (on-screen). 

Without thought, a second man jumps into the breach and raises the flag...and is also gunned down with extreme-prejudice, right before our eyes.  But the flag goes up; Old Glory reigns. 

This moment goes by quickly, and without comment, but it certainly makes a powerful statement.  These two men died to make a symbolic gesture that few people would ever see (in this context).  They didn't die freeing other men, or retreat to fight the good fight another day.  No, they gave up their very lives in service of a representation of liberty. 

As I was sitting on my comfortable sofa watching this scene -- my beautiful wife on one side of me, and my 91 year-old uncle on the other side of me -- I tried to imagine myself in those men's shoes.  Giving up my life -- everything I hold dear -- for the simple but powerful and universal idea of freedom.  We've seen people doing this very thing, or something quite like it, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Fighting to the death for the cause of freedom.  But as Americans, we really haven't had to do that.  We're fighting two wars, but we haven't had to give up our sons or daughters to wage them.  We haven't even had to endure tax hikes, or conserve oil.

How many Americans of today, I wonder, would sacrifice their personal futures just to see the U.S. flag raised?  I'm no better or more noble than anyone else.  And when I realized that, while watching this old TV movie, I was a little shaken.  What would you and I do if you lived in the America portrayed in Shadow on the Land?

Shadow on the Land delvers further into this courageous concept.  A high-ranking Colonel in the ISF, Shep McCloud (Marc Stanger) is actually working for the Resistance, and he delivers a wounded Davis to Davis' brother, a priest at the local Midnight Mission, played by Gene Hackman. 

This priest believes that all of life is a trial, one leading to death, and doesn't want to help his own biological brother.  He says that he "renders unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" and that "God" should decide.   But Shep insists...and he's a tough man to refuse.

In fact, Shep needs a lot of help, from both the priest and from a lovely ISF psychologist, because Operation Hammer could mean an end to the Society of Man.  On this very night -- Christmas Eve -- the Leader plans to stage a "false flag" operation, one equated to the the Reichstag fire in the teleplay. 

Specifically, ISF soldiers will dress as resistance fighters and attack a power plant control room in California, plunging the state into darkness and cold.  This terrorist act, the Leader believes, will finally turn the nation against the Society, and pave the way for the enforcement of "new restrictions" and the doubling of the ISF force size.

Most of this 1968 TV movie involves McCloud's attempts to prevent Operation Hammer from succeeding, and finding unexpected allies along the way.  Even the hesitant priest comes to McCloud's aid, after Colonel Davis's death by torture.  The movie ends at the dawn of Christmas, with the reminder that "there's always another battle to fight."

One of the most interesting facets of Shadow on the Land is its alternate reality viewpoint.  It is still the year 1968, but fascism has reigned in America for forty years, since 1928 ostensibly.  Still, America in 1968 looks almost the same as we would remember it.  There are freeways, Christmas decorations, office meetings, restaurants, etc.  The only difference is that no one is free.  That concentration camps dot the landscape, and every park, every avenue, every building is is monitored by the ever-present ISF soldiers.

Perhaps the tele-movie's second most powerful moment occurs when Davis attempts to find sanctuary following an ISF raid on the mission.  He begs people for help in the park, in the streets, even in a diner.  He tells them he's an army officer. He's bleeding, and desperate.

And no one lefts a finger. 

No one even makes eye contact with him.  The point transmitted by this scene is plain and clear: a fascist state depends on two things: a militia to bully people, and an apathetic, uninvolved populace.    Again, this got me thinking. Who would I rather be?  The guy who dies raising the flag?  Or the guy staring down at his lunch plate as a free man is captured and tortured?

Shadow on the Land was apparently a backdoor pilot for a TV series.  The concept was never picked up for broadcast, but I was struck how timely it seems today.  For instance, the opening narration discusses America losing democracy in three ways. 

First by fear, and certainly, this country knew crippling fear after September 11, 2001, in the age of color-coded terror alerts and warnings about powerful politicians of "mushroom clouds over" American cities. 

The second way is by greed, and indeed we saw Wall Street's sickening greed bring this great country to her knees in the Economic Meltdown of 2008.  We bailed Wall Street out and now look where we are.  They've got bonuses, and there's no money left for our schools, our workers, or, apparently, a middle class.

And third, finally, by laziness.   Let's hope against hope that we don't see this shoe drop. Certainly both the passion in the Tea Party in the election of 2010 and the passion now raging against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin speak powerfully against the possibility of such mass laziness.  These are both wonderful American examples of dissent, or what Shadow on the Land terms "the life blood" of democracy. 

I'm particularly glad Shadow on the Land pointed out the importance of dissent in a democracy such as ours.  I remember last decade, not too long ago when people spoke out of conscience about their objection to the War in Iraq that they were labeled un-American or treasonous for not going along.  On the contrary, it was the most American and patriotic thing people could do then (and do now): question authority

Ask why.

In terms of action, Shadow on the Land is pretty-fast paced and brutal.  And John Forsythe gives a nice, icy performance as high-ranking ISF officer, General Bruce.  But again, I just kept thinking that something like this TV-movie could be done very effectively today, when we've moved into a more technological age, when both political parties have apparently accepted surveillance of U.S. citizens without oversight and the right of American interests to torture. 

A new weekly series on this subject -- America under totalitarian rule -- would be a perfect Zeitgeist program at this juncture, and I would nominate Chris Carter to create, produce and write it.  He's an artist who has obsessed over these very ideas for twenty years, and, more than anyone else, I think, could write movingly about the human decisions, bravery and capitulations inherent in a scenario like Shadow on the Land's.

If this concept had gone to weekly series in 1968 (when the optimistic Star Trek was still on the air), I wonder how it would have been welcomed. 


  1. I remember seeing this movie once a long time ago. It was entirely chilling (even for me as a kid watching a TV movie pilot). Plus, it was the first time I'd seen John Forsythe portray a villain (to that point, I'd always associated him with the old BACHELOR FATHER series). Because of this film and Forsythe's turn on its head portrayal, I came to believe (and still do) that the best villains (in fiction or reality) were never the obvious, sinister looking, mustache-twirling figures, but the charismatic, stereotypical handsome/beautiful characters that have always been the basis of the hero archetype. That, and the ones that always refer to holier-than-thou, patriotic platitudes in dialogue/speeches as they attempt to sell us things that trash our rights and kill dissension so that there is no any real discussion or exchange of ideas.

    Fine examination, John. It's great that you're pointing a discerning eye upon the TV movies of the 60s/70s. Not only were some truly compelling and prophetic, but they were keenly aware and questioned the status quo. Thanks for this.

  2. Hi Le0pard13:

    Thank you for a really wonderful comment, filled with great ideas.

    I envy you seeing this as a child: I imagine it was even more terrifying to you at that age than it would be today. The idea of America as a dictatorship is really frightening, and there's a great deal of violence in this program too. It is powerful.

    Equally powerful -- as you insightfully comment -- is the portrayal of the General by John Forsythe. I agree with you, there's something deeply creepy and disturbing about a beautiful person espousing totally awful, destructive beliefs. It's much more effective than having an "ugly villain."

    Thank you too for your comments about my 1960s/1970s TV movie posts. I'm glad you've been enjoying them.

    All my best,

  3. Anonymous7:20 PM

    I first saw this back in 1968 when it was on TV and enjoyed it very much And recently found a copy of it at RareDVDs.Biz and it was quite reasonable and it cost $10.99 and in my case with shiping and handling it came to $15.99 and I got it today and will watch it tonight or tomorrow So if you want a copy again contact RareDVDS.Biz and you wouldnt be unhappy

  4. I remember seeing this movie in the 1970s. It was scary then as to actually happening then. How much more could such a movie plot occur in real life now? Are we, living in the United States, on the verge of finding ourselves in an actual 'shadow on the land' scenario? This is a must-see movie for everyone. Alan Saunders sci-fi writer

  5. I remember seeing this movie in the 1970s. It was scary then as to actually happening then. How much more could such a movie plot occur in real life now? Are we, living in the United States, on the verge of finding ourselves in an actual 'shadow on the land' scenario? This is a must-see movie for everyone. Alan Saunders sci-fi writer

  6. I am 56 and this movie made such an impression I'm still looking for it 48 years later. It is even scarier in these days of "build the wall" "lock her up" "extreme vetting" "trust me" "believe me" nationalism!

  7. I had never seen this film until today. I read Lewis' book, IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE, in the mid-70s. It is terrifying that this foreshadows what may be happening in the United States at this time. I am urging my friends to either watch this film or read the book and to speak out, march, dissent in whatever way possible.

  8. Anonymous7:01 PM

    Just a couple nits in your writing: Jackie Cooper played an Army Lt. Colonel who was liaison to ISF, NOT an ISF officer. Shep McCloud was an ISF Major, NOT Colonel.
    Anyway... This WAS a TV pilot, witch ABC did not buy, as it was deemed "too political" and "too current".
    Creator Sidney Sheldon re-packaged the show, replacing the US government with occupying aliens, and sold it to NBC as the original "V"...


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