Monday, August 26, 2013

Jerome Bixby's Man from Earth, an SF film

Jerome Bixby is probably best known for his short story, "It's a Good Life," which became a Twilight Zone episode in 1961, as well as scripts for four Star Trek episodes.  In addition, he has written numerous short stories, both SF and westerns under several pseudonyms.  But, for me, his best work is the script for The Man from Earth, which he finished several days before his death.

It has no special effects, no drooling bug-eyed monsters (BEMs), no space ships, no ray guns, no car chases, no exploding buildings, no scenes of hand-to-hand combat, and no gun battles.   So, what does it have?  It has a fascinating premise, interesting characters, and intelligent dialogue.  It is directed by Richard Schenkman, who resisted the urge to "improve" it by turning it into an action-oriented film.  The cast has no big names, which is an advantage for then the focus is on character and dialogue.  They do a superb job.

The plot is simple: John Oldman, a history professor, has resigned his position and is leaving the area.  His friends and colleagues are hurt, angry, and confused, for he hasn't told anyone about his decision, except for the university administration. He plans to leave without saying goodbye to his friends, some of whom he has known for ten years.   They are hurt and angry because he is "sneaking" out of town without even saying goodbye and confused about his reasons.  He is highly respected and considered to be the most obvious choice for appointed head of the department in a few years.

The film opens quietly: John is putting boxes into the back of his pickup.  He is obviously getting ready to leave when several cars pull up.  People get out carrying bags of takeout food and drinks.  They have decided to have a going-away picnic, in spite of John's attempts to leave quietly.  It is clear that they are upset, but he is a friend so they try to be civil.

They move into the house and take places in the large front room with a fireplace.  This is where they will spend most of the film, talking about John's decision to leave.  After considerable nagging, John reluctantly comes to a decision: he will explain.

He introduces the subject gradually, by suggesting that he may be writing a novel.  He begins by asking his anthropologist friend if a man from the Pleistocene Era, which ended around 12000 BC, would be noticeable today.  The anthropologist says that one wouldn't be any physically different from people today.

John explains that he's not talking about time travel or any sort of mechanism that would suddenly transport this person some 14,000 years into the future.  His caveman simply lives day-by-day, after having reached the apparent physical age of mid 30s.  He is 14,000 years old.

After having established this, he casually mentions, in response to a question about Columbus, that he had been with Columbus and that he, like many, did feel the world was round, but there was always that uncertainty.  At this point the mood and tenor of the relationships changes drastically.

To be brief, John Oldman claims to be 14, 000 years old, and that's why he is leaving.  He has found that it is best if he spends no more than a decade in any particular place because people begin to notice that he doesn't seem to age like everybody else.  In fact, one of his colleagues, a few minutes earlier, had joking asked what his secret was--that he hadn't aged a bit since he arrived ten years ago.

There are three ways that one can respond to Oldman's claim:  he is telling the truth, he is deceiving them for some reason, or he is seriously mentally disturbed.  They cannot accept that he is telling the truth, so he must be lying or seriously delusional.  Some are angry for they think he is trying to make fools of them while others are saddened by his obviously delusional state of mind.  

These are good, honest, intelligent people who try to handle possibly the most ambiguous and perplexing situation they have ever encountered.  They know, like, and respect John, but his claim is too outrageous.  They try to poke holes in his story, but it's impossible.  He makes no claim to be a super genius or possess super powers.  He only knows what he learns from those about him.  Everything he knows could have come out of a book or learned paper written by anthropologists or historians.

The film concentrates on the changing relationship between John and the others.  He now realizes that he made a serious mistake in telling them his story for they can't accept it as true.  Part of their problem may be that they can't accept that he will go on living while they age and eventually die.  I wonder if I would sit there and ask myself--"Why him and not me?"
When I first sat down to watch the film, I had no expectations aside from the brief blurb stating that it was about a man who claimed to be 14,000 years old.  I couldn't believe it when the film ended and I found I had sat there, transfixed for 90 minutes by a film that many would dismiss as being just one of those talky movies where nothing happens.

I have watched it now four times and finally purchased my own copy.  It is one of only ten DVDs that I own, two of which are gifts.  The other two SF DVDs that I own are Blade Runner and THX 1138.  I will watch it again, probably several more times at that, for each time I discover something new, about the story, about the dialogue, about the characters.


  1. I saw this and had a similar reaction. I was transfixed. But I have to tell you Fred, I don't know anyone else who has ever seen this film and when I try to describe it, they look at me as if I'm not making sense.

    So happy to discover someone else who knows about this movie. My only quibble is that the girlfriend looks like a fashion model. Movie banality. But other than that, I was bowled over.

  2. Yvette,

    I also don't know anyone else who has seen the film, so I'm glad to find out that you saw and had a similar reaction. I have talked about it to friends and also to members of an SF book discussion group that meets monthly, and their reactions have been the same--a blank stare.

    However there is hope. When I mentioned the film and that I was getting my own copy, one friend asked if he could borrow it sometime.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  3. I actually watched this film before on You Tube. One quibble: the "I was Jesus" part is very similar to the book Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock. (It won the Nebula Award in 1967 or 1969, I think.) So that wasn't a very original idea to me. Was this a short story that Bixby later expanded into a script, I wonder? If yes, did he come up with that idea first or did Moorcock?

    At first I thought the film was going to head into a Forrest Gump direction, having the immortal show up in all important historical events. Gladly, that did not happen. So, I thought it was a good film but not highly original. I probably read too much SF, though, and spoiled it for myself, lol.

  4. Cheryl,

    From what I read, this was not based on a short story. Bixby finished the script days before he died. I have read Moorcock's novel also and recognized the relationship. I'm fairly certain that I have read other versions of this theme, so Moorcock may not be the first one.

    However this theme is only a part of the overall idea. The film is a superb example of what a film can be given an intelligent script, a sensitive director, and a cast that understands the craft of acting. It is the interaction of script, director, and cast that makes this a superb film, at least for me.

    This is a classic example of the old cliche--the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

  5. If the immortal had been a woman, would she have had a much harder time? Could she have simply left where she was living and start over, as this male immortal did to avoid detection by his neighbors ?

  6. Cheryl,

    That's an interesting question, actually two questions, I think.

    One is whether she would have been allowed to leave or would members of the group feel that a young, healthy female is too valuable an asset to lose and go after her.

    The other is whether she could have survived without the protection of a group.

    A young female perhaps would be more likely to be accepted by another group than a male, who would probably be viewed with much more suspicion by the leader of the group.

    Today, of course, I don't think it would be any more difficult for her to disappear and survive than it would be for a male.

    What are your thoughts?

  7. I think for much of history, an immortal woman wouldn't have a good life. As you said, she wouldn't be allowed to leave the "caveman" community because she could reproduce and be healthy longer than the "normal" women. If she could escape, she's of nomal female strength and thus would have trouble hunting and protecting herself.

    In later times, she'd probbly be accused of being a witch. ( Could she die when burnt at the stake? Or maybe just remain horribly disfigured from it for eternity.) How could she suppoert herself alone without causing suspicion or scorn? Today she'd have a much better life as an immortal - if she could survive until then.

  8. Cheryl,

    That's just about the way I see it. Strength was far more important for survival in the past than it is today. And, in a patriarchal culture, unusual women were viewed with suspicion and fear.

    While society seems to think males "age" better than females, anyone, male or female, who apparently doesn't age at all will be regarded with distrust.

    I suspect burning at the stake would be so destructive that even his superior ability to repair physical damage would be overwhelmed.