Democracy. A democracy we take as much 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 inhabited 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 coerced or persuaded into accepting a dictatorship? A leader whose word alone is all of law.
The skeleton of democracy is destroyed. Its blood stream, dissent, is bound in the barbed wire of concentration camps. And the leader’s special police, the internal security forces, terrorize the bulk of the people into acceptance. And the flag of the Internal Security Forces, symbol of fear and darkness, will fly over our land.
All across the land, are those who fight this symbol of darkness. They are the underground. They call themselves, the Society of Man. The sound of that siren reminds them the leader continues to destroy democracy and the society of man.
Yet there are not many in the underground. And often, each must fight in their own way.
— Narrator’s Prologue to Shadow on the Land
It’s been 41 years since Shadow on the Land premiered in December of 1968. Inspired by Sinclair Lewis’s 1936 novel and stage play, — It Can’t Happen Here, — and directed by Richard C. Sarafian, it depicts America under a dictatorship after US citizens elect a political strongman following a national emergency. Nedrick Young, a former actor and McCarthy-era blacklisted writer deftly converts Lewis’ 1930’s stinging satire into a modern movie screenplay for this classic ABC’s "Movie of the Week" feature.
It’s Christmas in Los Angeles. No snow, and all the Christmas trees are fake. Carols blare metallically over store speakers. More incongruous than the balmy weather, artificial decorations, or tinny songs during a winter holiday, is the presence of armed uniformed security agents, wearing the arm insignia of an imperial double-eagle — an eagle that holds no peace offering in either claw, only lighting bolts. These are not men of goodwill, nor do they promote peace on earth. An oppressive tyranny rules America. The President’s office, Congress, and the Supreme Court have been dissolved. A single leader now rules over the US. His name is never mentioned. He is simply referred to as "The Leader." A Homeland Security—styled agency, the Internal Security Forces (ISF), suppresses political dissent to keep him in power. A resistance group, called The Society of Man, has infiltrated the ISF with one of their agents, Major Shepard McCloud, who serves under the ISF commander, General Wendell Bruce.
An army officer and resistance agent, Lt. Colonel Davis, goes AWOL from his post in Washington DC. He has top-secret information about a government program named "Operation Hammer." Davis is arrested by the ISF at LA airport before he can get the information to the underground. The resistance decides he must be rescued quickly, at whatever cost, to obtain the information before he breaks under ISF interrogation.
The resistance members conduct a surprise raid at an ISF concentration camp where Davis is held. Crashing though the main gate with a large truck, the raiders attack the camp guards with assorted small arms and Molotov cocktails. One guard tower takes a terrible toll on the attacking resistance fighters. Several more are killed attempting to take it out. Finally a determined throw with a firebomb destroys the deadly tower.
Meanwhile, other resistance fighters search through the prisoner barracks looking for Davis. Finding him, they unceremoniously throw Davis in the back of a waiting van, and escape under a hail of gunfire. All resistance fighters unable to escape are quickly dispatched by ISF reinforcements. In a final act of defiance, two stranded resistance members pull down the camp’s ISF flag and hoist the stars and stripes before dying.
At Western Division ISF HQ, General Wendell Bruce is browbeating an Army general. The Army general had angrily demanded to know why Lt. Colonel Davis was arrested. ISF General Bruce sternly reminds him that the ISF authority supersedes the US military. When General Bruce threatens to sack him, he meekly exits the ISF office without further protest.
General Bruce looks out his office window at the city landscape. A police siren wails in the background. "Those people down there, I don’t know what they are doing… and the next day there will be more, and the next day…."
Major McCloud; "You sound like Jason searching for the Golden Fleece. One of the things he had to do was plant some dragon’s teeth. For every one he planted sprung a fully armed soldier he had to kill. And the next day there were more, and the next day, more…"
General Bruce: "That my friend, is mythology. Our job is not to plant dragon teeth. Our job is to plant an idea. An idea that America has to be strong, and united."
Major McCloud; "I’m afraid it’s used to being strong and free."
General Bruce: "The difference between freedom and license is you can’t have strength without discipline."
Major McCloud; "Well, let’s call it by its right name. Our job is discipline."
General Bruce: "That’s my job. Your job is to find Davis."
Major McCloud receives several cryptic messages from the underground at his office. He leaves ISF HQ with his personal ISF driver (and fellow resistance member), Corporal Willing. General Bruce, suspicious of McCloud after information gleaned by wiretaps on McCloud’s telephone, sends two ISF agents to tail him. McCloud and his driver shake the two agents, and arrive at a safe house where Davis is hiding with resistance members and a sympathetic doctor.
McCloud finds Lt. Colonel Davis sedated and in bad shape from the effects of his initial interrogation. The doctor tells McCloud he must wait several hours before he can question Davis about Operation Hammer. Fearful the safe house may be compromised, McCloud takes Davis to a church mission home in a poor section of the city. The mission home minister, Reverend Thomas Davis, is Lt. Col Davis’s brother. The Reverend at first refuses to hide him, not wanting to compromise the missions home’s neutrality by getting involved. When McCloud threatens to use his authority to close down the mission, Reverend Davis relents, and takes his brother in.
After McCloud leaves Davis at the mission, he goes to his girlfriend Abby’s apartment to create an alibi. When the ISF agents show up at the apartment to question him, Abby uses a cover story provided by McCloud to convince the ISF agents that McCloud was with her for the evening. Afterward McCloud and Abby speculate on the purpose of the Operation Hammer.
McCloud: "It’s called more power to the leader, and it begins with leader re-depositing the blank check the people gave him four years ago."
Abby: "You can’t blame the people — I mean they didn’t know — There was a national emergency. Remember?"
McCloud: "Oh I remember. Riots in the ghetto. Panic in the press… Every unthinking fool who had as much as a used car wanted to vote in a strong man for a protector…That’s what the national emergency is about. That’s what Operation Hammer is about. More power to the leader."
Abby: "He has all he needs. He has all he wants, and it’s growing."
McCloud: "But the resistance to him is growing. Don’t you see? — He’s got to smash the Society of Man."
Abby: "He’s been trying that for a long time now."
McCloud: "He has 300,00 men. Suppose, suppose he had two hundred million?"
McCloud: "Create another national emergency, another Reichstag fire. Do something terrible that will affect millions of people emotionally, as well as physically, and blame it on the society. Make every man, woman and child in the country hate the Society, not the leader. Cut us off from the people. Take away our support, smash it."
The ISF learns of Reverend Davis mission home and raid it. Aided by a sympathetic mission worker, Colonel Davis escapes at the last moment. Weak and disorientated, Colonel Davis wanders through the city as if in a nightmare. He desperately calls for assistance from citizens, but they recoil from him. He is spotted by two ISF agents and pursued. At one point Davis stumbles into a crowded coffeehouse and tries to warn them of the danger to come.
Davis; "Listen to me, please! Please listen to me! My name is Davis and I am an Army officer. Please help me! Help me! Please listen! Please listen to me! You all are on the gallows, right now! It’s the Leader!"
The two ISF agents recapture Davis and bring him to ISF HQ. To test McCloud’s loyalty to the ISF, General Bruce orders him to personally interrogate Davis. McCloud desperately tries to persuade Davis to give him information quickly before he is tortured further, but Davis dies from biting a poisoned pill he had kept in his mouth.
McCloud chastises a newly hired ISF woman psychiatrist, Captain Everett, for her part in analyzing Davis’ responses from the interrogation. Shocked out of her navet, Captain Everett decides to resign from the ISF and join the resistance. She provides McCloud a taped confession given earlier by Davis on the details of Operation Hammer.
The operation is a covert false-flag plot (a fictional cousin to the real 1962 CIA proposed Operation Northwood) to disable a California power station to black out the west coast on Christmas Eve, and blame it as an act of terrorism by the Society of Man. Its goal is to turn the public from supporting the resistance, and garner support to increase the size and authority of the ISF. General Bruce puts McCloud in charge of the operation, and briefs him and the agents on the details of the attack. When one of the ISF agents ask about how to deal with the loyal ISF guards protecting the power station, General Bruce coldly instructs them to do whatever is necessary, even killing the ISF guards, to complete the mission.
McCloud tries to send a warning to the underground via his driver, Willing, but is prevented by an order restricting all personnel to ISF HQ pending the operation. However, Reverend Thomas Davis happens to be in ISF HQ visiting the body of his deceased brother. McCloud goes to see Reverend Davis in the ISF morgue to convince him to contact the resistance to prevent the destruction of the power plant. After much futile argument, McCloud places the burden on Reverend Davis conscience to prevent the loss innocent lives from the ISF contrived blackout. Before leaving he drops a written message made out to the resistance on the floor while the Reverend kneels to pray over the body of his brother.
As zero hour approaches, McCloud and Willing saddle up with the ISF strike team to attack the power plant. As they drive towards to their objective, McCloud strikes up a conversation with Willing.
McCloud: "What made you join the underground?"
Willing: "How do you know when an idea begins? I was born, I grew up, I had things happen to me. I had experiences, and I thought about them. It’s the only way I can say it."
McCloud: "What sort of experiences?"
Willing: "Once when I was maybe 9 or 10, I was playing in a vacant lot, and I saw this little frog, and I wanted that frog more than anything else in the world because if I had that frog, I’d be rich and important to the other kids. I chased the frog, but it kept getting away from me. So I got mad. I picked up a rock and threw it at him and I killed him. All he wanted was to be free. I got sick and vomited all over the lot. I went home and cried all day and night. I never did anything like that again. I guess I been fighting the rock throwers ever since."
Reverend Davis does the right thing and warns the underground. The resistance members, dressed in ISF uniforms, ambush the ISF agents disguised in civilian clothes. A big gun battle ensues and the underground succeeds in killing all the ISF agents. McCloud is almost killed by the last ISF agent while disarming the explosives in the control room, but is saved at the last moment by Reverend Davis who shoots the ISF agent.
McCloud: "Thanks. The next one is on me."
Reverend Davis: "Next one? Always another battle to fight, isn’t there?"
McCloud: "Always another battle to win. Get positive."
A wounded McCloud goes back to ISF HQ to bluff it out with General Bruce.
General Bruce: "Whom do you suspect? It couldn’t have been Clark, or Franklin or Anderson. They never left the building. What of Felting?"
McCloud: "He’s dead."
General Bruce: "He’s the only one I can trust…."
McCloud: "Meaning what!!?"
General Bruce: "Meaning you and Felting were the only ones who knew outside this building. How do you explain that?"
McCloud: "How would you like to forget you a general for just a minute?"
General Bruce: "Go ahead! Take your chances!"
McCloud:" I did! So did 23 other men, who took the chances on the mission that should have never taken place when it did. And wouldn’t have, if you weren’t so hungry for a pat on the head from the Leader! You knew Davis was at liberty for 16 hours before you picked him up! Now he had time to tell everyone in the underground if he went from one end of the city to another on roller skates! You knew that! Why couldn’t you have given us an edge? Move the mission ahead? Four hours, four minutes, anything! Now how are you going to explain that!!?"
General Bruce: "You’re bleeding on my desk."
McCloud: "Are there any other questions — SIR?"
General Bruce: (Whispering to himself) "Nobody, nobody I can trust…"
McCloud: "Well like you said sir, in this business that’s an occupational hazard."
The movie ends with McCloud leaving General Bruce’s office. Passing by Willing, he pauses before exiting ISF HQ. Turning around, he says to Willing, "Why don’t you go home? It’s Christmas Eve."
Filmed in an era before personal computers, Internet, cell phones, and miniature video devices, the movie lacks the oppressive atmosphere of invasive surveillance and loss of privacy as depicted in Orwell’s futuristic 1984. Shadow on the Land is more a rough sketch of an alternative fascist America than a detailed blueprint. But what it lacks in special effects is made up by Nedrick Young’s smartly written dialogue and excellent characterization by the actors. John Forsyth gives an outstanding performance as the intelligent and ruthless ISF General Wendell Bruce. Forsyth’s piercing glare and stern voice give him an imposing persona that intimidates lesser men in his presence. The ISF logo effectively gives the movie the necessary visual gravis to compensate with the lack of dystopian stage props. The uncanny resemblance of the ISF insignia with the recent American Police Force (APF) trademark is too creepy to be funny.
Lesser-known actor Marc Strange coolly plays the character of Major Shepard McCloud. His role of a double agent creates dramatic suspense as he plays a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Forsyth’s character. The rest of the actors give a good ensemble performance. Only Gene Hackman’s stint as the Reverend Thomas Davis is disappointing. His portrayal as a minister torn between his conscience and the cause of the resistance sounds more forced than sincere.
Sadly for movie buffs, Shadow on the Land has not been re-released. The video quality of the old VHS recording I viewed can only be generously described as fair. Despite its age, Shadow on the Land successfully portrays the grim consequences when citizens fail to heed Benjamin Franklin’s warning, and trade essential liberty for temporary safety.