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Recap / Tales From The Crypt S 3 E 14 Yellow

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France, 1918. As World War I lurches grimly onward, on the 49th day of continuous battle, an American battalion suffers heavy casualties as the soldiers try to take a hill near their trenches. The courage of Sgt. Ripper (Lance Henriksen), who leads his men from the front, is offset by the cowardice of his immediate superior, Lt. Martin Calthrop (Eric Douglas), who hides in the trenches and drinks heavily from a hip flask. Convinced the charge is doomed to fail, the lieutenant orders the enraged Ripper to signal a retreat.

Meanwhile, the local commanding officer and Martin's father, General Calthrop (Kirk Douglas), receives an intel report from Captain Milligan (Dan Aykroyd) regarding the movements of the local German commander, General von Furstenburg. However, taking the hill is a crucial part of the general's strategy to counter von Furstenburg, and when Ripper reports that the charge failed because Lt. Calthrop ordered a retreat, the general moves to a backup strategy involving another company. The other company cannot be reached, as the communication lines have been cut, and Calthrop orders the lieutenant to take Ripper and two wire men to repair the breach; Milligan advises against this idea because, as Ripper explains, the general's son is "yellow". The general summons his son to explain himself, and Martin tells his father that he doesn't want to die or to be in the Army anymore. General Calthrop says he cannot give Martin a discharge, but if he goes out with Ripper and the wire men to repair the broken communication line, he will transfer him away from the front. Martin agrees.


That night, the lieutenant leads Ripper and the wire men into no man's land, but panics when he sees the breach is close to the German front line. Ripper persuades him to stay back and gives him a whistle to signal if he sees any Germans, while he takes the wire men to fix the cable. Moments later, a German squad emerges from their trench; the lieutenant freezes in terror, and when he drops the whistle, the Germans see Ripper and the wire men and open fire. The wire men are killed, and though Ripper holds the Germans off for a few seconds, he is blown across the field by an exploding grenade to land on top of Martin, whereupon he begins berating the cowardly lieutenant for not warning them about the approaching Germans. Martin pushes Ripper aside and flees back to the trench, exclaiming that the repair squad were ambushed and that he shot as many Germans as he could. The general tells him he did all he could, and he will still get his transfer... until Milligan leads in Ripper, barely clinging to life (and his intestines), who exposes the lieutenant as a liar and calls him "yellow" one last time before dying. The general inspects Martin's revolver and discovers it has never been used, and he orders him arrested, to be court-martialled within the hour.


At the court-martial, Lt. Calthrop is found guilty of dereliction of duty, desertion under fire, and cowardice in the face of the enemy, and is sentenced to be executed by firing squad at sunrise before the soldiers under General Calthrop's command fall back. Later that night, the general visits his condemned son, and Martin says he has spent his whole life trying to please his father, but he knows now that he can never do so, as his father wanted a soldier for a son, and Martin is openly afraid to die; he berates his father for caring more about the stain on his reputation caused by having a coward for a son than about Martin's welfare. However, General Calthrop confides that he'd never order his own son's execution, and he will be loading the firing squad's rifles with blanks and putting a full pack in the trench behind the execution site so that Martin can escape to a new life. His only request: Face Death with Dignity.


At sunrise, Lt. Calthrop shows up for his execution, noting the pack in the trench behind him, refusing the blindfold, and giving a dignified final speech in which he says he knows what Shakespeare meant when he said, "Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once." However, as Milligan gives the firing squad their orders, Martin notices his father look away... and realises, seconds before Milligan gives the order to fire, that the general lied about loading the guns with blanks. He is blown back into the trench by the force of the bullets, and Milligan tells the general, "He died like a man." Calthrop proudly declares that now everyone knows his son is not "yellow", and the camera closes in on the inscription on Martin's hip flask: "To Martin, Let courage be thy name. Love, Dad."

This episode contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Actor Allusion: General Calthrop mirrors one of Kirk Douglas' most famous roles as the French Colonel Dax during World War I in Paths of Glory. However, whereas Dax was a moral character who deeply cared for his men and tried to protect them from the capriciousness of the Generals, Calthrop IS one of those Generals with little to no concern for the lives of those under his command, even sentencing his own son to death for cowardice.
  • Almost Dead Guy: After Ripper is blown across no man's land by a German grenade, Lt. Calthrop leaves him for dead and flees back to the trench, insisting he fought bravely against the Germans but was overwhelmed by superior numbers. However, Ripper is not quite dead, and holds on for just long enough to return to the trench and tell General Calthrop the truth: his son froze with panic and left Ripper and the wire men to die.
  • Artistic License – History: No US Army soldier was sentenced to death and executed for cowardice during World War I.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Let's face it, being willing to trick his own son into getting killed for the sake of wiping clean a smear on his precious military reputation makes General Calthrop a pretty disgusting human being in his own right.
  • Blade-of-Grass Cut: The opening credits for the episode play over a shot of a flower growing in the middle of a muddy field. Once the music score fades out and the sounds of battle fade in, the body of a soldier with a massive, blood-drenched wound in his back falls on the flower and squashes it flat, firmly establishing the War Is Hell tone of the story.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: When General Calthrop visits his condemned son before his execution, Martin lays into his father for never being there for him when he was growing up, and for seeing him more as a soldier under his command than as his son, even though he was never cut out for the military.
  • Cut Phone Lines: General Calthrop is unable to reach B Company to co-ordinate his backup strategy to fight General von Furstenburg, as the Germans have been cutting the Allies' communication lines.
  • Dead-Hand Shot: In the final shot of the episode, Lt. Calthrop's lifeless hand lies next to his hip flask, upon which we see the ironic inscription "Let courage be thy name" from father to son.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: As cowardly as Lieutenant Calthrop is, the mentality that he deserves his death just to preserve his family's military reputation can be a hard one to grasp for anyone who isn't part of a similar heritage.
  • Dies Wide Open: As Sgt. Ripper gasps his final words, "You... yellow...", his eyes remain open as he dies. Captain Milligan solemnly closes his eyes and asks the medics to attend to his "remains".
  • Dirty Coward: Lieutenant Calthrop hides in the trenches while the men under his command are dying by the dozen in no man's land, and freezes with panic when he is ordered to lead Ripper and the wire men to repair the breach in the communication lines and a squad of German soldiers appears, only to lie to his father when he flees back to the trench. His cowardice gets him sentenced to death.
  • Face Death with Dignity: General Calthrop tells Martin he will have the firing squad rifles loaded with blanks and put a full pack in the trench behind his execution site, provided Martin faces death like a man on the morning of his execution. Certain he is going to live, Martin faces the firing squad with quiet dignity and gives a brave final speech. Only a few seconds elapse between his realisation that the execution is not fake after all and the bullets hitting his body, so no-one notices the facade begin to crack, and after Martin is shot, Captain Milligan tells the general his son died like a man.
  • Offing the Offspring: General Calthrop may not pull the trigger, but he does condemn his son to death and then goes back on his promise to load the guns with blanks, personally loading them with live bullets before the execution. All so he can prove to everyone watching that his son is not a coward.
  • Oh, Crap!: After Milligan gives the "Aim!" command to his firing squad, Martin notices his father look away, and his brave expression vanishes immediately as he realises there can be only one reason why his father cannot look at him: the guns are loaded with real bullets.
  • Real-Life Relative: Kirk Douglas and real-life son Eric as General Calthrop and Martin.
  • Rule of Three: In the opening battle scene, Sgt. Ripper asks three soldiers if they have seen Lt. Calthrop. The first two cannot answer as they are already dead, prompting Ripper to growl, "Damn!", while the third points out where he last saw the lieutenant... and gets his hand shot off by machine-gun fire for his trouble, whereupon Ripper expands his exclamation to "God damn!"
  • Shot at Dawn: Martin is sentenced to death by firing squad for abandoning Ripper and the wire men to die after letting the Germans ambush them.
  • Staged Shooting: To get Martin to Face Death with Dignity, his father tells him the guns will be loaded with blanks so that it only appears as though he has been shot, and he can leave to start a new life. Unbeknownst to the lieutenant, the staged shooting turns out to be quite real.
  • Villain Has a Point: For all Lieutenant Calthrop's cowardice, he does have a legitimate point that he was forced into his military role against his will and he should never have been placed in any battlefront-relevant position. In fact, the deaths of Sergeant Ripper and his wire men is really as much General Calthrop's fault as it is the Lieutenant, because the Lieutenant was forced to undertake the mission despite knowing and admitting that he was the worst possible choice for such a mission.
  • War Is Hell: It's World War I, in the trenches of northern France, a campaign that in real life gave hitherto unseen depths to the notion that war is Hell. The battlefields are soaked with the blood of the dead on both sides, and we see numerous characters, ranging from nameless extras to major characters, dying messy and undignified deaths from enemy fire (Sgt. Ripper's death is especially gruesome, as half his intestines are on the outside of his body) or covered in blood-soaked bandages and lying on makeshift stretchers in the trenches.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Lt. Calthrop has spent his entire life trying to please his father by going to military school, West Point, and then heeding his country's call to the trenches of World War I, just for a pat on the back from the general. Unfortunately, because he is too afraid to die to be an effective soldier, he has never been able to live up to his father's expectations.


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