One of the great writers for “The Twilight Zone,” Richard Matheson, passed away this year. As we observe that fateful date in Dallas, November 22, 1963, I think of how one man created art out of the processing of his emotions from that event. You might find this to be a surprise but “Duel,” the short story about a man fighting for his life against a demonic semi-trailer truck, that went on to become Steven Spielberg’s first major movie, has its origins in the Kennedy assassination. It’s not a direct link. It’s more based on a significantly deep dark feeling of despair and dread.
Matheson and a friend were out playing a game of golf when they got news of the assassination that day. As they were driving home, a semi truck was tailgating them and ran them off the road. Instantly, a story was born. As Matheson explains, in an interview you can view here, “It sounds gruesome but often a writer will go through some awful experience and then write something based on that experience.”
There is much said about how America lost its innocence on November 22, 1963. That’s not to say that America was innocent to begin with. But, on that day, something broke. The hopes and dreams pinned to one particular man were lost. On that day, suddenly, the lights went out and we were in pitch black. It would be a very dark path ahead. What Matheson is wrestling with in “Duel” is coming to grips with something so irrational, so surreal.
Indirectly, Matheson is asking the sort of questions anyone would have asked after the assassination: How could something like this happen? Why would someone do this? Who would do this? The tragic event in Dallas is replaced in Matheson’s story by a deranged killer in a semi truck. And the fact that the killer lurks out of view refers to the mystery that, even today, is attached to the assassination.
The main character has a wonderfully symbolic name. He’s just, Mann. And the trucker out to kill him also has the apt name of, Keller, so close to, killer. It’s towards the end of the story that Mann sees that name, Keller, on the trucker’s cab. It provides some relief, just as having any name, like Lee Harvey Oswald, seems to provide some comfort from the unknown. But, much in the way that Oswald is, even today, shrouded in mystery, so the name of Keller is of little help in solving the mystery that Mann confronts. Why has this trucker targeted him?
In this excerpt from “Duel,” we get a taste of Mann’s dreadful situation and the eerie similarity between Mann, a vulnerable driver in his old economy car, and a president in a motorcade:
You never know, he thought. You just never know. You drift along, year after year, presuming certain values to be fixed; like being able to drive on a public thoroughfare without somebody trying to murder you. You come to depend on that sort of thing. Then something occurs and all bets are off. One shocking incident and all the years of logic and acceptance are displaced and, suddenly, the jungle is in front of you again. Man, part animal, part angel. Where had he come across that phrase? He shivered.
By 1971, when “Duel” was broadcast as a television movie, America was still quite haunted by the assassination and dogged by all that had happened since. There is much said about how the tumultuous ’60s began on November 22, 1963 and would only come to an end after another disturbing event, August 9, 1974, the resignation of President Nixon brought on my the Watergate scandal. America in 1971 was in the very thick of the ’60s under that timetable, with no end in sight to the war in Vietnam.
Uncertainty ruled the day. What makes November 22, 1963 all the more tragic is that JFK was a brilliant leader and he was learning from his mistakes and moving towards progress. On June 11, 1963, he stood at the forefront of the civil rights movement when he forced the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, to step aside so that two African American students could attend the University of Alabama. That night, President Kennedy delivered an address to the nation where, for the first time, an American president spoke to the nation about how racism is morally wrong. View that here. And then to have, only a few years later, President Nixon doing all he could to rollback advances in civil rights, just adds even more to this tragedy.
For those who tuned in to view the TV movie version of “Duel,” many may have just tuned in for a tightly written horror movie but many may have also picked up on how this particular horror movie seemed to be just right for the times. Mann, in the end, gets to slay his Goliath but it leaves him empty and without answers.