Back to the Future Part III (1990) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Gotta double back again!

In the final part of the Back to the Future trilogy, Marty returns to 1885 to help the Doc and put things right. This installment is a love letter to both vintage Westerns and the sci-fi origins of this and many other famous series. Start thinking fourth dimensionally as we go back to Back to the Future Part III on Sci-Fi Saturdays!

First Impressions

In the history of movies, there has been no other trailer played at the end of the middle chapter of a story the way that the Back to the Future Part III trailer aired at the end of Part II. The trailer teases what’s to come in the final part of the franchise. Apparently Marty makes his way into the old west and is reunited with Doc. Of course, there’s a Tannen to deal with. There’s horses, cowboys, trains, and a love interest for Doc. Plus, a cameo by rock band ZZ Top. Will everything turn out OK for the McFly family? The final part of the Back to the Future trilogy is at hand.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

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Back to the Future Part III

Back to the Future Part III title card.

The Fiction of The Film

The film continues directly after the conclusion of Part II, where Marty (Michael J Fox) shows up in 1955 just after Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) has sent the previous Marty back to 1985. Marty informs him that he’s back from the future. The next morning at the Brown Mansion, Marty explains that the 1985 Doc was with him in 1955 when an accident sent the scientist back to 1885. And now Marty needs the 1955 Doc’s help to get home. As the two adventurers find the time machine in an abandoned mine, Marty discovers a tombstone indicating the Doc will die one week after sending the letter that Marty received. Investigating further, the pair discovers that the Emmett Brown named on the tombstone must be the same Doc, and that he was shot in the back by Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (Tom Wilson), over a matter of $80. The tombstone was erected by someone named Clara.

Using the instructions from the 1985 Doc (stuck in 1885), the 1955 version of Doc helps repair the time circuits and takes Marty out of town to a drive in theater where his time travel trip should go unnoticed. Marty is concerned about driving towards the wall of painted Indians, but Doc Brown reminds him about thinking fourth dimensionally. The wall will not be there in 1885, and neither will the Indians. Dressed in the 1955 idea of what western wear was, Marty hops in the DeLorean and reaches 88 miles per hour just before hitting the painted fence. Unfortunately a real group of Indians is directly in front of him, being chased by the US Cavalry. Marty swings the car into a small cave to hide it, getting chased out by a bear.

Tumbling down a hill, Marty crashes into the fence of an abutting farm, and awakens to Maggie McFly (Lea Thompson) tending his wound. He then meets Seamus McFly (also Michael J Fox) and baby William, who is the first McFly born in America. Marty, adopting the name Clint Eastwood, thanks the McFly’s for their hospitality and walks into town looking for the blacksmith–Doc Brown. While asking for directions in the local saloon, Marty is at first mistaken as Seamus by Buford Tannen and his gang. Embarrassing the outlaw, Marty is dragged behind their horses and strung up for a lynching at the local courthouse, which is under construction. Doc Brown shows up scaring Buford off, but not before being threatened over the matter of $80.

Back to the Future Part III

Marty puts on Western gear provided by 1955 Doc. He mentions that Clint Eastwood doesn’t wear anything like this before realizing that Doc is not yet familiar with the actor. Coincidentally, Eastwood has a small role in ‘Tarantula’ whose poster is on display.

Marty brings Doc up to speed, also informing him that the fuel line was ruptured when he arrived. Doc debates how to get the car up to 88 mph without gas, but realizes they can push it using the local train. Investigating the train track at Shonash Ravine (which Marty knows as Clayton Ravine), the two see a runaway buckboard with the local school teacher. Doc saves her before the wagon goes over the edge of the ravine. She introduces herself as Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen), and Marty realizes that she was supposed to die, but that she is also the “Clara” listed on Doc’s tombstone. With only three days left to get out of 1885 before being killed, Marty attempts to keep Doc from getting distracted. At the town festival on Saturday evening, Doc is threatened by Buford, who aims to shoot him in the back, letting him bleed out over the next two days.

Marty intervenes and Doc is saved, for now. Buford challenges “Eastwood” to a morning duel on Monday, after breakfast. Believing they will be headed back to 1985, Marty agrees. Meanwhile, Doc spends an evening stargazing with Clara and discussing their love for author Jules Verne. As the pair work on their plan Sunday to return to 1985, Marty convinces Doc that he needs to say goodbye to Clara. Depressed at telling her the truth about being a time traveler and having her believe it’s a joke, Doc returns to the saloon, heartbroken. Clara decides to leave town the next morning, but overhears a passenger talking about a heartbroken man he met in town. She hops off the train. Marty tries to get Doc out of town before Buford shows up, but the Doc has passed out, necessitating that the young McFly duel. He manages to outsmart Tannen, after listening to some advice that Seamus gave to him about his own hot-headed brother Martin.

Doc and Marty hijack the train, heading for the ravine in order to push the DeLorean to 88 mph. Clara follows them, attempting to express her love to Emmett, but is nearly thrown from the train engine as Doc’s pressure logs explode. Doc chooses to save Clara with the hoverboard, as Marty is sent back to the future and the train crashes into the ravine. Back in 1985, at Eastwood Ravine, Marty arrives, narrowly escaping a train that destroys the time machine. He finds Jennifer (Elizabeth Shue) on her porch and avoids a near disastrous car crash when Needles (Flea) challenges him to a race. They return to the DeLorean crash site as Marty explains what has been happening over the last few days. Doc, Clara, and their two boys return in a time traveling train car. Doc explains that the future has not been written and reminds Marty to live his life, before setting off with his family for times unknown.

Sure’n I hope you’re considerin’ the future, Mr. Eastwood.” – Maggie McFly

Back to the Future Part III

The shot of Marty entering the town of Hill Valley is a direct homage to a similar shot from ‘Once Upon a Time in the West.’

History in the Making

Back to the Future Part III is the conclusion to the much loved trilogy of films surrounding Marty McFly and Doctor Emmett Brown. It continued to expand the world of the previous films by again going to a time and a place that had never been visited before. But it did so with the purpose of tying up the loose ends on the story of Marty’s family and his own personal journey to fix his mistakes. While Back to the Future Part II was divided amongst three time periods (2015, alternate 1985, and 1955) the bulk of Part III takes place in 1885, in a very young Hill Valley. This makes the film feel slower and less frenetic than the previous chapter. Nevertheless it still feels like a part of the franchise. Part III continues to include lots of homages to the entire series, playing on familiar moments from the two previous films, including Marty awakening in a strange place only to be confronted by someone that looks like his mother, a confrontation in a food establishment where a Tannen and his gang accost a McFly, plus various moments of dialog and camera blocking that pokes fun at earlier scenes and moments. One of the more enthusiastic moments is Marty and Doc exchanging their trademark lines, except in this film, Marty says, “Great Scott,” while Doc Brown indicates “this is heavy.”

Director Robert Zemeckis continues his use of interesting camera tricks, having perfected the split screen special effects from Part II with the use of the Tondreau camera system. As discussed in last week’s article, ILM created a motion control camera setup that was able to precisely replicate camera moves over and over, allowing the crew to shoot multiple versions of scenes with the same actor in different parts. Here the moments are a little easier, as it’s only Fox playing the younger Marty and his distant grandfather Seamus. Apart from that, Zemeckis also makes use of innovative camera moves during the final train chase which includes cameras following the 88 mile per hour (not really) locomotive complete with stunt performers. But the standout shot that shows the lengths Zemeckis will go for both a laugh, and a cool shot has to be the one where Doc figures out how to get the DeLorean back up to speed. This particular shot starts in the barn as Doc and Marty walk over to Doc’s workbench, where a view out the window shows part of Hill Valley. Doc is trying to puzzle out how to get the DeLorean up to speed, when he realizes it can be pushed. The camera moves into a close-up on him, and just as he realizes it can be pushed, a train whistle and puff of smoke appear over the trees as a locomotive appears in the background. He turns and exclaims, “that’s it!” The complexity of this single shot must have taken quite a while to set up and would have been even longer if one of the actors flubbed their line. It’s small details, and interesting shots, like this that continue to entertain audiences over 30 years later.

Back to the Future Part III

Dub Taylor, Harry Carey Jr, and Pat Buttram, all famous Western character actors, play a trio of saloon regulars that witness ‘Clint Eastwood’s’ fancy dance moves.


In terms of genre design, Back to the Future Part III is primarily a Western. The bulk of the film takes place in 1885 utilizing the conventions of the classic Hollywood Western in conjunction with the narrative motifs created for the series. As an example, Marty’s arrival in the desert, complete with the United States Cavalry chasing Indians, was shot in Monument Valley. This iconic valley that spans Arizona and Utah, contains iconic buttes (the Mittens) and has been a staple of dozens of classic Hollywood Westerns, including a large passel of John Ford’s work. Ford’s Stagecoach, Fort Apache, and The Searchers all had elements filmed in this recognizable area as well as Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time In The West. The recognizable geography is evident in several shots of Back to the Future Part III, including the 1955 Drive-In scenes, and the moment in 1885 when Doc and Marty turn the DeLorean into a Stagecoach, pulled by half a dozen horses (most likely a nod to the classic John Ford film mentioned above).

Robert Zemeckis also references these classic westerns in more direct ways. Marty’s entrance into Hill Valley mimics an iconic shot from Once Upon a Time In The West. As he walks through the train depot, the camera cranes up over the building–showing the “Hill Valley” sign, revealing the western town. This emulates Leone’s shot where Claudia Cardinale’s character walks through the depot and into the town. The showdown with Buford is a direct homage to another Leone film, A Fistful of Dollars with Clint Eastwood. This moment, where Marty uses a metal plate to deflect Buford’s bullet, was teased in Part II when 1985A Biff was watching the movie on his television. Zemeckis also embraced the tone of classic Westerns by casting some classic Western character actors. The trio of bar patrons include Pat Buttram, Harry Carey Jr., and Dub Taylor whose distinctive looks and voices contribute to the feeling of a Western film, at least for people familiar with previous films. Actor Burton Gilliam was also included as the gun salesman who offers Marty a Colt Peacemaker. He might be best known to the 70s and 80s generation as Lyle, the dimwitted cowpoke, from Blazing Saddles. Back to the Future Part III, as a Western at least, helped revitalize the genre, which was going through a small revival during the late 80s and early 90s with films like Silverado and the Young Guns films.

Of course it also has its share of sci-fi elements (with a touch of steampunk thrown in) continuing the evolution of the time travel genre. The Back to the Future series, as all time travel films, owes a huge debt of gratitude to the original time travel classic, HG Wells’ The Time Machine. Originally published in 1895, ten years after the events of this film’s core narrative, the book is considered one of the fundamental cornerstones of science-fiction writing, as is much of Wells’ work. Part III also puts in much praise for the other pioneer of the science-fiction film, Jules Verne. Vernes work, including From the Earth to the Moon, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea–which are all name checked here, was writing these fantasy stories in the late 19th Century, prior to the realization that they were even considered science-fiction. Making both Doc and Clara have an affinity for this writer, even though Doc was introduced to him as a youth and Clara had only read him recently, works as both an homage to his work as well as a character trait bringing the two together. Verne’s influences are felt in both the 1955 era when Doc finds his initials emblazoned on a log that indicates the location of the secret tunnel housing the time machine, as well as the Victorian design elements used on his final locomotive time machine. There is no more fitting homage than referencing these works to a generation of audiences where Back to the Future might be their own personal Jules Verne.

Back to the Future Part III

Doc gets a bigger role in this film, as well as a bigger gun.

Societal Commentary

In the pantheon of time travel films available to viewers in 2022, the Back to the Future franchise still stands out as an overwhelmingly positive take on destiny, free will, and the future. While the previous two films present this theme in a more subtle way, Part III makes certain that audiences understand that the future hasn’t been written yet. The film opens with much the same message that Part II provided. Doc is still concerned that no one should know too much about their future. This of course comes from 1955 Doc who, at this point, has not traveled into the future and exposed the “problems” with Marty’s family. But even the 1985 Doc Brown, currently living as a blacksmith in the old west, disagrees with Marty trying to impart information on his impending demise. He ends up wishing that he had never invented the time machine, vowing to destroy it when he returns. Unlike time travel shenanigans in films like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, where wishing or thinking about doing something can ultimately lead to it “being so,” Doc wanting to destroy the time machine does nothing here. Ultimately he gets his wish as Marty returns directly into the path of a speeding train, which decimates the fiberglass DeLorean.

At this point Marty believes that Doc is trapped in the old west, but within moments Emmett, Clara and their two boys (named after their mutual appreciation of writer Jules Verne) appear in a time traveling locomotive. He takes this time to plaintively give the overall theme of the films–that the future is not set. Doc’s realization that we each make thousands of choices every day that change the course of our lives is an empowering statement. Many time travel films deal with the fatalism of time travel. Revisiting moments in the past are often unchangeable.  Regardless of what the time traveler does, these events always “course correct” and work out in the same fashion as they always have. Here, past events are malleable, as the previous films have shown. The timeline will be corrected for the new changes. The idea that free will is the cornerstone of this universe is heartening, especially given some of the darker visions of the future created in the 80s. Any change or choice that people make in the Back to the Future universe seems to create an alternate timeline; multiverses upon multiverse, as seen with the Alt-1985 timeline in Part II. It’s an important idea to remember. Regardless of how screwed up we might believe our past to be, the future is a chance to change that destiny and start a new life. It’s never too late to change, unless you’re chicken!

Back to the Future Part III

Mary Steenburgen stars as Doc’s love interest, Clara. This is her second film as the female lead to a time traveler, following 1979’s ‘Time After Time.’

The Science in The Fiction

Before diving into this section, since it’s not been addressed in the other Back to the Future articles on Sci-Fi Saturdays, Doctor Emmett Brown is an amazing scientist. His contributions to science are unsung. This is the man who, trapped in 1885, was able to create a schematic of comparable 1955 parts in order to rebuild the fried time circuits from the 1985 time machine. So is it any wonder that with a Mattel Hoverboard™, the tools of the late 19th Century, and his imagination, he was able to create a time traveling locomotive that allowed him to take his family on trips undreamed of? Doc’s imagination, that is, and a healthy dose of the worlds of Jules Verne and HG Wells. Back to the Future Part III introduced a much wider audience to the ideas of steampunk than might have been exposed to it previously. The idea behind the genre of steampunk is usually Victorian era technology that mimics a more modern technology. The nuclear powered submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a perfect example. But unlike modern steampunk stories that re-imagine a past, that story was actually published  in 1872. The original Time Machine film, and adaptations of Verne’s and Wells’ work are all primary examples of steampunk, but so are films like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Assassination Bureau. Modern examples, post-Part III, include The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Some of that forward thinking from the Doc is what he tries to impress upon Marty. In this episode, Marty has difficulty imagining beyond the time/space he is currently in–even though he’s traveled through time almost half a dozen times by the beginning of this film. Thinking fourth dimensionally is a big part of this film, as the time travel models get more complex. Helping the audience to understand why the DeLorean does not plummet into the Shonash/Clayton/Eastwood Ravine is a big part of this. Since the track exists in the future, Doc explains, the car will just coast forward on the rails. What the films ignore (as most time travel films do) is that the planet Earth is not a stationary thing. Of course, introducing celestial mechanics into a fun time travel story is beyond the scope of this type of film, yet it is a question to ponder. Maybe Doc’s flux capacitor and other time travel elements take this sort of thing into account. He may also have a program within the time circuits that takes into account the switch between the Gregorian and the Julian calendars. Historically there were 11 days that went “missing” in September of 1752 when Britain made this switch. Obviously we never see or hear about the time machine going back this far, but would it have been part of his plan? For someone that took such meticulous care over building a simple model, one would assume so.

Back to the Future Part III

Doc returns in the steampunk inspired time traveling train. Another if his famous inventions.

The Final Frontier

Back to the Future Part III has some other fun cameos in it besides the Western actors mentioned above. The rock band ZZ Top appears as their 1885 selves, at the Hill Valley festival. They play an acoustic (and simplified version) of the film’s theme song, “Double Back,” which includes their infamous guitar spin. Also at the Festival, the photographer that takes the historical picture of Marty and Doc in front of the newly christened courthouse clock is none other than the film’s cinematographer, Dean Cundey. Cundey worked on a number of Zemeckis’ films including all three Back to the Future films. But the one cameo that goes unnoticed by a lot of people is the members of Needles’ gang. Needles is of course played again by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, but in Part III his 1985 gang is seen for the first time. They consist of one member from each of the various Tannen gangs seen in the trilogy. This includes Christopher Wynne (a member of Buford’s 1885 gang), JJ Cohen (a member of Biff’s 1955 and 1985A gangs), and Ricky Dean Logan (who was part of Griff’s future gang in 2015).

Of all the various sci-fi franchises, Back to the Future has a special and enduring legacy with its fans. It so brilliantly captures the spirit of adventure and friendship while creating fun and funny moments. There are also many gadgets and pieces of technology that help fuel the imagination. Who can forget the hoverboard or the flux capacitor? These elements were further explored in a number of spin-offs from the film series, including an animated series (which ran from 1991-1993) a series of comics  (both from Harvey Comics, based on the cartoon show–1991-93; and IDW Comics–2015-17) and finally a Universal Studios attraction. Fans were even presented with a short (new) 10-minute film on the 30th Anniversary BluRay set released in 2015 called Doc Brown Saves the World. This short featured Christopher Lloyd returning to the future and making it so that food dehydrators, flying cars, and hoverboards didn’t exist since they would lead to the cause of a global thermonuclear war in 2045.

Back to the Future Part III

The souvenir button given out during the first screenings of the entire trilogy, back to back to back.

Six months after the previous chapter, on May 25, 1990, the final (live action) adventure of Marty and Doc hit the screens. Technically, it debuted a few hours before that on May 24. Universal presented special screenings of all three Back to the Future films across the country, back-to-back-to-back, in a special celebration for fans. Attendees of this trilogy received special buttons that commemorated the event. I still have my copy tucked away in a keepsake box. It’s only one of a number of amazing momentos that has come from this trilogy over time.

In closing, the Back to the Future series included a special kind of nostalgia for other times, but also functions as a nostalgic piece of filmmaking on its own. Fans of the film series are still interested in every aspect having to do with this intricately crafted trio of movies, including wondering about other possible sequels. Unfortunately, as actors get older, and the filmmakers take on different projects, the possibility for any continuation of the series wanes. But these three films are always around to revisit, any time you like. Remember that you can make your future whatever you want it to be. Until next week, I remain your friend in time.

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Total Recall

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