October 28, 2022

Donald Pleasence delivers in "The Changing of the Guard"

The headmaster delivers the news to Professor Ellis Fowler (Donald Pleasence) in "The Changing of the Guard"

The following is part of The Devilishly Delightful Donald Pleasence Blogathon, running this weekend at many of your favorite blogs. Be sure to check our sponsors, Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget, throughout the weekend for the latest posts. "Around the Dial" will return next Fridaysame time, same channel.

The motto of Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio (about 20 miles east of Dayton) is, "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." Horace Mann, the first president of Antioch, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and one of America's most revered educators, used the quote in his commencement address to the school's first graduates, and it has remained a part of the school's culture ever since. 

The quote, and the Antioch experience, obviously made an impression on one of its more renowned graduates, Rod Serling. Serling used it in a script which he wrote for his television series, The Twilight Zone, and not long after completing the script, he accepted a teaching position at Antioch. And it is that quote, mounted on the base of a statue of Horace Mann and read by a character named Ellis Fowler, that serves as the fulcrum for the episode, "The Changing of the Guard." Not surprisingly, the success of the episode will depend on the performance of its star, Donald Pleasence.

There is a tendency, not without merit, to think of "The Changing of the Guard" as a Christmas episode of The Twilight Zone, given that the story takes place over the course of one day—December 24, Christmas Eve—but in fact it aired on June 1, 1962, the thirty-seventh and final episode of the series' third season. It has the usual trappings of a seasonal story, though: a wintery landscape of a small New England prep school, Christmas music on the radio, a plot that, in the wrong hands, has the potential for tear-inducing sentimentality. And, by the end of the story, you might find yourself reacting that way. But, as you'll see, there are good reasons why this episode appears on The Twilight Zone and not, say, the Hallmark Channel.

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Professor Fowler and his boys
Professor Ellis Fowler (Pleasence) is an aging English literature teacher ("a gentle, bookish guide to the young," Serling describes him in the opening narration) at the Rock Spring School for Boys, a prep school in Vermont. It's the final day of the term before the Christmas break, and we see Fowler, reciting A.E. Houseman's poem "When I Was One and Twenty" to his classroom full of bored, restless, bemused boys, eager for the end of the term. The poem tells the story of a young man who'd ignored the advice of an older and wiser man and now, a year later, broken-hearted by the trauma of a failed love affair, rues not having listened to him.  

Following the final bell, Fowler is summoned to the headmaster's office, where the headmaster (Liam Sullivan) gently but firmly informs him that, after 51 years of teaching at the school, the board of trustees has made the decision not to renew his contract for the spring; they feel that someone younger might be more relevant, "more beneficial to the students." Despite the headmaster's efforts, the news shocks Fowler to the core, leaving him reeling and speechless.

The scene shifts to his home, where he looks through old school yearbooks, remembering all the boys who've come and gone through his classroom. "They all come and go like ghosts," he tells his housekeeper, Mrs. Landers (Philippa Bevans). "I gave them nothing at all. Poetry that left their minds the minute they themselves left. Aged slogans that were out of date when I taught them. Quotations dear to me that were meaningless to them. I was a failure, Mrs. Landers, an abject, miserable failure. I walked from class to class an old relic, teaching by rote to unhearing ears, unwilling heads. I was an abject, dismal failure—I moved nobody, I motivated nobody. I left no imprint on anybody." He smiles sadly. "Now, where do you suppose I ever got the idea that I was accomplishing anything?" He leaves, telling her that he is going out for a walk; afterward, she discovers to her horror an empty gun holster in his desk drawer.

A professor, a statue, and a gun
Fowler wanders through the campus until he reaches the statue of Horace Mann, where he reads the famous quote inscribed on the base. In what he must think an act of brutal, honest self-appraisal, he tells the statue, "I won no victory for humanity." Intending to kill himself, he raises the barrel of the gun to his temple and is about to pull the trigger when he hears the chime of class bells, summoning the students to their classrooms. Angered by the disturbance, Fowler strides to his empty classroom, where, before his stunned eyes, a room full of his former students materializes. They are from different classes, different eras, but they all have one thing in common—they are now all dead. 

One by one, they begin to tell Fowler of how he had impacted their lives. Most of them were killed in wartime, but one boy (Russell Horton) died from radiation poisoning while researching cancer treatments; he recites lines from a poem Fowler had taught them, Howard Arnold Walter’s "My Creed":

          I would be true, for there are those who trust me; 
          I would be pure, for there are those who care; 
          I would be strong for there is much to suffer; 
          I would be brave for there is much to dare; 
          I would look up, and laugh, and love, and lift.”

Voices from the grave
Another boy, Dickie (Buddy Hart), who served on the U.S.S. Arizona and was the first person to die at Pearl Harbor while trying to rescue his shipmates, reminds him of the famous words of John Donne in "No Man is an Island": "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." The message is clear: every man who lives, no matter what he does, has had an impact on the lives of others, whether or not he is aware of it. By caring about them, and what he taught them, he had helped them all to face life—and death—with bravery. Their testimony moves the professor to tears. 

Fowler returns to his home a changed man. He reassures the worried Mrs. Landers that everything is now all right, and he is content to hand things over to a newer generation of teachers. Hearing the sound of carolers outside, he opens the window and finds his students singing; they wish him a Merry Christmas and move on. Fowler smiles, this time not from sadness or bitterness, but quite contentment. He now understands how his life had changed the lives of his boys, and how they have validated his in return. As Serling says in his closing narration, Professor Fowler "discovered rather belatedly something of his own value."

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There are obvious parallels between "The Changing of the Guard" and two other Christmas classics, Frank Capra's movie It's a Wonderful Life, and Charles Dickens's story "A Christmas Carol" (choose any version you want). Like these stories, "The Changing of the Guard" deals with the supernatural appearance of ghosts; like them, the protagonist leaves the encounters a profoundly changed man, with a new outlook not only on the future, but the past. As George Bailey discovered in It's a Wonderful Life, no man is a failure who has friends; Fowler learns that the same is true for those who have impacted the lives of others—in short, everyone.

Anyone seeing "The Changing of the Guard" for the first time, and I hope there those of you out there who will get just such an opportunity, will admire for many things about it: the writing, the makeup, the photography, the performances of the secondary players, use of the stock music. But one overriding feature will grab you and stay with you long afterward: the performance of Donald Pleasence as Professor Ellis Fowler. 

Professor Fowler and Mrs. Landers
Although Donald Pleasence had been an actor in England since 1939 and had first appeared on British television a decade later, "The Changing of the Guard" was his first professional experience in the United States. Producer Buck Houghton recalled that "Pleasence was an idea of the casting director's, I'd never heard of him. Boy, damn the expense; we brought him from England. He was just wonderful in it. He's a very nice man." Pleasence was, Houghton said, "a little apprehensive of this whole experience because he arrived on a given day and five days later it was all going to be over. So he had a lot to absorb." But he did it, and working with director Robert Ellis Miller, he became confident in the role, and turns in a bravura performance. 

Serling's script for "The Changing of the Guard" is simple and elegant; for reasons I'll get to shortly, the subject matter was very close to him. Given all that, as Twilight Zone Companion author Marc Scott Zicree writes, the role of Fowler is not an easy one; Pleasence himself was only 42 at the time of filming and was heavily made up by William Tuttle to look the part of a man at least 30 years older. And considering Serling's writing style, the part could come across as "talky and clichéd." A.V. Club reviewer Zach Handlen echoes the importance of Pleasence's performance to the success of the ghost story:  "If Fowler’s gentleness isn’t obvious, and if his shift into depression wasn’t sincere and heartbreaking, then everything else falls apart into sentimental treacle." 

With that, Pleasence's performance is magnificent. As Handlen notes, there's "a fundamental fragility to all of Donald Pleasence’s work, a kind of raw, gentle vulnerability," even in a character like the Bond villain Blofeld. Here, Pleasence is tasked with bringing out that vulnerability in a man, closer to the end than the beginning of his life, who is suddenly and unpleasantly forced to contemplate his life's accomplishments, knowing that there will be no opportunity to create more, and finding his account (he thinks) to be empty. "Pleasence manages to convey all of this in his early scenes, and the shock, when it hits, is effectively heartbreaking." Brian Durant, writing at The Twilight Zone Vortex, calls Pleasence's performance "as moving and honest as any the show ever saw."

Rod Serling
In considering "The Changing of the Guard," Durant makes the very good point that Serling, at heart, was an autobiographical writer, and Fowler's existential dilemma mirrors those being realized at the time by Serling and others in the Twilight Zone company. The episode, as I mentioned earlier, was the final one to air in the third season, and there were no guarantees that the show would be back for a fourth. The era of prestige television, which Serling had done so much to enhance, had moved on; live drama was gone, his Western television series The Loner had been cancelled, and in later years "he often told interviewers that his work would likely be forgotten and that to simply be remembered as a writer would be sufficient enough." Faced with an uncertain future, Serling chose to accept the teaching position at Antioch. Likewise, producer Buck Houghton and other long-time members of the crew moved on to other projects; when The Twilight Zone did return, their absence would be noticed.

With this as the background for "The Changing of the Guard," there's no question as to its impact on the atmosphere that pervades the story. It is moving without being sentimental, delicate without being cloying, and ends on an optimistic note that feels genuine rather than contrived. It has the right touch of the supernatural—who's to say, after all, that on the eve of a day dedicated to the coming of God as man, that those ghosts weren't angels, come to deliver the message of life to a weary man just as they had, nearly two thousand years before, to a weary world? In a article I wrote several years ago on this episode and its relationship to the season, I quoted the seldom-performed third stanza of the Christmas carol "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," and I still think it sums things up quite well, especially the performance of Donald Pleasence:

          O ye beneath life's crushing load,
          Whose forms are bending low,
          Who toil along the climbing way
          With painful steps and slow;
          Look now, for glad and golden hours
          Come swiftly on the wing;
          Oh rest beside the weary road
          And hear the angels sing.

Perhaps, just perhaps, "The Changing of the Guard" is a Christmas episode, after all. And if that seems a little far-fetched to you, just remember: this is the Twilight ZoneTV  


  1. Wow, that post gave me goosebumps.. this profound post certainly echoes your topic. I really think this sounds such a wonderful episode and you have certainly encaptured it's ambience. Loved reading this - thanks for bringing it to the blogathon.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words, Gill. My pleasure!

  2. Unfailingly great analysis, Mitchell. I have to watch this because I don't remember it after watching the original and reruns for years!

    1. Thanks as always, JD! I saw this episode for the first time long before getting into TV as a writer (back when I could just watch and enjoy!), and it stayed with me even back then.

  3. There were two things (at least!) that I didn't appreciate about this episode when I last saw it: that it was Pleasence's first work in the U.S., and that it was the swan song for the original producing-writing team. Great analysis of one of the most moving episodes of the whole series!

    1. To be perfectly clear, I meant to say, "two things I didn't realize about this episode..." My bad! :)

    2. Got your meaning, Brian! Thanks for the kind words. It is a very moving episode, without being sentimental.

  4. This is one Twilight Zone I have yet to see...now thanks to your great article, I will seek it out. Rod Serling was a genius storyteller.

    1. He was, Chris. Glad to be able to introduce you to this episode, hope you enjoy it!

  5. Wonderfully sincere and detailed article. Avoiding becoming maudlin when attempting to tell a touching story is difficult, but Sterling was one who could pull it off. It's kind of ironic that Sterling would say being remembered as a writer would be sufficient only to be remembered primarily as 'the Twillight Zone guy' while his writing contributions are often overlooked. Episodes like "The Changing of the Guard" are clear indications that he should be remembered for both.

  6. This is the most insightful, intelligent of Twilight Zone episodes. Superb acting all around. I also recommend Walking Distance, 100 Yards Over the Rim, To Serve Man, and Long Live Walter Jameson. All can be steamed from Amazon Prime Video.


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