- Year: 1960
- Director: George Pal
- Starring: Rod Taylor, Alan Young, Yvette Mimieux
I thought it would be only appropriate if we began the Movie Match-Up of time travel movies with an adaptation of the very first time travel story ever written… but since it is excruciatingly hard to find a film about King Revaita of Hindu folklore, I’ve settled on this.
Of course time travel stories are nearly as old as fiction itself, and even Rip van Winkle and A Christmas Carol fall into the genre. However, our modern concepts of time travel and a time machine proper come from H.G. Wells’ 1895 novella The Time Machine, where an unnamed time traveler goes to the year 802,701 and discovers some unsettling truths about future society.
George Pal’s The Time Machine was made in 1960, and it does show in places. Just look at the film’s opening.
The time traveler is given more character than in the book, although a lot of this simply comes from the fact that he’s played by Rod Taylor. Taylor may never have been a major movie star, but he always commanded the room he was in, bringing his resonant voice and signature charm to every scene. If I merely read the script of this film, I would probably criticize the over-narration of the lead, but when Rod Taylor’s narrating, I let it go. The time traveler is also named George here, but a look at the actual time machine reveals his full name to be H. George Wells, which is a nice little Easter egg.
On New Years’ Eve 1899, George has four friends over to show off his newest invention. The most skeptical and outspoken of these is played by Sebastian Cabot, who brings a lot to his few scenes. Like Taylor, Cabot was an actor who exuded charisma simply by being on screen. George’s best friend, David Filby, is played by Alan Young, who portrays him as a better friend than anyone has ever deserved.
He also has two other friends, who I think are just happy to be there.
George shows them a miniature display of his time machine, which of course all of them except Filby scoff at, even when it disappears into the future. Thankfully, these scenes are not rushed, and we get a lot of atmosphere and build-up before we see the actual time machine around the 25-minute mark.
Now is there any practical reason for the machine to look like this? Of course not, but it has such a colorful, unique look to it that it’s become iconic. Plus, George is shown to be an inventor of clocks, which similarly only share one purpose, but come in all colors and designs.
As opposed to the book where the time traveler goes 800,000 years into the future without stopping in another year, the film takes its time, first going hours, then days, then years into the future. This mainly exists to show off some time-lapse photography, which was groundbreaking in 1960. While the book was written in 1895 and set presumably in the same time, the movie has the advantage of being written “in the future.” George starts in 1899, but gets to see World War I and World War II.
The first year he gets out is 1915, where he mistakes James Filby (also Alan Young) for his father David, and tragically discovers that David Filby died in the war. He skips right through World War II and stops in 1966 where World War III, a nuclear war of course, is taking place. George meets James Filby, now an old man, who tries to rush George into a bomb shelter.
Thankfully not everyone in the near future is wearing these strange metallic clothes, but it’s kind of distracting, and it is only six years later. Even more distracting are the effects used in the bombing of London.
The bombing causes volcanoes to explode as well, because… reasons, and eventually (after way too long) George gets back into his time machine. For millennia, he is encased in a rock wall, until it erodes and civilization is finally rebuilt again. Just like in the book, he finally stops at 802,701 A.D.
Aside from a few obviously painted backgrounds, the future sets are really good. You immediately get taken in by the look and feel of these scenes.
Although most of the future looks like a paradise, there is this closed-off building with a foreboding sphinx-like head, which has a very creative design. The sphinx does not really resemble the Eloi or the Morlocks, the two creatures that live in this future, but it perhaps shows something of this world’s past that once existed.
George first meets the Eloi, a youthful culture that he initially assumes have created this paradise. He is quite proud that this is what humanity has turned into, until he sees them ignore one of their own, Weena (Yvette Mimieux), when she is drowning. Yeah, I know they’re supposed to be gender-less but come on.
The characterization of the Eloi and Morlcoks here is both very similar to the book and very different. On the surface, it appears to be about the same—the Eloi live above ground and reap the benefits of the Edenic world, while the Morlocks live underground and breed the Eloi like cattle.
In Wells’ novel, when the time traveler first arrives in the future, he believes that perfect Communism has been achieved, with no conflict whatsoever. However, he soon finds out that the Morlocks are the working class, forming an underground uprising (literally) against the upper-class Eloi. Now, to be fair, they are succeeding, but they are far from finished. For what it’s worth, Wells himself was a socialist, but not a Communist.
The film version is not making a statement on Communism though, but rather nuclear war. This dates it, yes, but I think it’s in the spirit of the book. Hear me out. The book was written in 1895, when Communism was all the buzz. Wells envisioned a far distant future where this was still being played out. In the 1950s and ’60s, everyone was talking about nuclear war and how it was going to wipe out mankind. This film envisions a future in which nuclear war has shaped every aspect of life.
When George inquires about history, Weena shows him rings that play recordings of how mankind de-evolved into the Eloi and Morlocks.
Sure, this is a way for the film to quickly explain the history up until this point, but it’s such a unique idea that it makes you forget that. It also helps that they’re voiced by Paul Frees, who makes the dark subject matter sound even more ominous. What could have been a scene of pure exposition turns into one of the most memorable scenes of the whole film.
George learns that after the nuclear war, some remained underground while others went above. Presumably, the hundreds of thousands of years turned each into the creatures they now are. He calls it a “quirk of fate” that the Morlocks are the ones in control.
The implications of a post-nuclear world are taken even further in one of the film’s best images. At night, the Morlocks call the Eloi underground to eat them with an air raid siren. I have to admit this is pretty ingenious. After years and years of nuclear war and paranoia, the human mind has developed an instinct to automatically go underground when it hears the air raid siren. One of the Eloi who survives even says, “It is all clear.”
Just like Wells, director George Pal and screenwriter David Duncan are taking something from their own time, and creating a future based on that. It’s like if today, someone did an adaptation where the time traveler goes into the distant future and discovers that every movie, TV show, and book is a remake or adaptation.
Due to the changes from the book, and the fact that this a movie from 1960, the lines of good and evil are much clearer. The Morlocks are clearly the bad guys, and the Eloi are the sympathetic ones who just need a helping hand at restarting civilization. While the Eloi are shown here as the “more human” of the two, I give the film credit for giving the Morlocks some human qualities.
The Morlocks are defeated with fire for the time, which is much more heroic than the book’s account of the traveler accidentally starting a forest fire and killing Weena. George’s machine re-appears, and although it is a trap set by the Morlocks, he escapes in time. Returning to the present, George recounts his story to his friends, but then takes off again with three books to help the Eloi rebuild society and defeat the Morlocks for good. The final scene between George and Filby, where both know they may not see the other again but won’t vocalize it, definitely leaves an impact.
A direct adaptation of Wells’ novel would be both very short and probably pretty boring. It’s a great novel, but an accurate film version would not leave the viewer satisfied at all. I think this movie was trying to be what we today call a “popcorn movie,” while still going after some deeper themes. The nuclear war stuff is a bit heavy-handed, but there are still some clever things done with the material.
This is a film that clearly had a lot of love put into it, and it makes for some great escapist entertainment. Russell Garcia’s main theme is marvelous, and the music that plays when the audience first sees the time machine is both adventurous and ominous. The few bad special effects aside, the sets are well done, and even the time-lapse photography has its charms. I’ve actually gone back to this film many times through the years, and I’ve always enjoyed it for what it is. Let’s see the final score.
Story (20/30 Points)
The time traveler in the book was more of an observer, and actually had a negative impact on the events. George is more of a dashing hero here, and the very simple story is expanded just a bit. The added arc with David Filby’s death is rightfully heartbreaking.
Cast (26/30 Points)
Rod Taylor and Alan Young are both wonderful in their respective parts, bringing characters who may have been thin on paper to life. Yvette Mimieux also does well as the simple-minded Weena, and Sebastian Cabot is a good intellectual foil to George and Filby.
Experience (19/25 Points)
The London bombing scene is just awful, and some of the painted backgrounds stand out. That said, Pal does a good job of building atmosphere in both 1899 and 802,701, and the music is incredible.
Originality (13/15 Points)
It’s a bit tough to judge this category for an adaptation, but the steam-punk design of the time machine and the looming sphinx show a lot of creativity. I know the sphinx was in the book too, but the image just sticks with you here. The talking rings were completely original, and they fit right in.
Final Score: 78%
It is an imperfect film, but the charms far outweigh the flaws. If you’re not a fan of the Old Hollywood-style of film making, you might not agree, but for me it’s a perfectly enjoyable film. It says something that there wasn’t another theatrical film version until 2002, and… well I’ll withhold my feelings until we get there.
Next week, history and fiction blend with 1979’s Time After Time.