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Friday, 24 May 2013

In loving appreciation of 'The Time Machine' (1960)

I decided this week to take a break from championing all things independent sci-fi & horror filming to talk about another one of the many loves of my science-fiction life. I think like many children, I chanced upon the works of H.G.Wells through some wondrous movie adaptations before ever reading his books; The first men on the Moon, The Island of lost souls, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man…… and this beauty, my favourite of them all; The Time Machine.

The movie holds a special place in my sci-fi affections for two reasons. Firstly, it seems to have served as a much needed 'crutch' to lean upon in times of emotional uncertainty. For some reason, it has always been one of my 'go to' films where I could be certain that it would either soothe, inspire or provoke whatever emotions needed to be provoked at that particular time. I'm not sure why other films that I love with equal measure aren't on that 'go to' list, while this has one pride of place on that list……….hmmmm, maybe this blog entry will serve as yet another much needed self-indulgent analysis of yours truly :-).

This masterpiece was made in 1960 and directed by the excellent George Pal, who had not only already directed the first H.G Wells adaptation of The War of the Worlds, but was also responsible for a notable body of work with perhaps most famously, the wonderful When Worlds Collide.

OK lads, but size isn't everything you know...…

The story begins at the very beginning of the 20th century as a group of well-to-do individuals meet at the house of a certain George Wells ( see what they did there?), who has asked them to attend his dinner party. However, George isn't yet present so, in accordance with his prior wishes, they begin without him. Not before long, a clearly stressed and exhausted George stumbles into the dining room and so begins to recount a quite remarkable tale of time travel and adventure. 

Only a week before he had tried to persuade his friends that he had mastered the the problem of time travel, even to the point of showing off his time machine. The problem was that his friends didn't exactly take him seriously, both on the notion of time travel, but also on the little fact that his time machine was, well, little. It measured only a few centimetres high and when he set it to travel in time and it disappears, they mock him believing it to be nothing more than a cheap parlour trick- poor George.

And not a flux capacitor in sight…..

Undeterred, our idealistic hero, who is disillusioned with modern industrial society that seems hell bent on destroying itself, decides to use the larger version he has already built to travel to the future. George finds himself roaming in time through London via two world wars until the year 1966 when nuclear holocaust is finally on the way to destroying humanity. Trapped by the consequences of global catastrophe he has to travel to the far distant future - to the year 802,701 to be exact. Here the world is divided between the surface-dwelling, simple, and without exception, good-looking Eloi and the hideous, underground, Eloi eating, nasty looking Morlocks. Soon, he meets Wenna (Yvette Mimieux) one of the Eloi people and confronts the Morlocks - It's not exactly yippie Kai yay from this moment on, but let's say George kicks some arse.

Take That haven't aged well by the year 802,701..
For those two of you in the world who haven't seen this movie, I won't give away the ending….well actually I will, kind of….. The film ends where we began, at the dinner party. It turns out that George has used the time machine to escape back to January 5, 1900 in time to meet his old friends for dinner and to tell them of his time travelling adventure. Naturally, they really don't believe a word of what he tells them and abruptly leave, with only his closest friend, Filby, showing some belief in his story. The very last scene of the movie sees George departing again in the time machine, but this time possibly forever. Filby and the housekeeper see that three books are unaccounted for from the library. It seems that George needs these three books for life with the Eloi and Wenna.  We are all are left to hypothesise which books were taken and why. Who says that Science fiction cannot be intelligent and thought provoking?

There is much debate amongst Wells aficionados in regard to the this, or any for that matter, adaptation of his books. Whilst it is true that this movie moves away at times from his often bleak dystopian story about how society was on a one way road to oblivion if steps weren't taken to change our way of thinking. At the same time the story contains a thinly veiled vilification of British class system. Yes, the movie deviates at times away from Well's vision, but it still retains enough both in plot and acting performance to retain some of the original story's premise and message. 

Not only that, the cinematography is sumptuous, as is the director Pal's eye for the meticulous detail of Victorian life and whilst the special effects may seem a little dated in some parts (as does the make-up of the Eloi) there is THAT sequence that still never fails to deliver an emotional punch. 

The scene shows George in the initial joy and excitement of travelling through the early years of the 20th century. Across the street from his time machine is a clothes shop, in the window of which is a mannequin. The time travel scene remains a triumph of filming to this day, with the shop window mannequin demonstrating a succession of fashion and style as the years fly by in seconds. The sequence is adorable, ingenious and effective in equal measures. This particular sequence, plus other equally inventive time-lapse scenes were enough to earn the best photography Oscar that year.

Originally, the film's producers wanted an established star for the lead role - David Niven to name but one, was muted at the time for the role. However, it was decided that a younger, more athletic actor was needed and the Australian actor Rod Taylor is simply magnificent in the role. It could be a disservice to Taylor in saying that he never

bettered himself as he enjoyed a rich and varied career as an actor. All I would say is that the mixture of action, sensitivity and humanity needed for what is a deceptively complex part was carried off with distinction by a fine actor.

However, for myself and many others,  the real star of the film is the time machine itself. It is a thing of genuine beauty.
I want this and I want this now...

MGM art director Bill Ferrari created the Machine, a sled-like design with a big, rotating vertical wheel behind the red plush seat, together with with a plethora of knobs and levers that is a attention to a detailers wet dream. It is a movie prop that has become an integral part of the wider entertainment history. Even those few that may never have seen the whole of this wonderful movie will recognise the truly beautiful design of the machine and from which film it comes from. It is a contraption that quite simply screams out Victorian Steampunk charm. 

If anyone was to give me a full size, half size or even mini-sized Time machine copy, I would love them forever.


  1. The movie you featured here is the grandfather of movies I love like Back to the future.
    Got to say that yes this genre of science fiction that pertains to time travel is very intelligent.
    My favorite feature in relation to the theme of time travel is Donnie Darko. I think this was a hyper intelligent movie since it mixed elements of science fiction, psychiatry, spirituality, of course it was horrific and traumatizing,the way this movie handled time travel as a theme was masterful.
    I am not sure if the movie you in this post was as well developed as Donnie Darko was, but that is not a way of insulting these movies, every genre must develop. You could say these films you reviewed here are important forerunners and inspiration for films like Donnie Darko.
    You are a very professional reviewer of horror and science fiction and you could present your own show. Its a great idea to put all these blogposts into a kindle and sell them on
    I think your reviews deserve to be read by a wider population. Well done Stuart.

  2. Look we are both academics and we both can appreciate the idea of scholars contributions.
    I am totally biased I simply adore Donnie Darko. Actually it was Donnie Darko that seized me by the lapels and said Mike this is a great theme respect it. Plus the science and literature teachers were great and the way it took the piss out of self help was classic. I could talk and talk about Donnie Darko. Thing is Donnie Darko gave time travel as a theme a spiritual dimension and a very unselfish dimension it was about making things right averting tragedies and saving lives in the name of time travel.
    I think this kind of writing is crucial. You know we should not just want to travel to the past or the future for utterly selfish reasons.
    I adored Donnie Darko the way it handled time travel with science and schizophrenic delusions, giving this film a very horror based feel.
    I love horror so if any other time travel piece mixes horror with time travel I am first in line.
    I wrote in the last comment "You in the post" should have wrote "you posted" I am painfully exhausted writing and working all day from 7 am till ten so I am utterly tired.
    Goodnight guys time for sleepy boys for Mike in Ireland