[box cover]

The Time Machine (1960)

Warner Home Video

Starring Rod Taylor, Yvette Mimieux, and Alan Young

Written by David Duncan
Based on the novel by H.G. Wells

Directed by George Pal

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

"I, for my own part, cannot think that these latter days of weak experiment, fragmentary theory, and mutual discord are indeed man's culminating time! ... He, I know — for the question had been discussed among us before the Time Machine was made — thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end."

— H.G. Wells, The Time Machine, 1895

"It was intoxicating!"

— Rod Taylor, The Time Machine, 1960

The Time Machine: 1895

The Time Machine, the debut novel of a young, ideological Herbert George Wells, reflects its author's bleakly dystopian, anti-capitalist worldview in a Darwinian cautionary parable. Wells, after all, didn't set out to write merely an entertaining page-turner. A self-made social reformer who climbed up and out from brutal working-class poverty, Wells sought to deliver a trenchant "If this goes on" message. In the book, the unnamed Time Traveler tells of his voyage to the year 802,701, a time in which humanity has degenerated into two species sculpted not by God but by nature's indifferent efficiency. The delicate and placid Eloi — descendants of the wealthy and privileged — live in edenic bounty and "feeble prettiness" on Earth's surface (in the space that had been the Time Traveler's home, in fact), unaware that they are merely bred and fed to become food for the Morlocks — descendants of the working class who have devolved into cannibalistic subterranean brutes feeding off the do-nothing, illiterate "Upper-world people." Near the novel's end is a beautifully rendered scene set eons later still. Here the final, gasping breath of evolution, human and otherwise, is embodied in a single tentacled creature on a beach beneath a bloated red sun at the twilight of the world. It is a scene lit by loneliness and failure and Ozymandian futility.

To Wells' fellow fin-de-siécle Victorian intelligentsia, the contemporary social issues magnified for easy dissection in The Time Machine (and throughout Wells' career) pointed to a human race doomed by its own animal nature and trapped within the engine of capital-N Nature, which is — as he later described the minds of his Martian invaders — "vast and cool and unsympathetic."

The Time Machine: 1960

The Time Machine, the movie produced and directed by George Pal, reflects a very different time and a very different audience. While Wells' story is social class commentary wrapped within a stark narrative fable, Pal's movie is a brightly colored sweetmeat with all the indicting political ideology of a buttered scone. It's a Boy's Own adventure complete with handsome square-jawed inventor undertaking a journey through the Fourth Dimension to a new world complete with monsters, fisticuffs, rescues, escapes, and a keen awareness of our protagonist's superiority to the poor benighted heathens in his midst. Wells' story ends with a sigh at Mankind's ultimately insignificant place in an indifferent cosmos. Pal's ends with an optimistic romantic hero returning to the future to lead the Eloi out of their Dark Ages and into a new Enlightenment of learning and questioning and, one presumes, other proper English virtues.

One can imagine Wells — righteously angry at Mankind's foibles and predilection for self-destruction — riding his Time Machine to our present and viewing the fruits of Mr. Pal's labor in the Wells vineyard. What would be his reaction? In a word, Wells would plotz.

But does that make Pal's movie bad?

Not at all. Certainly not if you're 15 years old, as I was when I first watched The Time Machine on a Saturday afternoon between one TV program and another. I loved it. So I admit to a certain prejudice while saying that, after watching its new DVD incarnation the year I turn 40, I still love it. Is it hokum? Sure, much of it. The titular machine itself, as envisioned by Pal in one of the classic pieces of pre-CGI model-making, is perhaps symbolic of the movie as a whole: It's a charmingly magical fantasy contraption; its apparati are all aglitter with polished brass finishes and faceted glasswork; the rider's compartment is cozy with red velvet cushions and tasteful filigree scrollwork. It's clean and functional, here and there a little gaudy, and isn't stained by any over-abundant motor oil of logic or verisimilitude. It does, however, take you where you want to go.

The movie stars Rod Taylor as the Time Traveler, now named George. Taylor soon after went on to provide the voice of Pongo in One Hundred and One Dalmatians and then reached his first career peak as the leading man in The Birds. Taylor's solid performance is one of the many likeable elements in The Time Machine. He's a true Pal protagonist — a driven, earnest man of learning who still has what it takes to beat the baddies and get the girl, a model for males throughout the Western world. Even when fighting a mob of Morlocks in their cavernous lair strewn with the remains of cannibalistic feasts, Taylor's hair is never mussed — and that looks exactly right.

Pre-Mr. Ed Alan Young co-stars as David Filby, George's best and most loyal friend (and Wells' original narrator). His is the voice of restraint that tells George there are things Man was not meant to know, that he should be content to live in his own present world, that one should not tempt Fate or Providence in the name of upstart wanderlust. He provides the conservative counterpoint to George's reckless questing, and does so with such deep-felt concern that when we learn what becomes of Filby in the near future the movie offers one of its few moments of genuine poignancy. Young, in fact, plays two characters, the second being Filby's son Jamie, whom George meets in the future. But more on that shortly.

The inevitable add-on love interest is delivered by Yvette Mimieux as the young Eloi woman Weena. Vapid and childlike, Weena single-handedly sets back 800,000+ years of women's progress. She is the evolutionary end of all "dumb blonde" jokes, and apparently retains an excellent hairdresser. This being 1960 Hollywood, Mimieux is just dandy as the willing fantasy woman of earnest inventors and 15-year-old boys everywhere. She's not just pretty. Better yet, she's innocent and compliant — and, we can infer, unfettered by all those socially imposed sexual hangups that are so anti-evolutionary. (C'mon, you don't have to be 15 to imagine what's waiting for George, our Competent Man avatar, when in the end he chooses to leave our time and return to Weena's side. "To help build a new world" my ass.)

To the credit of Pal and screenwriter David Duncan, many of the bolts and rivets of Wells' plot remain intact — in particular, the opening scenes of George demonstrating his bric-a-brac model Machine for his friends (a fine supporting cast headlined by Young, Sebastian Cabot, and Whitt Bissell). Removed are a number of Wells' later, bleaker scenes (including the aforementioned End Of The World) and, of course, that messy Darwinian indictment of modern class power structure.

What's added provides little bulk to the rest of Wells' plot, so the story here is pretty thin. Still, the scenes of George witnessing the passing years and decades of the 20th century are perhaps the most interesting part of the movie. When people talk about the special effects in Pal's Time Machine, this is very likely the sequence they're talking about. Remember that we're talking about a movie made a generation before CGI and computer-controlled camera work, the "In my day we walked ten miles through snow up to our waists to get to school" days of cinematic fantasy-making. In a sequence that today strikes you as either brilliant or cheesy (or both) depending on your sensibilities, George observes the accelerated rush of Time and Fashion by the time-lapse changes occurring on a department store mannequin. The Time Machine's stop-motion and time-lapse trickery won 1961's Academy Award for Best Special Effects, and while they may look a tad dated today, they still display an economy and purpose that exceed even some of today's bloated and less mindful CGI extravaganzas (The Phantom Menace, anyone?).

Other scenes that exist only in the movie have George making brief stops during his initial journey forward. These scenes set up what can be considered Pal's equivalent of Wells' narrative diatribe. However, in 1960 Cold War insecurities had trumped Victorian class consciousness for an audience's attention. Pausing to look around in 1917, George meets young James Filby (Alan Young again), a soldier newly returned from "the front." When Filby tells George the fate of Filby Sr., he buttresses the Time Traveler's disgust at modern man's instinct for warfare. When George departs this world at war he immediately arrives in another, stopping in 1940 during a blitz bombing of his London neighborhood. Then in 1966 he arrives just in time to hear the air raid sirens and to encounter young Filby again, now an old man in a silver radiation suit leading others to the neighborhood fallout shelter because of an "atomic satellite zeroing in." Atomic blasts and the violent response of Planet Earth herself almost prevent George from reaching his Time Machine and propelling himself far, far into a future that he is sure will have evolved into an enlightened utopia free from our primitive barbarism.

It's the Cold War adornments — air raid sirens and underground shelters — that set up the world George finds in the year 802,701. Pal's extrapolation isn't as thought-provoking and weighty as Wells', and it's Wells' that arguably has aged better. Give Pal's vision its due, though. As he did four years later with another exceptional fantasy, The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, by weaving a thread, however thin, of contemporary commentary into his movie, Pal's Time Machine steps up a rung from what studio executives probably considered little more than children's fare. And for us today watching the DVD, it provides a look back to a time when the possibilities of bomb shelters and air raid sirens and atomic annihilation were real enough to make Pal's Eloi and Morlocks, if not possible, then at least unnervingly plausible.

The rest of the movie proceeds briskly in expected pulp magazine fashion. The vacuously innocent — and universally blond — Eloi enjoy their sunlit existence of mindless frolicking and consuming, while the few surviving books crumble to dust untouched and unread. Down below, the nocturnal Morlocks tend the chugging machinery and surface periodically to harvest the "fatted cattle" Eloi for their own grisly larders. To this our hero arrives, explores, endures, pontificates, and punches Morlocks in the snoot, all with his best girl by his side. Naturally enough, he becomes both a savior and role model for the Eloi, who learn from him that one can rise up against one's oppressors (ironically, with fists and aggression) and that active self-determination is the first step toward freedom (and, just to be waggish, toward starvation and privation resulting from the wreckage of what had been a comfortable economic system, if like the Eloi you're ignorant of all that cannibalistic feasting and stuff).

Don't worry about the built-in conveniences. Expect to chuckle out loud at least once. So the Eloi speak perfect English even if they can't spell "socialist manifesto." So the chubby, green-skinned Morlocks' winky-blink lightbulb eyes look silly. So Rod Taylor saves humanity by blowing up an underground complex roughly the size of a city block. George Pal knew what he wanted and accomplished it with aplomb and his own period style and verve, just as H.G. took care of his own creative goals and audiences. Pal replaced Wells' grim prognostication with a sense of wonder that's still shiny today.

Pal's Time Machine is simplistic but avoids being merely simple-minded. It's a puff pasty. Tea with jam and bread. If you have one, watch it with a girlfriend with strong feelings about the depiction of women on screen (my wife's imitation of Weena is a scream). It makes an interesting matching bookend for Pal's earlier and darker War of the Worlds, his even looser adaptation of a Wells novel. Playing compare-contrast between them justifies a double-feature DVD evening. Then, to give you a peek into the kind of motion picture Wells felt more at home with, cap the evening with Things to Come (1936), for which Wells wrote the screenplay. That one is more impressive in terms of scenic design and conceptual scale, plus keeps Wells' tendency toward ideological pontification intact. Hmmmm .... Things to Come may have more thoughtful meat on its bones, but I can guarantee that you'll have a better time with Pal's adaptations. So I recommend sandwiching the real Wells between the other two.

The Time Machine: the DVD

Unlike too many DVD editions of "classic" movies, someone took the care to scrub and polish this print. This is a lovely transfer. Even for a DVD I was pleasantly surprised by how improved The Time Machine's picture quality and audio clarity are now. The colors are crisp and rich and solid, returning the print to its original Metrocolor vibrancy, with fine gradation in the darkest scenes and the deepest blacks. No longer is The Time Machine dogged by the washed-out look and the lines and blotches of the late-night TV prints. The whole thing sparkles like a freshly laundered waistcoat. And finally seeing it in its original widescreen letterbox format (anamorphically enhanced) is of course a big plus.

Since 1960, the sound has been remixed from mono to stereo and now to Dolby Digital 5.1, an advance that most benefits the memorable musical score by Russell Garcia. From the bombing of London to Garcia's entrancing motifs, The Time Machine now possesses a quality common to transfers of movies that predate this generation's advances in cinema audio — you've never heard it sound this good before.

For bonus goodies, this DVD includes the now-typical extras of star profiles (in this case including George Pal) and the original theatrical trailer. The prime attraction here is the 50-minute behind-the-scenes documentary, The Time Machine: The Journey Back, hosted by Rod Taylor and featuring Alan Young and Whit Bissell. It focuses on the production and special effects, with special attention given to what ultimately became of the Time Machine prop itself (talk about heartbreaking). Then the documentary takes a curious turn near the end with a charming vignette, a real "Journey Back" in the form of a mini-sequel to the movie made thirty years before. Rod Taylor's George — much older yet still virile — returns in the Time Machine to his laboratory. The resulting scene between George and Filby (a suitably gray-haired Young) offers a touching coda that honors both characters and the movie they helped bring to life. That by itself makes this DVD a keeper. I like to think that even H.G. himself would approve.

—Mark Bourne

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