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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?Published in