A colorful Hollywood adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel.
I cannot recall when I first heard of George Pal’s 1960 production of THE TIME MACHINE, but it must have been in one of the many books about science fiction cinema that I read as a teenager in the 1970s. At a very tender age, I had seen the first part of Pal’s WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) on television; it was a school night, so I had to go to be before the conclusion, but the sight of the Martian death ray rising up out of the mysterious meteor and blasting three helpless humans left an indelible impression. Consequently, learning that Pal had produced another adaptation of an H.G. Wells novel was more than enough to pique my interest. I probably caught some or all of the film on television, but in the days before widescreen, high-def televisions and cable stations that show movies uncut and uninterrupted, I did not reckon a television viewing as really “seeing” a film. Fortunately, I got a chance to experience THE TIME MACHINE on the big screen in 1979, thanks to science fiction film festival at the old Tiffany Theatre on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Did it live up to my enthusiastic expectations? Yes and no.
I found THE TIME MACHINE to be a lavish and entertaining production, but at that time I was a film student rapturously enamored of modern cinematic technique, and THE TIME MACHINE was a bit too old-fashioned for my taste. Also, the special effects, although colorful, were sometimes transparent in their phoniness; I recall with disappointment noting the visible matte lines as the Time Traveller (Rod Taylor) walks through a future world with a stone idol in the background.
To some extent, I was also a bit disappointed with the divergence from Wells’ 1895 novel, which I had read in grade school. Although I did not know it at the time, Wells had written two versions of The Time Macine: the first was serialized in a magazine; the second was published in book form, and there were significant alterations between the two. In retrospect, I realize that, if there were elements missing from the film, it was not necessarily because a Hollywood screenwriter deleted them; the real reason might have been that Wells himself had removed them during his second pass of the novel. (For example, the original version has an episode near the end, set in the distant future, when the unnamed Time Traveler finds small mammals that – it is clearly implied – are the last evolutionary descendants of humanity. These creatures are missing from the version published in book form.)
Looking back, I am more willing to forgive THE TIME MACHINE for expanding and updating the source material to make it work in the film medium and to bring its concerns up to date for the audiences of 1960. The result is a film that is an interesting time capsule in its own right, in some ways quaint, even naive, but nevertheless entertaining, though perhaps not always for the reason originally intended. For example, the futuristic Eloi (mostly inarticulate in the book) speak perfectly good (albeit simple-minded) English; their childlike size has been increased to adult dimensions, and they are given blonde sugar-bowl hairstyles, so that they resemble apathetic California beach bums. On the one hand, this also allows for a captivating romantic interest in the form of the charming Yvette Mimieux (a more child-like character in the original). On the other hand, it feels very much like parental finger-wagging, with the Old World Pal using the Eloi to make a snide comment on the hedonistic “younger generation,” who are portrayed as lazy and ignorant, living the good life without lifting a finger to work or create. As the Time Traveler (here named George) says:
What have you done? Thousands of years of building and rebuilding, creating and recreating so you can let it crumble to dust. A million years of sensitive men dying for their dreams… FOR WHAT? So you can swim and dance and play.
The most interesting aspect of this, for me anyway, is that the appearance of the Eloi seems so clearly to be of 1960s. The decade has barely started, and Pal is presenting this image as if it will be instantly recognized by the target audience of presumably disapproving adults. I would have expected something that was a bit more of a holdover from the 1950s. Oh well, perhaps Pal, like Rod Taylor’s character, was able to see what the future would bring.
More important than the film’s attitude toward the youth of 1960, THE TIME MACHINE jettisons Wells’ evolutionary angle and the social criticism that went with it. In the book, the sun-dwelling Eloi and the cave-dwelling cannibalistic Morlocks are portrayed as the inevitable if unpleasant result of the schism between the affluent ruling class and the downtrodden workers. In the movie, mankind devolves into the Eloi and the Morlocks not because of unstoppable forces of biology and economics but because of a nuclear holocaust. The end result in the year 802,701 may seem almost the same, but there is a major difference: what has gone wrong in the movie, we are left in no doubt, can be undone.
Consequently, when the George disappears from his own era, never to return, we are not left to speculate that he may have been devoured by “the huge reptilian brutes of the Jurassic times”; instead, we know that he has gone back to the future to lift mankind back up from its dismal situation. Again, this may disappoint those who desire a faithful version of Wells, but the nuclear element gives the film its own context. Whether this is better or worse than the original is less important than the fact that, fifty years later, it renders THE TIME MACHINE as an interesting time capsule of an earlier era, its fears and concerns expressed in a popular artistic medium, in the same manner that Wells expressed the zeitgeist of his era in the novel.
Seen today, THE TIME MACHINE remains a reasonably elaborate affair, with impressive production values and fine special effects (even if these are somewhat dated, they do not undermine the movie.) The old-fashioned cinematic style, which previously disappointed me, now seems part of the film’s charm – a sort of look back at how movies used to be made. The Moorlock makeup is reasonably frightening (in part because their scenes are filmed mostly in underground darkness), turning them into memorable movie-monsters. And there is a decent amount of spectacle for the eye (e.g., exploding volcanoes, nuclear bombs). The film even has a fair degree of visual poetry, as when the Time Traveler asks to learn more about the Eloi by looking at their books: an Eloi takes George to a dilapidated library and hands him an ancient volume, which promptly crumble into dust in his fingers. George concludes ruefully that the books do, indeed, tell him all he needs to know about the Eloi.
Overall, while perhaps not a masterpiece, George Pal’s version of THE TIME MACHINE deserves to be considered a classic of science fiction cinema – a piece of old-fashoined filmmaking expressing a decent amount of intellectual ambition in the context of a rousing adventure story.
THE TIME MACHINE (1960). Produced and directed by George Pal. Screenplay by David Duncan, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Cast: Rod Taylor, Alan Young, Yvette Mimieux, Sebastian Cabot, Tom Helmore, Whit Bissell, Doris Lloyd.