****14,000 YEARS OF SPOILERS!!****
About ten years ago, I stumbled across a movie I’d heard about, but had (for some reason) resisted watching, until one day curiosity got the better of me and I bought the DVD of “The Man From Earth” (2007). This film was the last screenplay by sci-fi legend Jerome Bixby (“Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek”, “Fantastic Voyage”), who finished it on his deathbed in 1998 with the aid of his son, Emerson. After years of shopping the story around, Emerson got ahold of director Richard Schenkman, who assembled an able cast and made it into a movie for less than a quarter million dollars, which isn’t even the catering budget for a typical studio blockbuster.
The result is a fascinating summation on collective human history, told from the perspective of a man who exists outside of human mortality. Shakespeare famously wrote “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances.” This is the story of a man who never exited that stage. “The Man From Earth” is an intriguing, at times daring meditation on the fleeting nature of the human condition, told from the perspective of someone who has quite literally “seen it all.”
“The Man From Earth.”
The story opens with college history professor John Oldman (David Lee Smith) at his rustic home on the edge of a southwestern wilderness, packing his truck with moving boxes. His work is interrupted by an impromptu visit from his fellow faculty who want to see him off. We meet John’s colleagues; quick-witted biologist Harry (John Billingsley), who is the life of any party; anthropologist Dan (Tony Todd), an astute observer with an insatiable curiosity; art history professor Edith (Ellen Crawford), a devout Christian; historian Sandy (Annika Peterson), who carries a torch for John, and arriving last on his motorcycle, is Art (William Kat); an archeologist nursing a midlife crisis with the aid of student-turned-lover, Linda (Alexis Thorpe).
The group arrives with food and drinks for a going away party. These are the people who’ve been John’s friends for the last ten years, and they’re feeling a bit miffed that he is packed and leaving without so much as a goodbye. He apologizes to the group for his haste with a line about hating long goodbyes. Inviting them into his now sparsely furnished home, the group settles in, and they each begin their benign interrogations about John’s abrupt departure. John tries the old line about getting “itchy feet.” None of them are buying it. Dan and Harry are concerned that John might be in some kind of legal trouble, despite his repeated assurances that isn’t the case.
With Harry’s incessant teasing, Dan’s deep curiosity, and the gentle prodding of his colleagues, John decides to tell them the truth … fully prepared that they’ll not believe a word of it. Earlier Edith had noticed what appeared to be a genuine (unknown) Van Gogh piece casually stashed in the back of John’s truck. Dan had found a prehistoric tool in John’s house dating from Magdalenian prehistory. John tells Edith that the Van Gogh was given to him by Vincent Van Gogh himself. He tells Dan that while the prehistoric artifact was merely a lucky find at a thrift store, but that he is old enough to have used it. The curiosity of the group turns to genuine concern for the mental well-being of their colleague, as John lays it all out for them; he is a 14,000 year old man, dating from the Magdalenian era himself—he even knew the artist who made the famed prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux in ancient France. The group is equal parts dubious, dismayed, curious and a bit angry. With a group that includes an anthropologist, an archeologist, an historian and a biologist, the questions naturally begin to arise.
Note: The actors make this improbable situation both believable and intriguing. David Lee Smith earns extra kudos for playing this immortal character with the slight detachment one would expect to develop after thousands of years of watching friends and lovers perish like so many mayflies. All that life experience over thousands of years would tend to flatten the curves of one’s emotional responses.
John’s friends aren’t sure what to make of his ‘revelation’; is he suffering some kind of detailed psychotic break from reality? Or is he just pulling their collective legs—answering very specific questions that test the limits of their various fields? There is something very disarming about the way John’s answers unfold; a calmness and a clarity. It all rings true. When asked if he has awareness from his days as a caveman, he answers that his knowledge increased as humanity’s collective knowledge increased. Many of the terms commonly used to describe prehistory today had no names or even definitions in his time. John’s awareness of his own past is like the dim memory a child might have before learning to talk or read. One thing he was aware of early on is that he was different from all others around him. While others of his native tribe would age and die, he didn’t. He reasoned that he stopped aging at around 35 or so (no calendars, no accurate timekeeping). For his own safety, he had to leave his tribe, who believed him to be some kind of energy-vampire, draining their own lives to prolong his own (“the origin of the vampire myth!” one of John’s guests proclaims excitedly).
Harry and Dan have the most fun with John’s little ‘game’; not entirely convinced it’s real, but finding John’s nonchalant answers about his past increasingly fascinating. John casually notes that for the most part of his 14,000 years he’s lived in obscurity, moving on every ten years or so, as people would begin to notice he doesn’t age. Questions arise about whether their host is somehow superhuman, with Harry testing John’s reflexes by sneaking up from behind and grabbing him…only to be tossed on his back in seconds. No, John reiterates, he’s not superhuman—just a regular man with 14,000 years of practice. Harry speculates perhaps John has a mutation which allows his cells to perfectly renew (without the usual defects which arise in cell duplication as we age). While the thought of a 14,000 year old man sounds fantastic, Dan reasons, nothing about it is truly impossible. Sandy notices how John likes to remain close to the fireplace, and he states that he’s always had a fireplace everywhere he’s lived; something carried over from his days as a primitive that he can’t seem to fully shake.
Note: Writer Jerome Bixby (1923-1998) also wrote of a reclusive immortal in the classic Star Trek episode, “Requiem for Methuselah”, where Capt. Kirk’s landing party found a planet belonging to a man who claimed to be many great men of history, including Brahms, DaVinci, Moses, Merlin, etc. “Requiem…” shares many superficial similarities to “The Man From Earth,” but without the more overt sci-fi trappings of Star Trek. Star Trek is also referenced near the end of “The Man From Earth” as well, when an emotionally frayed Dan goes home to “watch some Star Trek” at the end of the movie’s long evening. The idea of an immortal university professor of history was also explored in the classic Twilight Zone episode, “Long Live, Walter Jameson,” written by longtime series writer Charles Beaumont (“The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao”).
When asked if he’d met any famous persons from history, John readily recounts stories of almost being on Columbus’ crew, and other such brushes with history. He also mentions that around 500 BC he’d migrated east, spending time in India, where he met the wisest man he would ever meet — Gautama Buddha. John studied with the Buddha for some time, before his own nature once again forced him to move on. While Dan, Harry and Sandy are entranced with John’s story (real or not), archeologist Art begins to react with increasing indignation, assuming their friend is playing them for fools. Edith feels the same way–as if John is toying with their emotions by spinning this elaborate, impossible tale. When he’s had enough, Art quietly goes off to make a phone call. With the mention of Buddha, a loaded question is asked that even John is afraid to answer—has he ever been a famous figure in history himself?
Note: If you are a deeply religious person, the following parts of the movie might be taken as offensive, since they speculate on how the (admittedly fictional) character of John had a direct hand in birthing Christianity. My advice is to remember that it’s only a movie; “The Man From Earth” isn’t attempting to create a new Gospel or revised New Testament—it is simply telling a story, and that’s all. Watch with an open mind.
At first John quickly dodges, asking nervously if they could just skip to the next question. But Harry won’t let him off the hook. John has come this far, he has to come clean with the rest. Reluctantly, John begins to tell a story of his time spent in the Middle East, around 2,000 years ago. Of the time he tried to bring some of the Buddha’s teachings to a few willing students. As Dan notes, early Christianity was like “Buddhism with a Hebrew accent.” However, John’s ‘teachings’ ended badly (understatement). John’s philosophies put him against the Roman government and the religious orthodoxy. Edith is mortified by the blasphemy of what John is suggesting … that he was the figure currently known as Jesus. John quickly counters Edith’s charge by stating the whole concept of being a savior was not his idea. The savior title was given to him. On the matter of his ‘resurrection,’ John averted the pain of his crucifixion by using meditation techniques he’d learned in India to slow his vitals and fake his death. His hands were bound to the cross, not nailed, so he was not mortally wounded (nails and blood made for more dramatic idolatry, however…). Once inside his crypt, he awoke to slip away unobserved but didn’t realize he was being watched. John’s leaving sparked the resurrection story, and there you have it. As Harry laughingly observes, Jesus has been believed to be many things over the years; black, Asian, Caucasian, even an alien—now it turns out he was a caveman!
A deeply offended Edith wonders who else John will pretend to be next: Solomon? Elvis? Jack the Ripper? John tries to assuage Edith’s outrage, but to no avail; she thinks the whole story is a cruel joke aimed at her deep-seated beliefs. She asks Harry to take her home, but Harry wants to hear more. Edith bitterly asks John if he just pulled the name Jesus out of a hat, and he tells her (convincingly) that his name has always been something sounding like ‘John,’ but later Hebrew translations of his story used the name of Yashuah, aka Joshua, which eventually morphed into a later Latin translation as Jesus. The group is then met by a visitor, university psychologist Dr. Will Gruber (Richard Riehle), whom Art telephoned earlier. At first, a curious Will humors John by playing along with his story, wondering just how far John will go with his intricate delusional architecture before he admits it’s all a hoax.
Will’s deconstruction of John’s story takes on personal dimensions, as he asks if John was abandoned by his father, or if there is some other, more Freudian reasoning behind the elaborate tale he’s told. John tells Will that he has no real memories of a father, only that there was a figure, perhaps an older brother, whom he dimly remembers. As the sun goes down and the house gets colder, the group gathers closer to the fireplace. The warmth of the fire’s light reflects on their faces, as John’s story takes on the spellbinding quality of a tale told around an ancient campfire. With his usual good humor, Harry deflates some of the tension in the room with a quick round of charades. Wordlessly mimicking a grunting, apelike caveman, Harry pantomimes clubbing Sandra over the head and dragging her off. Playing along, John cheekily answers, “My first wedding?” The group laughs, while an increasingly sullen Edith is only more offended by the group’s making light of John’s ‘sacrilege.’ “You are NOT Jesus,” she repeatedly insists, deflecting what she takes to be an assault on her beliefs. Edith’s hurt and anger is proof that the worst thing you can do to a person is destroy their god.
Note: It’s very telling that Will tries to connect John’s ‘crazy story’ with paternal abandonment somehow, even though John reiterated he has no clear memories of his actual father. Will circles back to that line of inquiry, as we later learn exactly why paternal abandonment is, in fact, very important to him.
Will then wonders what would happen if he took out his gun and shot this ‘immortal’ man. Alarmed, John tries to diffuse the irrational doctor’s suggestion by stating that Will would be guilty of his murder; John never claimed to be invulnerable. Before Will can test his ‘theory,’ he angrily storms off. Harry quietly tips John off to the fact that Will lost his wife to cancer only the previous day, hence his disposition. An empathetic John immediately dashes after Will, asking for his gun– worried that Will might be contemplating suicide. Resignedly, Will gives John the gun and drives off, embarrassed at himself for overreacting. Realizing it’s all gone too far, the lights in the house come up, and John tells them it was all an elaborate hoax—a story designed to entertain and confound them, playing to their respective fields of anthropology, archeology, biology and history. Edith is reduced to tears by the revelation and John humbly asks for their forgiveness. The group’s bond is greater than their anger at being pranked, and they forgive him. With everyone calling it a night, John walks them outside as they each help him load a few more moving boxes into his truck. Before they leave, they each give John a hug and wish him well, wherever he’s going. Even a tearful Edith forgives John, in the spirt of Christianity, of course…
After everyone leaves, a contrite Will drives back to John’s house, and asks for his forgiveness. The elderly, portly psychologist, who’s in poor health, isn’t taking the nighttime cold very well, and he goes inside for a moment. John remains outside with Sandy, who is in love with John and has remained curiously silent for most of the evening. With quiet candor, she tells John that she believes his story. She even notices that John currently uses a pun as his current last name; John “Old-man.” He smiles and tells her that he’s often used puns as last names. There was a time he’d lived in Boston, where he adopted the name “John T. Partee.” As in, the Boston Tea Party. Will, walking back to the front doorway, overhears their conversation and begins quivering, his voice unsteady as he speaks at John with a new recognition. Will asks if John was the same John Partee who abandoned his wife and young son in Boston many years ago. Will remembered his father having a beard (which he’s since shaved, of course). John immediately realizes that Dr. Will Gruber is, in fact, his young son Willie, whom he abandoned decades ago. He takes the crying older man’s round face in a loving, paternal gesture, noticing that “little Willie never liked the cold.” As the old man sobs in his young father’s arms, he is overcome–both physically and emotionally. Will lets out a pained gasp as he suffers a fatal heart attack. Sandy quickly calls 911 and the paramedics soon arrive, but are too late. This is the first time in 14,000 years that John has seen one of his own children die.
Note: Actor Richard Riehle, like some of his other costars in this film, has made numerous appearances on Star Trek (TNG’s “The Inner Light”, and ENT’s “Cold Station 12”). His performance as Dr. Will Gruber brings down the house, as we see the old, out-of-shape man sobbing like a little boy in the arms of his long lost, forever young father. It’s a testament to the actor’s skill (and Bixby’s script) that a gruff, abrasive character like Dr. Gruber melts into a heartbroken little boy during the movie’s final few scenes. The seeming paradox of the older child with a younger parent was also explored in “The Twilight Zone” (“Queen of the Nile”) as well as in recent films like “Interstellar” (2014) and “The Age of Adeline” (2015), both of which starred Ellen Burstyn (“The Exorcist”) as the ‘older’ daughter of a younger parent (Matthew McConaughey and Blake Lively, respectively).
As the paramedics take his son’s body away, a despondent John finishes packing and gets inside the truck… leaving Sandy standing in his driveway. The can’t have really a future together, since he will outlive her, but he looks back and notices that she hasn’t left, either. He stops the truck, taking a chance…and she gets inside.
Note: While Sandy (Annika Peterson) is one of the least developed characters in the story, her unwavering devotion to John was clear long before he dropped his truth bombshell. She is also the only one in the group who accepted his story at face value, with no need for him to backtrack it for her, as he was forced to do for the others’ benefit (particularly Edith). The duration of his future with Sandra is uncertain, and that’s okay—who knows exactly how long any couple has together, right? To quote Gaff (Edward James Olmos) at the end of 1982’s “Blade Runner”: “It’s too bad she won’t live…but then again, who does?”
Encounters with two “Men From Earth.”
I’ve had the sincere pleasure of meeting two of the actors from the “Man From Earth” ensemble; John Billingsley (“Harry”) and Tony Todd (“Dan”). I’m a longtime fan of both actors, and my encounters with them were brief but memorable. I sincerely hope to catch up with them again someday at a future, post-pandemic convention, if and when circumstances allow.
John Billingsley made a name for himself in sci-fi circles as Dr. Phlox in the underrated prequel series, “Star Trek: Enterprise” (2001-2005). Billingsley’s been in many series, such as “24,” “Masters of Sex,” and “Stitchers,” as well as a memorable villainous turn in a 2019 episode of “The Orville” (“Home”). I was a great fan of his work on “Star Trek: Enterprise,” and I had the good fortune to share an elevator with him in Las Vegas. We struck up a conversation about politics (we were both on the same page) and as we both walked to our respective destinations, we also chatted about “The Man From Earth.” He seemed grateful that I knew of it, and he told me a little about a sequel that had been shot, but for which he had no involvement. I didn’t want to pester him for an autograph or anything like that, because we were just talking. Didn’t seem right.
At the same Star Trek Las Vegas convention two years later, we ran into each other again, and (of course) we talked a bit more about politics. He was holding a local fundraiser at his home to help flip a district, and he gave me his contact info. While I was unable to attend the fundraiser in person (I kick myself for not going), I did give a donation for the cause. Once again, I didn’t get an autograph (time and place), but we did take a selfie together. John Billingsley is every bit as witty and sharp-tongued as his character of ‘Harry’ in “The Man From Earth.” A wickedly funny man.
With film credits such as “Platoon” (1986), “The Rock” (1996) and most famously in the “Candyman” film series (1992-1999, with a reboot coming soon), Tony Todd has a persona that is hard to forget with his deep, resonant voice and piercing intelligence. I’d first seen him in “Platoon” (“Sgt. Warren”) along with half of North America at the time, but I officially became a fan of his when I rented a copy of the 1990 “Night of the Living Dead” remake. I approached this remake with skepticism, as I was a huge fan of the original 1968 version. However, on the strength of Todd’s portrayal of “Ben” (the role originated by Duane Jones), as well as director (and makeup legend) Tom Savini’s faithful approach to the story, I very much enjoyed it. I was also a fan of Todd’s considerable work in the Star Trek TV franchise, appearing as the Klingon Worf’s brother ‘Kurn’ on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and on “Deep Space Nine.” He would also play an adult version of regular character ‘Jake Sisko’ on DS9 (“The Visitor” is a must-see episode), as well as a Delta quadrant hunter-alien on an episode of “Star Trek: Voyager”.
I met Tony Todd in October of 2019 at a local horror convention. I asked him for an autograph, and we had a nice discussion about his work in 1990’s “Night of the Living Dead.” He told me that when he was 14 years old, he went to see the original 1968 version at a drive-in movie theater when he was 14 years old (sitting in the back of a pickup truck, as we sometimes did in those days). Seeing black actor Duane Jones on a giant screen that night cemented young Tony Todd’s future career–he knew that’s what he was going to do someday. He told me it was kismet that he would wind up playing the very role that first inspired him to be an actor. He was also grateful that his loving aunt (who raised him) lived to see his career launched. Such an amazing story and one hell of an interesting guy.
The Never-ending Story 2.
“The Man From Earth: Holocene” was a 2017 sequel written entirely by Emerson Bixby and once again directed by Richard Schenkman. Once again featuring David Lee Smith as the immortal professor, who now goes by the pun name of John Young (all apologies to the late astronaut) as he finds himself beginning to show signs of aging after 14,000 years. Several of his new students have began to piece John’s story together on their own, and they contact disgraced archeologist Art (William Katt), whose book on John’s story made him an academic laughing stock. Needless to say, Art is probably a bit pissed at John.
In fairness, I haven’t seen this sequel yet, but I hope to shortly. I was first told of its existence by actor John Billingsley (“Harry”), when I first met him in Las Vegas back in 2016. It’s officially on my list of things to watch, so keep an eye out for a feature column on it someday.
Summing It Up.
“The Man From Earth” is a fascinating, FX-free science fiction tale told entirely in one home over a single evening, in the tradition of other similarly claustrophobic dramatic works such as Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or Mart Crowley’s “Boys in the Band”. There is also a bit of Anne Rice’s “Interview With The Vampire” in the movie’s DNA as well.
The actors all deserve a round of hearty applause for bringing the material to life, allowing Bixby’s words to paint the scenery of John’s epic journey in our mind’s eye. A solid ensemble cast is the best bang for your buck in telling such a story. With the movie’s virtually nonexistent budget, there was no money to depict flashbacks of John’s early life in prehistoric Europe, or the Middle East of 2,000 years ago. Even if they could, Bixby’s words play far more effectively upon the audience’s imagination than any visual effects. This barebones, FX-free approach really works. Sometimes the greatest adventures are those painted in words, not pixels.
Jerome Bixby’s “The Man From Earth” is a sparse, no-frills, 87 minute trip that encapsulates the sum of human experience without ever leaving its single setting. For fans of classic “Twilight Zone”, or for those who simply love a good campfire tale, this one is not to be missed.
“The Man From Earth” is available for streamed for rental or purchase on Amazon Prime and YouTube ($2.99 and up). The film can also be streamed on Tubi, Plex and Crackle. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are over 423,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, at least two vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began, but it may take months for mass distribution throughout the population. Even with the vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe; many unknowns remain regarding coronavirus (can one be vaccinated and still carry it, for example). So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. Some theaters promise safety for their screenings, but the CDC guidelines currently don’t advise indoor dining or indoor theaters, so please bear that in mind.
Take care and be safe!