A different version of this review was published on DVDTalk.com in 2010 to promote a Rod Serling-focused DVD.
Studio One was CBS' premiere drama anthology, running 1948 to 1958. Every week they presented a live play for the television audience, be it a new script by a hot young writer or an adaptation of stage material. Amongst the writers who cut their teeth in these early days was Rod Serling, whose keen observational eye and serious interest in the nuance of moral dilemmas quickly earned him notice. Serling is best known today for his Twilight Zone series, which he introduced on camera at the start of every episode. Twilight Zone's reputation is often unfairly reduced to knee-jerk jokes about its twist endings, but the truth of the matter is, those shows endure not because of their often surprising turns, but because of the heartfelt and soulful dramatics that lead to the twist. Serling is one of television's foremost chroniclers of the human condition, something that is more than obvious in his Studio One collaborations with director Franklin J. Schaffner. No sci-fi trappings here, just straightforward storytelling.
Schaffner went on to helm Advise and Consent on the stage and Patton for the big screen, and worked with Serling again on Planet of the Apes, and it's interesting to consider how the two teleplays they did for Studio One, 1956's The Arena and 1954's The Strike, predicted the subject matter that would continue to interest the director. Like Advise and Consent, The Arena is set in the U.S. Senate, and like Patton, The Strike is a war story about the courage of leadership.
The Arena tells the story of James Norton (Wendell Corey), a junior Senator appointed to a seat once occupied by his father. Dear ol' dad likely pulled some strings to get his boy in there, a fact not lost on Norton Sr.'s old political rival, Senator Harvey Rogers (John Cromwell). Despite the advice of his spin doctor, Jack Feeney (Chester Morris), Norton immediately locks horns with Rogers, a fight he is not equipped to handle. The more experienced politician massacres him, and Norton must decide whether a particularly juicy piece of dirt he has on the older man is worth the price of his integrity.
The Strike is set in South Korea in 1951. Major Gaylord (James Daly) is in charge of five-hundred men trapped under enemy fire in the middle of the Korean wilderness. He has one patrol of twenty that got lost on a recon mission, and when it comes time to move out, he is faced with a difficult choice. An air attack can take out the Communist artillery, but the recon unit would be collateral damage. Are the lives of twenty a fair trade for the full battalion?
In both teleplays, Serling poses a central question for two very different men: what is the right thing to do? Not what is the easiest, what is the most convenient, but what is right. The difference is that, in the case of Senator Norton, the right thing will allow him to sleep easier at night, but in the case of Major Gaylord, it will likely haunt him for the rest of his life. Norton is a stubborn man whose levers are pulled by his bitter father, and he lets his ambition and need to please his dad cloud his judgment; Gaylord is a man crippled by his conscience. Past experience has taught him that losing even one soldier hurts, and he'd be more than willing to pass off the decision to someone else. It's his men who force him to lead, demanding he fulfill the confidence and trust they have put in him.
The beauty of a Rod Serling script is that though he may pose a question that seems extremely compact, he unfolds it so that every possible angle can be explored, showing how large the true issue is. This is especially true of The Strike, where the men in Gaylord's command offer different reactions and modes of thinking in regards to the problem. A visiting chaplain (Roy Roberts) is a voice of faith and the greater good, while the soldiers take a far more cynical, practical view. They expect their higher-ups to make the bad decisions they can't and accept death as a product of war.
The acting is uniformly good through both shows. Chester Morris gets the meatiest role in The Arena. Senator Rogers even says as much: the man in the middle is the one with the real burden, he's the one who must see both sides and sway to either. Morris maybe overdoes some of the drunk scenes, but they work all the same. In The Strike, James Daly commands the screen as the Major. He is a fairly standard Serling lead. Rod loved watching a man fall apart. Daly sweats, paces, twitches, and loses his cool at every turn of the script page.
Anytime I watch these old shows, I always have to pause and admire their construction. The performers and the crew had to move between sets without taking a break, and I'm always fascinated by the complicated set-ups they create to give everyone time to get where they are going. When you step back and dissect what you are seeing, it's pretty remarkable. There were no do-overs. If the camera was not in place, if an actor tripped and fell or forgot his lines, there was no way to fix it, everyone would see. It's like live theatre, but beamed across the nation. Most of the productions on Studio One or other anthology shows, including these two episodes, rivaled regular motion pictures, and often, they got remade as full movies. You'd expect productions of this kind to be quaint throwbacks to a simpler time, but they are really far more complex than most of what the networks put on television in the decades after taped broadcasts became the norm and prior to the more recent cable revolution.