S01E19 – The Purple Testament
“Lt. Fitzgerald has found his own special wartime hell. Looking into the faces of his men prior to battle, he has the disquieting ability to see who is about to die.”
Like many a lad in the early 1940s, Rod Serling wanted to go to war. As detailed in Dave Thompson’s book, The Twilight Zone FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Fifth Dimension, “His initial intention was simply to drop out of high school and sign up on the spot.” However, teachers convinced him to wait until after graduation, after which he enlisted and was deployed to the Philippines. There, Serling eventually participated in the march on Manilla, one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Pacific. Over time, Serling’s outfit suffered a 50% casualty rate, and Serling himself was seriously injured by antiaircraft fire.
Despite his own sufferings, however, perhaps the most devastating moment Serling experienced during the war came not on the battlefield, but as he and the rest of his platoon were relaxing under some palm trees. As one of Serling’s fellow soldiers stood in front of the rest entertaining everyone with some tall tale, a food crate dropped from an American supply plane landed squarely on the man, decapitating him on the spot.
Such things leave their mark on a person, and Serling was no exception. Thompson explains, “He survived the campaign, but he was not unscathed. Physically wounded twice, Serling was to bear the emotional scars for the remainder of his life; indeed, many commentators have since pinpointed Leyte and Manilla as the crucial events in Serling’s development as a writer – and perhaps even its genesis.”
Little wonder then that warfare, or more accurately the effects of warfare on the human psyche, would become a recurring theme on The Twilight Zone. Episode 19, The Purple Testament, is one of the earliest examples. Though set during the conflict in the Philippines, no skirmishes are ever shown. Instead, the focus remains on the soldiers outside of battle, allowing us to see how the war is wearing them down.
Knowing a bit of Serling’s service history, it’s easy to see a little of the writer in the main character, Lt. Fitzgerald, a man who literally sees death everywhere he looks. Even were he to survive the episode, he would never be the same again, not after the horrors he has endured. In an article for the Journal of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, Edward Tick, Ph.D. writes of the difficulties many such soldiers face upon returning home form combat…
“We cannot cure PTSD; it does not go away… From the perspective of the soul, a person with PTSD is stuck in hell and awash in destruction and death. Anyone in this condition needs rebirth… Healing for PTSD requires a spiritual approach because PTSD is a sacred wound to both the soul and society. It requires a different psycho-spiritual approach because the identity must be recreated and meaning discovered. It requires a communal approach because it is a social disorder resulting from isolating the warrior from civilian classes. Healing PTSD requires moving beyond conventional therapeutic practices to restore the proper relationships between veterans and communities, to provide veterans with all they need in order to return from hell and to discover the personal and socially useful dimensions of PTSD.”
Alas, as could be expected, Fitzgerald doesn’t make it to the end, so he never gets a chance at such spiritual healing. Therein lies the one criticism this episode often receives, that the patented Serling twist can be seen coming in the first few minutes of the show. Once it’s revealed that Fitzgerald can see who is going to die next, is there ever any doubt he will soon recognize death in his own face? Maybe that’s on purpose though. With the anticipation of the twist removed, all that’s left to give our attention to is the characters and what they are feeling. You have to think that’s what Serling wanted from this particular story all along.
Twilight Tidbits: The titular “purple testament of bleeding war,” a line which Serling borrowed from Shakespeare, is a reference not only to the sanguine color of blood, but to the historic practice of wealthy patrons commissioning illuminated manuscripts made from parchment dyed purple and lettered in gold. Not a fan of ostentatiousness, Saint Jerome reportedly penned a letter condemning the vanity of such purchases.