Shadow on the Land

 

I’m about to introduce you to one of the strangest, longest-forgotten TV projects ever launched: a December 1968 television movie for ABC made to pitch a weekly series called Shadow on the Land. The grim, Twilight Zone-like premise: the U.S. is ruled by a dictatorship, and has been for decades more than anyone realizes, backed by the Federal bureaucracy and their Gestapo-like ISF, the Internal Security Forces. The nation’s churches have been cowed or intimidated into submission. A small band of freedom fighters emerges within law enforcement and government, and their never-ending secret struggle of sabotage against their own agencies is the plot of the TV movie, and of the following series that was never to be.

This wasn’t The Man in the High Castle; no foreign invasion, no defeat in a war was necessary, it’s something we did to ourselves. One of the most disturbing and effective things about Shadow on the Land was a deliberate choice of the filmmakers: its normalcy, an America with freeways and shopping centers where you can drive a Pontiac, smoke Luckies, and fly TWA. Where even the men walking the halls of secret police headquarters look like the ad agency staff in Mad Men, with a visual background of typing pools and office Christmas parties. There are no futuristic props at all, nothing that suggests that what we’re watching is anything but today’s world. Wild stuff, huh?

This was an era of shows with open-ended story arcs, like The Fugitive, The Invaders, and Run For Your Life, and if Shadow on the Land had stayed around, that’s the overall format it would have had, just with more, shall we say, nightmarish subject matter.

The screenplay is claimed to be very loosely based on Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, about 33 years earlier, but there’s not much left of it other than the premise. There seems to have been some effort to make this a genuine “what-if” story, not a direct comment on fascism from the left or right. The rare bits of jargon in Shadow on the Land are a mixture of Nazi and Soviet cliches, and the backstory of how this all came to be is deliberately vague. Evidently, the Great Depression triggered a popular revolution and America doesn’t seem to have been involved in WWII, if it happened at all.

In 1968, the very idea of TV movies was still new; networks got great ratings running movies, but the studios squeezed the prices ever-higher. So in the mid-‘60s, the networks decided to partner with some of those studios to make their own, much more cheaply than renting feature film rights, but dressing them up just enough to make them seem (in theory, at least) a notch above average TV fare. This one had the same cameraman who’d film Patton two years later, Fred Koenekamp. Carol Lynley and Janice Rule weren’t major stars, but they were at least stars, who’d been the female leads in feature films. By the end of 1968, Gene Hackman was already acclaimed for his role in Bonnie and Clyde. But Shadow was filmed first before Hackman could command big money. It was held on the (metaphorical) shelf for a year while ABC decided whether or not to air it.

The idea of using a TV movie as, in effect, a mass public screen test of a series idea would continue for years. For instance, Kojak, the series, came from a 1973 TV movie called The Marcus-Nelson Murders.

Where did this elaborately produced show go wrong? You want your heroes to win, at least most of the time. But in the deceptively normal-looking world of Shadow on the Land, there’s realistically no mercy when people step out of line. The ISF silences dissenters with sudden bursts of gunfire, or imprisonment and torture. By modern movie standards, these are not visually graphic scenes, but they are extraordinarily grim and dramatic for broadcast TV more than half a century ago. Week after week of seeing America’s bravest patriots suffering terrible deaths didn’t fit the template of mass entertainment, frankly. Imagine this going up against Bonanza, The Dean Martin Show, or Gunsmoke.

A final note: Reading commenters online, I saw that plenty of them were, like me, people who’d seen this rare show once and been struck by it, but were never able to find it again. To my knowledge, it hasn’t been legally released in any media for many years. Finally, a YouTuber or two came to the rescue, with a sometimes-smearing VHS copy of a late-night broadcast of a local TV station’s jumpy 16mm print, with all the lack of visual quality that spells out. If you’re going to explore this forgotten film, be (slightly) reassured that the worst poor quality is near the beginning of the tape.

Because the copyright holders, Screen Gems/Columbia Pictures, haven’t released it, any link I could give you to a YouTube clip could be held against Ricochet, insane as that may sound, and I’d like to keep life as easy as possible for the gang. If you’re interested, copy this search term into YouTube and find the link yourself: Shadow on the Land Christian Arthur, which should get you there.

I’ve been online since 1984; 37 years. At any previous point, I’d have regarded these precautions against letting informal links legally threaten our much-liked website to be excessive, and they probably are, but I can’t be sure anymore. That protective instinct goes to the heart of the social distrust that, in a way, this TV movie is all about. If trivial infractions of the rules are going to be held against anybody, does anyone here doubt that we, the big R>, would be on that list?

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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Fascinating, Gary. Thanks.

    • #1
  2. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Gary McVey: That protective instinct goes to the heart of the social distrust that, in a way, this TV movie is all about.

    Yeah, We’d hate to see You silenced “with sudden bursts of gunfire, or imprisonment[,] and torture.”

     

    • #2
  3. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Jimmy Carter (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: That protective instinct goes to the heart of the social distrust that, in a way, this TV movie is all about.

    Yeah, We’d hate to see You silenced “with sudden bursts of gunfire, or imprisonment[,] and torture.”

     

    Imprisonment would be OK if they’d let him keep writing for Ricochet.  The rest we wouldn’t like.  

    • #3
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Gary McVey: I’ve been online since 1984;

    Wow. For me it was 1987, and late in the year at that.

    • #4
  5. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Gary McVey: Where did this elaborately produced show go wrong? You want your heroes to win, at least most of the time.

    Many people can respect martyrdom and endurance of spirit, ala Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But those sacrifices look different without view of a final victory. One might end a story before the Nazis are defeated but with a nod to that historical memory. In a less grounded fiction, there is no common memory to point to for hope. 

    • #5
  6. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    It would be interesting to have been able to time-machine the writers up here to have experienced the last year with us.  They would go back and rename the show “It Can Happen Here!”

    • #6
  7. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Gary McVey: The grim, Twilight Zone-like premise: the U.S. is ruled by a dictatorship, and has been for decades more than anyone realizes, backed by the Federal bureaucracy and their Gestapo-like ISF, the Internal Security Forces.

    It’s a premise good enough to steal.


    Hah! We got him!

    Got who now?

    You know that web-cartoonist who’s been giving us trouble? He used our logo in one of his cartoons. 

    And…

    Do I have to spell it out for you? Under federal law it’s illegal to reproduce logos of federal agencies, including the FBI, without prior written permission. You think we gave permission for The Samizdating Scene to besmirch our good name?

    So what, we send him a Cease and Desist?

    And if he doesn’t get the hint, we send a couple agents to have an informal chat with him. Soon as he shades a truth; Bam! Be a good boy or we prosecute you ’till the rubble bounces.

    Nah, that’ll never work. A good lawyer will get our case thrown out for selective enforcement and then sue us back for harassment. We’ll probably be able to beat that but it’s always harder when we’re actually harassing them.

    A good lawyer costs good money. You miss the part where I said he was a web-cartoonist?

    I still don’t think that’s a real job.

    You’d rather I call him an influencer?

    Objection withdrawn.

    • #7
  8. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Thank you Gary for another walk down television history, from the birth of the MOW (Movie of the Week) to long lost content.

    • #8
  9. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Since it has not been released in many years I bet it has not been digitized and sits in the Inwood warehouse like the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

    • #9
  10. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Thank you, Gary.  I’m looking forward to looking this up.

    • #10
  11. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    Deleted after I finished reading the OP bit about why Gary didn’t post a link to the YouTube video.

    • #11
  12. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Jimmy Carter (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: That protective instinct goes to the heart of the social distrust that, in a way, this TV movie is all about.

    Yeah, We’d hate to see You silenced “with sudden bursts of gunfire, or imprisonment[,] and torture.”

     

    Imprisonment would be OK if they’d let him keep writing for Ricochet. The rest we wouldn’t like.

    “Where’s my free mug? You promised me a free mug!”

    • #12
  13. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Fascinating, Gary. Thanks.

    Thanks as always for reading it, Susan!

    • #13
  14. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Since it has not been released in many years I bet it has not been digitized and sits in the Inwood warehouse like the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

    An excellent and vivid image!

    • #14
  15. ToryWarWriter Thatcher
    ToryWarWriter
    @ToryWarWriter

    There is a British show with Edward Woodward that had a similar appeal called 1990.

    They do talk a bit more about the setup, but basically its a super socialist country, but still with a bit of a free press and a heavily bureaucratic state.

     

     

    • #15
  16. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Gary McVey: To my knowledge, it hasn’t been legally released in any media for many years.

    There’s hope. Cast a Deadly Spell completely skipped the DVD and Blu-Ray generations, only belatedly being digitized for online streaming. I don’t know what the holdup was. But that film was never as popular as Ransom or French Kiss, neither of which is yet available for legal streaming. 

    Heck, they only got around to uploading My Fair Lady in the last year or two. 

    • #16
  17. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Sounds interesting!

    “Where even the men walking the halls of secret police headquarters look like the ad agency staff in Mad Men, with a visual background of typing pools and office Christmas parties”…somewhat like the world projected in the 1954 novel Year of Consent, which I reviewed here…very much a Madison-avenue view of totalitarian government, albeit computer-enhanced. It was never turned into a film AFAIK.

    No bursts of gunfire in Year of Consent, though…everything done much more quietly, with automated psychotherapy to help nonconformists get over their “communications blocks” and lobotomies for the most resistant cases.

     

    • #17
  18. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: To my knowledge, it hasn’t been legally released in any media for many years.

    There’s hope. Cast a Deadly Spell completely skipped the DVD and Blu-Ray generations, only belatedly being digitized for online streaming. I don’t know what the holdup was. But that film was never as popular as Ransom or French Kiss, neither of which is yet available for legal streaming.

    Heck, they only got around to uploading My Fair Lady in the last year or two.

    The company that owns Shadow clearly doesn’t think they can make money out of it, a 53 year old TV movie. Normally, that would suggest that remake rights could be bought cheaply.

    A half serious suggestion: Imagine this remade today, toplined by Gina Carano and an all-cancelled cast of actors. 

    • #18
  19. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: To my knowledge, it hasn’t been legally released in any media for many years.

    There’s hope. Cast a Deadly Spell completely skipped the DVD and Blu-Ray generations, only belatedly being digitized for online streaming. I don’t know what the holdup was. But that film was never as popular as Ransom or French Kiss, neither of which is yet available for legal streaming.

    Heck, they only got around to uploading My Fair Lady in the last year or two.

    Between Amazon, Apple, and Netflix, surely someone will buy the streaming rights to the Screen Gems/Columbia Pictures obscure movie catalog. Of course, this one is not in step with those entities’ politics. Government is good, so long as the left is in control of the bureaucracy.

    • #19
  20. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    David Foster (View Comment):

    Sounds interesting!

    “Where even the men walking the halls of secret police headquarters look like the ad agency staff in Mad Men, with a visual background of typing pools and office Christmas parties”…somewhat like the world projected in the 1954 novel Year of Consent, which I reviewed here…very much a Madison-avenue view of totalitarian government, albeit computer-enhanced. It was never turned into a film AFAIK.

    No bursts of gunfire in Year of Consent, though…everything done much more quietly, with automated psychotherapy to help nonconformists get over their “communications blocks” and lobotomies for the most resistant cases.

    Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man has some elements in common with the story you’re describing. Of course, a major difference between them and Shadow is the latter’s utter lack of science fiction elements. 

    Shadow on the Land shrewdly limits its scope. It tells you next to nothing about America vis-a-vis foreign countries. We don’t know if state or local governments even still exist. If the film had been turned into a series, as planned, maybe we would have found out what pop culture was like in a US dictatorship.  

    • #20
  21. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: To my knowledge, it hasn’t been legally released in any media for many years.

    There’s hope. Cast a Deadly Spell completely skipped the DVD and Blu-Ray generations, only belatedly being digitized for online streaming. I don’t know what the holdup was. But that film was never as popular as Ransom or French Kiss, neither of which is yet available for legal streaming.

    Heck, they only got around to uploading My Fair Lady in the last year or two.

    The company that owns Shadow clearly doesn’t think they can make money out of it, a 53 year old TV movie. Normally, that would suggest that remake rights could be bought cheaply.

    A half serious suggestion: Imagine this remade today, toplined by Gina Carano and an all-cancelled cast of actors.

    You are correct in your assessment of the owner’s attitude. In the screening room app the title comes up in the search, but there is no video.

    • #21
  22. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: To my knowledge, it hasn’t been legally released in any media for many years.

    There’s hope. Cast a Deadly Spell completely skipped the DVD and Blu-Ray generations, only belatedly being digitized for online streaming. I don’t know what the holdup was. But that film was never as popular as Ransom or French Kiss, neither of which is yet available for legal streaming.

    Heck, they only got around to uploading My Fair Lady in the last year or two.

    Between Amazon, Apple, and Netflix, surely someone will buy the streaming rights to the Screen Gems/Columbia Pictures obscure movie catalog. Of course, this one is not in step with those entities’ politics. Government is good, so long as the left is in control of the bureaucracy.

    Seven Days in May could have been remade in the Age of Trump. If it had been remade by its original studio, Warners, the hero/villain polarity would have been reversed. It would have been about heroic military leaders conspiring to save America from duly elected officials. 

    Suppose the remake rights were bought by conservatives. Like the 1964 film, the heroes would be saving the president from the military. 

    • #22
  23. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Ansonia (View Comment):

    Thank you, Gary. I’m looking forward to looking this up.

    On the contrary, thank you for showing up, Ansonia! If you look up the clip, like I say in the post, a few jumpy parts at the beginning of the tape take a little patience. As Clavius suggests, there’s probably a clean print of this film somewhere in the universe, but this one isn’t it.

    Despite what it says on YouTube, the film is only 1 hour, 40 minutes long. The tape seems to keep recording through a station’s sign-off right after the movie ends (at about 100 minutes in), followed for some reason by a repeat of some of the ending of the film. But because of that station sign-off, the chilling, to-be-continued last moments of Shadow on the Land were followed by a stirring, literally flag waving rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. Not a bad way to ease out of the world of Shadow.

    • #23
  24. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: To my knowledge, it hasn’t been legally released in any media for many years.

    There’s hope. Cast a Deadly Spell completely skipped the DVD and Blu-Ray generations, only belatedly being digitized for online streaming. I don’t know what the holdup was. But that film was never as popular as Ransom or French Kiss, neither of which is yet available for legal streaming.

    Heck, they only got around to uploading My Fair Lady in the last year or two.

    Between Amazon, Apple, and Netflix, surely someone will buy the streaming rights to the Screen Gems/Columbia Pictures obscure movie catalog. Of course, this one is not in step with those entities’ politics. Government is good, so long as the left is in control of the bureaucracy.

    But those kinds of places might release the movie to great fanfare as the feel-good movie of the decade!

    • #24
  25. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: To my knowledge, it hasn’t been legally released in any media for many years.

    There’s hope. Cast a Deadly Spell completely skipped the DVD and Blu-Ray generations, only belatedly being digitized for online streaming. I don’t know what the holdup was. But that film was never as popular as Ransom or French Kiss, neither of which is yet available for legal streaming.

    Heck, they only got around to uploading My Fair Lady in the last year or two.

    Between Amazon, Apple, and Netflix, surely someone will buy the streaming rights to the Screen Gems/Columbia Pictures obscure movie catalog. Of course, this one is not in step with those entities’ politics. Government is good, so long as the left is in control of the bureaucracy.

    To be clear here, Screen Gems/Columbia are Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) labels.  So unless SPE wants to sell them, they won’t be sold.

    Now I think if SPE could get license fees that would cover the cost of digitization and make some money, they would be sold.

    SPE: The mercenary studio.

    • #25
  26. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    I should be able to download that movie from youtube, but for some reason the program I have for that, isn’t recognizing it.  Maybe because of the early video problems?  I sent a support request to the company that made it.

    Speaking of Movies Of The Week, here are two fine examples that led into the much-missed original Kolchak TV series:

     

     

     

     

    • #26
  27. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Oh, and a bit of trivia:  The vampire in the first movie was played by Barry Atwater, who was also “Surak” in an episode of the original Star Trek series.

    Just about everyone should recognize the villain in the second movie.

    • #27
  28. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: To my knowledge, it hasn’t been legally released in any media for many years.

    There’s hope. Cast a Deadly Spell completely skipped the DVD and Blu-Ray generations, only belatedly being digitized for online streaming. I don’t know what the holdup was. But that film was never as popular as Ransom or French Kiss, neither of which is yet available for legal streaming.

    Heck, they only got around to uploading My Fair Lady in the last year or two.

    Between Amazon, Apple, and Netflix, surely someone will buy the streaming rights to the Screen Gems/Columbia Pictures obscure movie catalog. Of course, this one is not in step with those entities’ politics. Government is good, so long as the left is in control of the bureaucracy.

    To be clear here, Screen Gems/Columbia are Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) labels. So unless SPE wants to sell them, they won’t be sold.

    Now I think if SPE could get license fees that would cover the cost of digitization and make some money, they would be sold.

    SPE: The mercenary studio.

    And I guess I am also saying that it is unlikely for Sony Pictures to be acquired by another company.  Current Sony management has made it clear that entertainment is a core asset to the company: “A Creative Entertainment Company with a Solid Foundation of Technology”

    And it’s a Japanese company so a hostile takeover is unlikely.  Even though the analysts say SPE is worth $40b.

    • #28
  29. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: To my knowledge, it hasn’t been legally released in any media for many years.

    There’s hope. Cast a Deadly Spell completely skipped the DVD and Blu-Ray generations, only belatedly being digitized for online streaming. I don’t know what the holdup was. But that film was never as popular as Ransom or French Kiss, neither of which is yet available for legal streaming.

    Heck, they only got around to uploading My Fair Lady in the last year or two.

    Between Amazon, Apple, and Netflix, surely someone will buy the streaming rights to the Screen Gems/Columbia Pictures obscure movie catalog. Of course, this one is not in step with those entities’ politics. Government is good, so long as the left is in control of the bureaucracy.

    To be clear here, Screen Gems/Columbia are Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) labels. So unless SPE wants to sell them, they won’t be sold.

    Now I think if SPE could get license fees that would cover the cost of digitization and make some money, they would be sold.

    SPE: The mercenary studio.

    And I guess I am also saying that it is unlikely for Sony Pictures to be acquired by another company. Current Sony management has made it clear that entertainment is a core asset to the company: “A Creative Entertainment Company with a Solid Foundation of Technology”

    And it’s a Japanese company so a hostile takeover is unlikely. Even though the analysts say SPE is worth $40b.

    Let’s wargame this out for the would-be cultural warriors out there: 

    If a group of conservative investors wanted to make such a “what-if” film, why buy the rights if a similar story can be made up from the same ingredients? Because there’s cultural and publicity value in the story of how this political reversal came to be. Buying the rights from SPE also eliminates the chance that Sony’s excellent lawyers will skin you alive. Plus, I bet they’d go cheap. ( A guess? Less than $250,000; quite possibly half of that.) After all, you’re not buying the right to restore or distribute the original film, or use the music on its sound track, just to use the bare bones of the plot in a remake. You’d have to stick to any profit participation deals that Columbia agreed to in 1967, but for a movie-of-the-week they’d have been minimal if any. 

    There’s so little interest in this property that SPE might be patient, selling you the rights to buy remake rights for far less–say, $20,000 to buy a year’s option on a final sale. And they might even defer payment for a few months while you, Mr. Mogul, scramble to get the money. Say you can announce a deal in Variety that no less than David Mamet is doing the script rewrite. Mamet ain’t cheap. Whatever deal you reach with a studio will have to pay off Mamet and Sony before a camera even rolls, but that’s normal for Hollywood deals. 

    • #29
  30. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    I’ll take this opportunity to suggest also watching the three recent “Atlas Shrugged” movies, I enjoyed them a lot.

    Perhaps those would be an example for a remake of “Shadow On The Land.”

    • #30