Sunday, July 18, 2021

Steve Canyon: The Gift

The United States military is not just a fighting force. They also often serve as an army of relief workers. Eastern Europe (and considerable stretches of Western Europe too) were in need of relief, during the immediate aftermath of WWII. Col. Steve Canyon has volunteered for a mission of mercy, but like any military operation, it will be imperiled by circumstances beyond his control in “The Gift,” the Christmas episode of Steve Canyon, co-written by Ray Bradbury (adapting his own short story), which airs next Saturday morning on Decades.

Bradbury’s original story does not feature Milton Caniff’s beloved hero or even the USAF, but if you read it, you can probably start visualizing how he and series story editor Sidney Carroll re-purposed it for the Canyonverse. As the episode opens, Canyon is flying to a displaced persons camp, to shuttle refugee children from Iron Curtain countries to West Germany, where families in the Allied Sectors have volunteered to host them for the holidays.

Initially, journalist Bert Quillan is flabbergasted by the operation. Indeed, “The Gift” nicely contrasts the cynicism of the press with the idealism of dedicated service personnel like Canyon. However, Quillan starts to melt when Canyon strong-arms him into playing Santa Claus. Much to their concern, little traumatized Lisa Serenko is not interested in any of the presents under the tree at the base. To make matters worse, her host family is delayed by a traffic accident, but Canyon is determined to save Christmas for her somehow.

“The Gift” is a simple story, but it is refreshingly heartfelt. It gave Dean Fredericks an opportunity to show his Steve Canyon could be sensitive and understated as well as tall and commanding. This is some of his best work in the series, especially opposite the jaded Quillan, nicely played by Sean McClory.

Barbara Beaird tugged on viewer heartstrings so effectively as little Serenko, they brought her back for a follow-up episode (not involving Bradbury). Yet, the real authenticity comes from German-born Celia Lovsky (Peter Lorre’s ex-wife, probably best known as Vulcan T-Pau in the “Amok Time” episode of
Star Trek), who brings impressive dignity and compassion as the kindly camp director, Anna Czerny.

There is not a lot of aviation action this time around, but the aerial footage of bombed out Germany is still pretty dramatic stuff. Apparently, Bradbury and company were frustrated they could not render the pay-off scene as strikingly as they wanted, but it holds up reasonably okay. Really, the whole point is the Christmas message and the dedication of the U.S. military, which still work great, because they are as true as ever. Recommended as your Christmas in July (and an unusual item in the Bradbury filmography), “The Gift” airs next Saturday (7/24 at 7:00 am) on Decades (and the series is available on DVD).