George Pal returns to Sci-Fi Saturdays with his classic adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine.
While The Time Machine may not technically be the first Hollywood film to deal with time travel, it is certainly the most notable and the one that kick-started the sub-genre. Without this film, time travel films may have never achieved the notoriety that they have today.
The trailer makes sure to mention some very key elements that audiences may be interested in. It name checks HG Wells, Jules Verne and George Pal, to ensue audiences know that they are getting quality entertainment. Surprisingly the trailer describes the people of the future; the Eloi being the slaves (and food) of the Morlocks. Granted, in 1960 audiences were likely to see a trailer once or twice prior to seeing the film, so it’s hard to say how this reveal would affect audiences of the time. It’s definitely a “spoiler” by today’s usage! The trailer is narrated by Paul Frees (who has a small role in the film as the voice of the “rings”), who poses a lot of questions to the audience, such as “what happens when boy meets girl thousands of years hence.” Upselling the love story, the action, and the Morlocks seemed to be the biggest points that the studio wanted to hit with this advertisement. All in all, a pretty good representation of the finished film.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The Time Machine presents the bulk of the film in an extended flashback, with the beginning and end of the films taking place in early 1900. The film opens on a Friday evening, the 5th of January, 1900, when four men arrive at the home of their friend George. David Filby (Alan Young), Dr. Philip Hillyer (Sebastian Cabot), Anthony Bridewell (Tom Helmore), and Walter Kemp (Whit Bissell) are escorted into the dining room by George’s housekeeper Mrs. Watchett (Doris Lloyd). As the quartet sits down to dine, George (Rod Taylor) bursts in, disheveled and bedraggled, asking what day it is. He proceeds to explain to the others just what he has encountered.
Five days previous, on December 31, 1899, George shows his four guests a miniature model of his time machine. Explaining the nature of the four dimensions (left/right, forward/back, up/down, and time), George flicks a switch and sends the model forward in time. Several of his guests are unimpressed believing it a parlor trick. Only Filby stays behind and begs George to destroy the real time machine, as it will only cause George’s own destruction. George promises not to walk out of the house and bids Filby a good evening.
George retires to his workshop where he has the full-scale model of the machine. He sits down in the device and tests the controls ever so gently. He realizes the candle and his clock have changed their states, so he decides to press on further. George’s journey is portrayed by the flickering of the sun, the opening and closing of his plants, and the changing fashions on the mannequin in Filby’s Department Store across the street (all portrayed through the use of stop-motion animation). His first stop is on September 13, 1917 during World War I, where he exits the machine to meet Filby’s son James (also played by Alan Young) who explains that his father died during the war.
Distressed by the thought of a continued conflict, George presses further on into the future. This time landing on June 19, 1940 during the blitz of London in World War II. As he continues, his house disappears, having been struck by a bomb and he lands a third time in August 18, 1966 where the air raid sirens beckon civilians underground for safety. An aged James Filby again meets George, who hasn’t changed a day since their previous meeting, just before an Atomic Satellite attacks overhead. George is able to once again flee into the future.
His final destination is Oct 12 in the year 802,701. There he finds a peaceful Eden with many young men and women swimming, lazing around and eating fruit. He believes he has truly found the perfect future. But he soon realizes that these Eloi, as they call themselves, have no knowledge of technology. They are ignorant of the histories of the planet and their people, save the stories told to them by the “talking rings,” memory tapes left by a race long past. George discovers Weena (Yvette Mimieux), an attractive Eloi girl, who tells him of the Morlocks, who in the meantime have dragged his time machine into their temple.
The Morlocks enslave the Eloi, using them for slave labor as well as food. George is disgusted by the state mankind has left the world in. When Weena is kidnapped by the Morlocks, George (and no one else) goes to rescue her. He manages to fight off a number of Morlocks, freeing many other Eloi, and awakening the spark of violence (or perhaps self-preservation) in the Eloi. However he becomes trapped in the Morlock temple, with Weena on the outside. After defeating the Morlocks around him, George activates the machine and returns to 1900, here he drags the machine back into his workshop. He enters the parlor, as seen at the beginning of film. He thanks his guests for coming and thanks Filby for being a friend. However, Filby is suspicious and follows George to his workshop, but he has already returned to the future, having taken three unknown books with him. The film ends as Filby ponders what they could possibly be.
“You’ve all the time in the world.” – David Filby
History in the Making
By the end of the 1950s, sci-fi films had become more geared towards horror and less towards space, science, rockets and futurism. Therefore, it’s heartening when the 1960s kicked off with one of the most science-fictiony films of the decade! A true harbinger that some of the best science-fiction films ever were coming!
Last week’s film, Journey to the Center of the Earth was a Victorian-style adventure film from 19th Century writer Jules Verne that ended the decade of the 50s. This week, the new decade begins with a Victorian-style adventure film from 19th Century writer H.G. Wells. This was not the first work by Wells that had been adapted to film. The Island of Dr Moreau (as both a French silent film (1913), and a German silent film (1921), but more popularly as Island of Lost Souls; 1932) and The Invisible Man (1933) had been made previously. These two movies are considered more in the horror genre, even though they have sci-fi roots. Although these films are outside the purview of this series, having been created prior to 1950, Sci-Fi Saturdays did cover the 1953 adaptation of Wells’ The War of the Worlds, his most famous adaptation to date.
While Verne and Wells were both 19th century writers, their writing occurred in two different parts of the century, and stemmed from different philosophies. Verne’s work is set in his present using fantastic technology to achieve his stories’ ends, while Wells appears to be more of a futurist, delving into the future of society, sometimes with horrific outcomes. The Time Machine was the third film to become a heavy influence into the steampunk movement. Verne’s 20,000 Leagues and Journey to the Center of the Earth, were the first two influences, whose elements were covered in the Sci-Fi Saturdays articles on those films. Suffice to say that prop designer William Ferrari influenced many other people with his distinctive design.
Enter again George Pal. Pal produced both War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, but interestingly enough, while he decide to update Worlds to a modern setting (from the Victorian London to 1950s California), he kept The Time Machine in its original setting. The Time Machine indicated the pinnacle of Pal’s science-fiction work. He had always wanted to adapt this story, and by 1960 the time was right. His future films would focus more on Fantasy, rather than Sci-Fi. As with War of the Worlds, this adaptation earned Pal and his team an Academy Award for Best Special Effects, which seems odd by today’s standards. The prop work is extraordinary, but the matte paintings and optical effects leave much to be desired.
The Time Machine may not have been the first piece of fiction on time travel or the first time travel film, but it is certainly the most popular at this time. As an iconic film it defined the subgenre for at least 25 years until Back to the Future came out. Other authors tackled the idea of traveling to another time, but did it in a variety of ways. Six years before Wells released his publication of The Time Machine, Mark Twain broached the subject of time travel in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. While time travel purists may reject stories like Connecticut Yankee as fantastical rather than scientific, it qualifies, at least for the period it was released. At least three films adaptations were released prior to 1960, the most popular being the 1949 version with Bing Crosby, but after that Pal’s Time Machine became the cornerstone for future time travel ideas. Time travel would continue to gain popularity throughout the genre until the 1980s when films like The Terminator, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Back to the Future would catapult the genre into new heights.
This particular adaptation of the story addressed traveling through time in a linear fashion as one would a river; hopping off the boat onto the shore in the various times. Issues such as causality, predestination paradoxes and other troubling problems with time travel are not addressed. In fact, the narrator, George (who is only ever referred to by this name, and could be Wells, or Pal), moves extremely linearly in his travels. At one point Dr. Hillyer blurts out that the future is irrevocable, so what would the point of time travel be. George counters that his inventions are for scientific curiosity, additionally he adds to escape the horrors of war and chaos that his must live through in the present time.
The film also moves linearly in its character arc. George returns to the past in a panic that he has lost Weena forever. His desperation to get back to her is misplaced, as he has a machine that could literally travel to any moment. The film chooses to use this momentum and potential plot hole to build suspense. But also, and most likely, to keep the complexity of the film to a minimum, Pal’s hero must return to the moment he left. As Filby states, “he has all the time in the world.”
The Time Machine also returns the narrative of the genre to a more introspective mode. Time travel in essence is a thematic device used to allow the author to discuss regret or longing for the past, and hope or fear of the future; things that mankind has troubled with throughout its existence. Pal’s version poses some very serious philosophical questions that allow the audience to take away more from the film than it posits.
As mentioned above, the film version of The Time Machine asks many questions about mankind’s existence, which is something that not many sci-fi films from the 1950s had attempted to date. George is decidedly against war, specifically the Boer War in South Africa. He hates it so much so that he is affronted by his friends when they suggest his brain power would be better off served creating weapons to help England win the war. The fact that he ends up stopping during multiple battles only serves to propel him further into the future, until he finds a world free from the horrors of killing.
Unfortunately the future that George seeks comes with its own problems, in this case, the collapse of society. The portrayal of the future society is somewhat simplistic, yet allegorical. Separating the races into two distinct castes, the worker (Morlock) and the management (Eloi). But also the cattle (Eloi) and the farmer (Morlock). Wells had written the two races from the standpoint of a member of Victorian society. By the time the film was made, it became allegorical for different things, such as the Cold War – or the eventual fate for mankind after a nuclear tragedy. The “talking rings” present a little information that war raged on between “east and west” for 326 years, presumably leading to the irradiation of the surface. A ring describes the choices made by the survivors to burrow beneath the ground, or “to take our chances in the sunlight. Small as those chances might be.” It is strange that 800 Centuries hence, the same triggers exist for the populace. Morlocks play the “sirens” and the Eloi stream below ground like sheep. Something that audiences of the 1960s would understand all too well, with their experience with air raid drills.
Perhaps unintended, but the future looks like an Aryan’s dream, complete with little blonde boys and girls living without a care. The film gives very little information about the future, mostly due to the ignorance of the Eloi. In a holistic view, it’s hard to see this small representation of society as equivalent to every place in the world. After all this is only intended to be England in the future, which could very well become so homogeneously white that there are no racial boundaries, save the division between Eloi and Morlock. More likely, it’s the narrow view of Hollywood during the 1960s. The story they set to tell was about one man’s travels through time, and not sociological statement of the future.
The film also has much to say about history, or at least the study of the past. George is aghast that the Eloi have no government or work, and seem to have forgotten any lessons learned by their ancestors. While their culture initially appears to be ideal, it quickly becomes apparent that trade-offs were made in their ascent to this place. The Eloi are mostly content, having their needs met by the Morlocks. It’s unclear how the harvests work, except maybe at night, for the Morlocks appear extremely sensitive to light. But the Eloi are kept fed and happy without lifting much of a finger for themselves. George also sees the lack of apathy the Eloi have for fellow kind, when Weena is drowning in a river and none of the Eloi pay her any mind. The film seeks to remind the audience that a purposeful life, one with introspection, work, and effort is better than living a sheltered and pampered one.
A final interesting question that the film poses, that would be answered differently for each viewer, is what knowledge makes up society. Filby realizes that in George’s final trip, he has taken three volumes from his library, but neither he nor Mrs. Watchett know which ones. What titles from 1900 would be useful in rebuilding the minds of the Eloi? Perhaps some science text, but also some philosophy text might be useful. This is a great hook to keep audiences discussing the film long after the movie ends.
The Science in The Fiction
One thing that good science fiction films do is to create a plausible reality in which the technology that is central to the film, works. It’s a fine line between delving into the science too much and not addressing it at all. The Time Machine does a good job of explaining a number of basic tenets about time travel. When Doctor Hillyer becomes dismissive of George’s “introduction” to the 4th dimension, George puts him on the spot to explain the first three. Explaining to the audience that traveling through time is akin to moving left/right, or up/down provides a clear vision in ones head. It’s a very basic setup, but enough to give the audience of basic understanding, and a visual cue, for the types of travel being discussed.
Another important scientific element that is demonstrated, quite clearly, is the theory of relativity. George lights a candle next to his clock prior to stepping into his time machine. After moving forward a couple of hours, as demonstrated by the advancement of the clock and the shortening of the candle, his watch reads that only a few moments have passed. From his perception, relative to the room, he has moved forward hours in a matter of seconds. No need to get into a debate about Einstein and mathematics. The film use “show don’t tell” brilliantly in this case.
Finally, the film attempts to address the fact that space is the same throughout time. As George tries to explain to Dr. Hillyer the fact that his scale model is still in the same space (ie location) but just at a different time from them. Again, another clear setup for the end of the film where George needed to drag his time machine back into his workshop so that he would be outside the Morlock temple when he returned to the future. Unfortunately, what most science-fiction time travel stories ignore is that the Earth moves in space, so that one point “now” is not the same point in “an hour.” Technically one could find themselves floating in space if they actually were to only travel in time.
The Final Frontier
As more and more science-fiction films were created, a larger catalog of props were available to be used. Nowadays companies mass produce props for use in all types of films, but in 1960 a film was limited by its budget and what it could rent (or use from a previous film). The Time Machine utilizes several things from previous MGM films. The first, and maybe most distinctive, are the steps up to the Eloi dining hall. These were built for Kismet (1944), and reused in lots of MGM productions including several episodes of The Twilight Zone. Additional two props from Forbidden Planet can be seen. The first is a costume from the crew, used here as a “futuristic” uniform for the Air Raid Marshall in 1966. The second is the astrolabe used on board the ship for navigation, found as a discarded piece of tech in the talking rings chamber. Not to be outdone, the time machine prop would also appear in future films and television shows such as Gremlins and The Big Bang Theory.
Some of the actors would go on to other sci-fi roles. Whit Bissell is the most prominent sci-fi actor, having been in films such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1958) and Target Earth (1954), plus Soylent Green (1973). The female lead, Yvette Mimieux, would return to sci-fi in the 1980 Disney film The Black Hole. And Alan Young, who is more known for his television work as Wilbur on Mr. Ed, or his voice work as Scrooge McDuck, would appear in The Cat From Outer Space (1978) and the 2002 remake of The Time Machine. Additionally, that remake, which is a very similar version of the story, enhanced a bit with stops in other times, was directed by Simon Wells, HG Wells’ grandson.
I last wrote about this film over 4 years ago days after the death of Rod Taylor, as part of a Time Travel blog, celebrating 2015 – “the future” as seen from the Back to the Future franchise. My prose may have improved, but this film still stands as a stunning piece of fiction. For its scientific flaws and simplicity, The Time Machine is still an amazing film that deals with the reality of living in the time one is born. George did not feel part of his time and yearned for a better life, but his travel into the unknown almost cost him his life, as Filby had predicted. The grass is always greener as they say, but in time travel films the protagonist always has a chance to explore “the other side” and decide if the journey is worthwhile.
Coming Next Week
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.