Shadow on the Land: produced by Matthew Rapf; created by Sidney Sheldon; written by Nedrick Young; directed by Richard C. Sarafian. With Marc Strange, Jackie Cooper, John Forsythe, Gene Hackman, Carol Lynley, Janice Rule, and Mike Margotta. Screen Gems, 1967.
Shadow on the Land was a project perhaps 47 years ahead of its time. That might also be why it failed: no one in the higher echelons of ABC television, or any other network, believed the events in Shadow on the Land could ever happen here. The pilot film ran on one evening, in April of 1968, then again on scattered “Early Show” presentations. But for those few of us who watched it, it taught lessons that are both timely and timeless.
Casting a shadow
The story is brutally simple. A dictator, having the title of Leader (remember the German word: Führer), has taken over the government of the United States. The people allowed his rise to power out of “fear, greed, and simple laziness.” The Constitution does not matter anymore. (The opening sequence shows a man, wearing a uniform with armbands, painting a black X over it.) At least 12 concentration camps have sprung up across the United States. And the populace cower under the control of the Leader’s dreaded State police, the Internal Security Forces. (Schutzstaffel?)
Their flag is an unspeakable travesty of American symbols, with a stark Nazi flavor thrown in. On a blood-red field, a double-headed eagle grasps two lightning bolts in each talon. Over its breast rests a plain white five-sided shield, with three bold black letters: ISF.
The Leader, though his word is law, is not satisfied. He plans another, far more chilling operation. An Army officer gets wind of it, and tries to alert the underground. The ISF capture him, but the underground manages to free him. Yet the ISF manage to recapture him. But during his interrogation, at least two people of conscience learn of the Leader’s plans and take steps to stop them. Will they succeed?
The characters, both sympathetic and non sympathetic, tell the back story of the Leader and the ISF. Riots spring out in America’s inner cities. (In fact, Shadow on the Land went to air after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the riots that followed.) Anyone with any property to guard, naturally gravitates to the Leader and the Force that promise to guard private property, and guard well. Instead, the entire country becomes a police state.
Life imitating art: an all too real ‘Shadow’
Shadow on the Land anticipates the Transportation Security Administration, the stock-market collapse of 2008 (and concerns about a total social collapse still to come), and even the over-militarization of American police forces. Shadow also anticipated events that could provoke the same riots its characters speak of. Seventeen years after Shadow wrapped, the Reagan administration ran the Readiness Exercises of 1984 (Rexx-84), after the Mariel Boatlift. Rexx-84 actually rehearsed martial law and massive civil detention following an overwhelming influx of immigrant refugees. For this, the Army and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among others, set up holding camps on Army bases and special FEMA properties in every State. Those camps still stand, though they are run down; the federal government never disposes of land it buys or builds upon, even after it stops using the buildings. And today, thousands of undocumented minor children are swarming over the Rio Grande in numbers that dwarf the Mariel Boatlift. This, plus a rumored social collapse, could set up the same conditions Sidney Sheldon projected for his back story.
True enough, neither Sheldon nor head writer Ned Young nor producer Matt Rapf nor director Dick Sarafian thought in terms of a leftist uprising. They thought in terms of a repeat of the takeover of German society by the Nazi Party. That’s why the trappings of the ISF, and its publications (Rules and Regulations, Our Struggle, Handbook for Children, and For Leader and for Country), strongly resemble those of the Nazis.
But one year before Sheldon and company completed their projects, two so-called social scientists, Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, proposed a deliberate overload of public charitable institutions and programs. This would cause people to clamor for another kind of Leader, one that would ladle out soup instead of guarding private property.
The relatively unknown actor Marc Strange performs well as the mid-level ISF officer who still remembers when America was free. John Forsythe performs equally well as his cynical superior officer. He believes totally in the Leader and his cause. And he will expend men and resources for a thoroughly bloodthirsty deception of the people.
YOU DEMAND?!? Let me remind YOU, General! The Internal Security Forces SUPERSEDE the Army! AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT! I’ll arrange your resignation so fast you won’t know what hit you. “You demand.”
Jackie Cooper turns in the most difficult performance of all. As the renegade Army officer, he discovers the truth about the Leader’s plans and desperately tries to reach an apathetic people with his dire warning.
The action takes place in what could easily pass for Los Angeles International Airport, an office building that doubles as ISF Western Division Headquarters, a power plant, and a camp that looks convincingly like a concentration camp. Ironic signs abound: mention of the names “United States of America” and “Internal Security Forces” on the same sign never fail to chill the spine even today, forty-six years after this reviewer first watched the program on ABC television. And the music of Sol Kaplan, heavy on brass and percussion, does as much as the performances to keep the viewer/listener tense throughout. (Viewers of Star Trek: The Original Series might remember Sol Kaplan’s most memorable episode score, for “The Doomsday Machine.”)
A real Shadow cast today?
Today, my fellow editor put together evidence that should chill anyone who reads it. The federal government is militarizing police forces today. But it is also placing key physical assets, specifically light armored vehicles, into small-to-middle-sized cities throughout the country. The local police and sheriff’s forces who get those vehicles, will occasionally use them and constantly keep them up. Then, when either Barack Obama or some other Leader arises and is ready to take over, he can simply commandeer those vehicles by executive order.
Shadow on the Land is not available in any official release. It is available only as a probable bootleg transfer, apparently from one of its few showings on television. But if you can find a copy of this project, you should find it and view it now. While you can still be sure it is only fiction.
Pay special attention to this opening sequence. The voice-over narrator nails it. We do take our democracy “as much for granted as the water we drink.” We might lapse into paralysis “from fear, greed or simple laziness.” Candidates for a Leader abound. (And, nearly two thousand years ago, the most long-lived of the first missionaries, the Apostle John, foretold the rise-to-power of at least two world Leaders.) And let the reader decide whether the current government has any respect left for the Constitution. Will a day finally come when an armband-wearing figure paints the black X over it?
Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.
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