Once Upon a Time…
Published in 1895, Herbert George Wells’ “The Time Machine” was the seminal time travel story that spawned/inspired several film adaptations and various TV series (“Doctor Who” “Quantum Leap”). There have been at least four live-action adaptations of which I’m familiar, including an obscure 1949 movie, the popular 1960 MGM film, an absolutely atrocious 1978 NBC-TV production (you can YouTube it) and a big-budget 2002 Dreamworks version directed by none other than Simon Wells, the great-grandson of H.G. Wells himself (!).
There was also Nicholas Meyer’s brilliant 1979 movie “Time After Time,” which also spawned a mercifully short-lived recent TV series (it was all downhill after the pilot). While 1979’s “Time After Time” wasn’t an adaptation of Wells’ book, it featured Wells (as a character) and his imaginary time machine in an all-new story. Like Pal’s film, the film also reimagined Wells as an inventor.
Rather than go into length on all of the works inspired by Wells’ book, I’m going to focus primarily on one; arguably the most faithful adaptation of the novel to date, director George Pal’s 1960 film of “The Time Machine.” It was the version I remember watching many times on television as a kid, and it was the version that got me to read and appreciate the Wells’ novel in my teens.
The Time Machine (1960).
Beginning at a dinner party on the 5th of January, 1900, several dinner guests are attending a dinner party for their absentee host, an inventor chap named “George” Wells (using the middle name of author Wells). The guests, including Dr. Hillyer (Sebastian Cabot), Walter (Whit Bissell), Mr. Bridewell (Tom Helmore) and George’s best friend, David Filby (Alan Young of “Mr. Ed” fame), were given specific instructions by George’s elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett (Doris Lloyd) to be present this very evening.
George (Rod Taylor of “The Birds”) arrives through a back door, looking like he’s been to hell and back. Bruised, bloodied and with clothing tattered, he insists on getting something to drink before he tells the long tale of where he’s been for the past five days. His guests gather around, and he begins…
Told in flashback, the story begins five days earlier, on New Year’s Eve, the 31st of December, 1899. A night George had previously gathered his friends to show off a new invention; a tiny prototypical machine with which he proposes traveling through time. Using a cigar and Dr. Hillyard’s own finger to activate the small device, he sends it forward through time and it disappears from the table. Most of his friends dismiss this as nothing more than a parlor trick of some kind, and they leave for their various New Year’s Eve plans… except for George’s loyal friend Filby, who is worried that his old friend might tempt the laws of providence with his newfound power. Filby asks that George promise not leave the his house for the night… and George promises only that he won’t leave his laboratory (who knew George also practiced law?).
After apologizing to Filby for his brusque behavior, George says goodnight to his best friend and then hurries to his laboratory…where a full-size version of the time machine awaits! Eager to leave his own war-torn century, George grips the crystalline control lever of his machine and applies forward pressure to propel the gorgeously-appointed, elegantly Victorian machine forward in time. The designer of the iconic machine is the late Wah Chang, the brilliant design artist who also created the iconic props for the original Star Trek TV series (phaser, tricorder, communicator) only a few years later.
As George pushes the control lever the time machine’s rear dish begins to turn, and clocks and wax candles advance and dwindle, respectively. Day and night begin to flicker like a strobe light. Snails rocket across George’s garden. A mannequin at Filby’s department store across the street rapidly changes clothes. George decides to make several stops. Yes, there are many nagging ‘issues’ with the time travel sequences; winter frost staying on George’s sky windows year round, day/night rapidly passing while people are only slightly speeded up, etc. but the overall effect just ‘feels’ right. Like the Millennium Falcon jumping into hyperspace; you shouldn’t be able to ‘see’ anything traveling faster than light itself, but those streaking stars just look so damn cool! There’s a reason this low-budget movie (less than $1 million) won the Visual Effects Oscar in its year. Kudos to the late Gene Warren (“The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao”) and his talented crew.
The first of which is in 1917, the time of the First World War. George finds his lab boarded up, his house left vacated by his friend Filby, who’d turned his missing friend’s home into a memorial park for his possible return… someday. Getting his bearings in a not-so-distant London, George then sees (and hears) an obnoxious motor-car being driven by Filby’s doppelgänger who is, in fact, a Filby’s young son Jamie grown up, in uniform, leaving soon to fight “at the front.”
It’s here that George learns of the death of his best friend, James’ father, who was killed in the war a year earlier. A melancholy George decides it’s time to leave this depressing near-future filled with war…
Settling back into his time machine, George decides to go further into the future, in time to see his lab destroyed by the blitz of World War 2, and he slows the machine to another stop in the year 1966. The “London” setting in this film looks waaaay too much like sunny southern California, but no matter…it’s a fantasy film, so you ride with it. The actor’s accents are all over the map as well (American, Australian, etc) but Pal’s adaptation is a less literal, slightly more juvenile fantasy version of Wells’ classic dystopian novel. I saw Pal’s “The Time Machine” on TV many times in my childhood, and back then I couldn’t care less if London looked sunny, or if Londoner George had a thin, almost Yank Aussie accent. The movie had me at time travel…
This near-future London (the film came out in 1960, mind you) is another era threatened by war, this time a nuclear one. Wailing bomb sirens fill the streets as citizens run to the shelters to await the “all clear.” George once again briefly encounters James Filby, now a panicked old man rushing to get into a shelter before “the mushrooms begin sprouting.” After a brief recollection of each other, the elderly Filby scurries off to shelter, leaving George to fend for himself as a nuclear blast devastates London.
The atomic bombs set off volcanic activity, causing flaming lava to flow into the streets of irradiated London. George hurries into his machine right before lava is about to engulf him and his creation. Bits of volcanic stock footage are mixed with Gene Warren’s miniatures and optical effects to present a Saturday afternoon adventure-matinee vision of a nuclear holocaust (this isn’t “The Day After”). All of these stops prior to the year 802,701 A.D were not in Wells’ original novel, but were added in to give this version more relevance in the atomic age. They also serve to help reinforce George’s wish to escape into the far future…to find a utopia where war no longer exits.
Pressing hard on the lever, George finds himself inside of a solid mountain created by encroaching lava flows. After thousands of centuries of waiting in darkness for natural erosion to occur, the mountain eventually gives way to blue skies and green grass, as George stops the machine too suddenly in the aforementioned year of 802,701 A.D, causing it to spin and topple on a grassy lawn… a lawn in front of a large bronze pedestal of a large eerie-looking Sphinx statue. George carefully unscrews his crystalline control lever and stows it in his coat pocket to ensure that no random passerby goes accidentally era-hopping in his machine. He then heads off to explore this far-off future London…
George notes that the Earth has rebounded from mankind’s devastating wars, and seemed more bountiful than ever before…with lush foliage and trees laden with fruit everywhere. The Earth of 802,701 is a seemingly deserted Garden of Eden. George makes his way up a flight of stairs into a deserted, dilapidated domed building full of tables, empty plates and fruit… clearly a banquet setting of some kind. Tapping ceramic plates against tables to get someone, anyone’s attention, George wonders where the would-be diners might be hiding…
Wandering outside, George eventually hears voices of people laughing and playing by a stream. A group of blonde, ridiculously caucasian folks called “Eloi” (who are very different from the smaller, graceful, barely-human creatures of Wells’ novel) are having themselves a fine time in the great outdoors. Suddenly there is the sound of screams as a young woman named “Weena” (a not–quite 18-year old Yvette Mimeux) is drowning! Weena’s ‘friends’ sit idly by, thoroughly not giving a damn, as the heroic George rushes into the river to save her. Pulling her ashore, he offers a soaking wet Weena his coat. She then mutely gets up and walks away, as unconcerned with her own near-death experience as her fellow Eloi.
Later on, George returns to the banquet hall and sees the Eloi chowing down on their fruit lunch. He tries to ask questions about their government and culture, but is met largely by blank stares until he mentions books… they have books! George demands to see their books, so they take him to the vestiges of a library reading room, where a despondent George sees spines of rotted paper, which crumble into dust upon his inspection. “Yes, they do tell me everything about you,” he bitterly quips. Leaving the library and returning to the steps of the banquet hall in despair, he is surprised to see Weena approach him, showing hints of an emotion almost resmembing gratitude. They engage in a brief conversation, where he learns some rudimentary facts about her people, and about their near-total lack of curiosity. As night approaches, the two walk back to the location of George’s machine, but it’s missing! George notices tracks which reveal that his machine has been dragged into the heavy locked doors of the bronze pedestal under the Sphinx.
Weena begins to grow fearful as night encroaches. George tells her that only children are afraid of the dark, but he soon learns there is reason to be afraid, as the two are being stalked by beady-eyed creatures in the bushes…one of whom tries to abduct Weena, but is scared off by George, who lights a fire and utterly terrifies the nocturnal creatures. Weena tries to put her hand into the flames, not realizing they’ll burn her, since she has never seen fire before.
Wanting to learn how the human race he left behind reached this current atrophied state, Weena leads him to a former museum, full of both antiquated and unknown futuristic pieces of technology (including the ‘astro-navigation’ console of “Forbidden Planet”). With Weena’s help, he also finds oral records of the ‘past’ (his future) in the form of ‘talking rings’… small spinning rings that activate a record-keeping machine (very different from the book’s hall of ‘talking mirrors’, which eventually appeared in the 2002 version). As he tosses the spinning rings onto a glowing table, a voice is heard…
The ‘talking rings’ tell the story of the centuries of war that followed the atomic strike of 1966. “Oxygen factories” soon ran down, and humanity of centuries-past faced two choices; taking its chances on the surface, or finding sanctuary below in darkened shelters. In the book, it was the separation of ‘haves and have-nots’ which led to the bifurcation and devolution of humankind into Morlocks and Eloi. However the 1960 film puts the blame squarely on nuclear war, which divides the human race between surface-dwelling holocaust survivors and those who took their chances underground. An ever-diminishing food supply led to the Morlock’s eventual cannibalism of the surface dwelling Eloi (“Eloi” was the book’s original corruption of “elite”… the effete capitalists who devolve into human cattle). This revision lacks much of the political and social commentary of Wells’ novel, but the 1960 version is more about action-adventure and the threat of nuclear war than anything else. This version was made only a couple of short years before the Cuban Missile Crisis, after all…
The following day, a determined George wants nothing more than to retrieve his machine from the Morlocks. He finds access to the Morlocks’ massive lair through concrete wells leading underground. These accessways are also how the Morlocks snatch Eloi during the evening hours, when the nocturnally-visioned creatures can see aboveground. As George begins to climb down the eroded metal rungs into the wells, he hears the same, wailing atomic sirens he heard in London of 1966. Hurrying back up to surface, he finds the Eloi wandering like herded sheep into the temporarily opened bronze doors at the base of the Sphinx. Weena is missing, apparently having already gone inside of the pedestal. Trying to snap the hypnotized Eloi out of their somnambulist stride, he tells them that the bomb sirens belong to a long-dead era, and that there is no reason for the docile Eloi to walk right into the dangerous, deadly lair of the Morlocks. The Eloi stare at him blankly, not realizing that he is trying to prevent their slaughter.
Going below to look for both Weena and his machine, George finds skeletons of long-devoured Eloi, and sees the helpless, towheaded twits being herded by Morlock whips towards their final destination. Intervening on the Eloi’s behalf, George takes on the Morlocks, using torches to ward them off, and eventually his bare fists to knock the crap out of the white-haired, glowing-eyed troglodytes. The Morlocks, while arguably comical today, were fairly effective when I was a kid. Their appearance is more creepy and disturbing than terrifying. The Morlocks are all played by short, stocky actors (all from my genome, apparently) who are painted blue with white hair atop their heads and arms. Their hands are gloved in three-fingered prosthetics. The Morlock faces appear to be made from a uniform mask mold. It’s all very low-tech, but works well enough in giving the Morlocks a sufficiently alien-yet-human appearance. Given all of the blonde and even white hair seen in the film, I’m guessing no one in the entire production team imagined a future where nonwhite skin might prevail…? Sad comment of the time.
As George fights off the brutish Morlocks to save Weena, her fellow Eloi are snapped out of their stupor and begin feel a spark of revolution against their cannibalistic overlords. An Eloi curls his hand into a fist and joins the fight. Taking Morlock whips and wielding torches, the tide begins to turn. A Morlock is set aflame, and eventually their underground complex is set ablaze! Scurrying back up to the surface, George is the hero of the Eloi as they celebrate their liberation from the Morlock’s dinner table. While they appreciate no longer being the main course, the Eloi are also facing the prospect of toil and labor for the first time in their lives, since the Morlocks used to provide all their basic material needs prior to this revolt. The Eloi are facing their own expulsion from this twisted Garden of Eden. It’s a story endlessly repeated in popular science fiction; from “Doctor Who” (the Daleks and the Thals in “The Mutants”) to “Star Trek” (the Children of Vaal from TOS’ “The Apple”) and beyond. George doesn’t address exactly how the Eloi will feed themselves or even make their own clothing, but more on that later…
In a scene that I honestly wish did not make the final cut, Weena has a flirtation with her liberator/father figure George. She asks abysmally sexist questions about how women ‘wear their hair’ in his time, and whether or not she’d ‘be pretty.’ Granted, Weena is supposed to have the intelligence of a child, but that only makes George’s flirtation with her all the more creepy and inappropriate… like Humbert Humbert babysitting Lolita. In Wells’ book, the Time Traveller (he is never named) has a more paternal fondness for Weena, as she was described as small and childlike, despite her age. Then again, the book’s Weena wasn’t described as a sexy, barely–legal Hollywood starlet, either. Yvette Mimeux is rumored to have lied about her age to get the part, as she was only 18 at the time of the film’s release… yikes. Weena also manages to avoid her terrible fate in the accidental forest fire, as described in the novel. That might’ve been a little too jarring for younger viewers, for whom the movie was inclusively targeting as well.
George’s budding makeout session with Weena is mercifully terminated by one of her fellow Eloi, who bellows “Look!” George follows the young blond surfer dude and finds his time machine inside of the open bronze doors of the Sphinx’s pedestal! He rushes toward it, and begins to inspect the machine only to have the doors slam shut. The Eloi are unable to help him, as George is left in the darkened chamber with a few surviving (pissed-off) Morlocks approaching. George punches (and kills) one of the glass-jawed creatures, and then hops into the saddle of his machine. Screwing the control lever back on, he gets the hell out of Dodge by zooming forward in time, watching the decay of the dead Morlock as he does so (a great bit of stop-motion animation, by the way). Realizing he’s going the wrong way, he reverses the machine, zooming it and himself all the way back to his appointed dinner time of January 5th, 1900, where the flashback story intersects the present…
George’s friends don’t quite know what to make of his fantastic story. Some take it as a tall tale, others as a delusion of some kind. George offers a tiny bit of tangible evidence of his traipsing through time…a flower from the future, given to him by Weena. Amateur botanist Filby can’t quite place the species, and wonders aloud how the flower could’ve bloomed in the dead of a London winter. Realizing the lateness of the hour, the gentlemen guests begin to file out in order to catch cabs while they still can. Filby believes his friend George has truly traveled in time, and turns back into the house when he hears a noise…the noise of the time machine departing. Mrs. Watchett is also disturbed by the sound and realizes George has gone. Filby notices a few missing books on George’s shelf…both he and Mrs. Watchett wonder which books George could’ve chosen to take with him ‘back to the future’ (I’m guessing books on agriculture and basic survival skills…?).
The Test of Time.
It wasn’t until I read Wells’ novel in my teen years that I realized the 1960 film, while still the most faithful version to this date, takes major liberties with the original story… both in execution and thematically. Wells was making a statement against naked capitalism, with an oppressed underclass that would eventually feed on the privileged if not treated fairly. The bifurcation of humanity wasn’t due to any atomic wars, but rather to human greed and the inherent cruelty of pure, unbridled capitalism without a safety net of some kind. Wells was, after all, an unapologetic socialist. This is a theme entirely missing from the movie, which, granted, would’ve been a difficult sell to make coming only a few short years after the Red Scare and blacklists of 1950s Hollywood. Perhaps screenwriter David Duncan was simply watching out for his own ass in those days when he adapted Wells’ book for George Pal, or perhaps he willfully chose to modernize it by including the nuclear war element, just as 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” did with author Pierre Boulle’s novel, when it chose to end the film with the ‘monkey planet’ being revealed as a post-nuclear holocaust Earth.
It’s also perfectly understandable why the 1960 movie completely shears off a large chunk of the novel’s original ending, when the unnamed Time Traveller flees millions of years into the future after leaving the year 802,701. He sees a blood red beach, where giant crab-like creatures eat random passing butterflies before they come to realize the just-arrived Time Traveller may be an alternative food source. The scene is lit by a dim, dying sun which casts a permanent twilight hue to the sky. This addition would’ve been prohibitively expensive and perhaps impossible to realize successfully on film in those days, so I understand why it was excised. While I would very much like to see this ending filmed someday (especially with today’s filmmaking technology), it exists quite vividly, and without budgetary constraints, in my imagination…where it hasn’t aged a day since I was 15 years old. The scene serves to reinforce the novel’s overall feeling of entropy, and while admittedly a downer, it’s far more spectacular than the novel’s central focus in the year 802,701 A.D.
For anyone interested in what may very well be the most faithful adaptation of the novel, hunt for a CD copy or get a digital download of the Alien Voices radio play adaptation of “The Time Machine”, as read by the late Leonard Nimoy, John de Lancie, and their entire “Alien Voices” acting troupe, which had their heyday in the mid-1990s with other classic adaptations as well as two Star Trek-themed “Spock Meets Q” audio comedies. While not visual of course, the radio play of “The Time Machine” does include many scenes and themes deleted from all of the popular film adaptations. The link to the Alien Voices site is here: http://alienvoices.net
George Pal’s “The Time Machine” was a staple of my youth. I was a bit too young to catch it theatrically, as it was released six years before I was born, but I watched it on weekend TV airings whenever I could. It was one of those ‘appointment TV’ programs that you finished your chores and homework early for, like “The Wizard of Oz”, which only aired once a year in those days. With entire libraries of movies and shows to peruse whenever they please, today’s generation might have no inkling of what I’m blathering about, and that’s perfectly understandable. Like George and the Eloi, I often feel like the product of a curiously quaint and forgotten age. Fortunately, the tech-savvy youth of today are a lot more clever than my generation. Despite the bad rap they get in popular media, I sincerely doubt they are in danger of becoming anyone’s dinner… they’ll be too busy helping their grandparents set up their new laptops and smartphones for that.
While the 1960 film adaptation of “The Time Machine” isn’t perfect, it is the most faithful adaptation to date of the Wells’ classic novel. Even the 2002 film, which had over 30 years of improved technology going for it, as well as H.G. Wells’ own grandson Simon Wells as director, didn’t quite stick the landing. Wells left the production near completion, and was replaced by an uncredited Gore Verbinski. A fine cast, led by Guy Pearce, Orlando Jones, Jeremy Irons (as the David Bowie-esque “Morlock King”) and Irish pop star Samantha Mumba are saddled with a mediocre screenplay written by John Logan (“Gladiator” “Star Trek: Nemesis”), who’s done far better since (2012’s “Skyfall”).
Perhaps the best legacy of the 1960 film for me is that it might motivate some impressionable young viewers to check out the source novel, as it did for me. And who knows? Maybe one of those kids reading the novel today, for homework or for pleasure, might be inspired to make an even better cinematic (or streaming miniseries) adaptation from Wells’ timeless 125 year-old story…
17 Comments Add yours
Thanks for sharing, and thanks for the kind words.
Wow! Very good work about “The Time Machine (1960)”, a nice homage for its 60 years anniversary.
Thanks for the kind words. 🙏.
The Time Machine has long been a favorite of mine, and it’s nice to see others appreciate it as well.
As the most original sci-fi tale about the possibilities and all our hopes for changing the future, I can still appreciate it.
Fun movie! Have watched it many times as a youth ! Rod Taylor could have been James Bond….He is said to have turned it down as it was “Beneath him” and regretted probably to the day he died ! As a kid I thought “The Bearcats” with him and Dennis Cole was the coolest thing since sliced bread , even if it only ran a year . ( I have the DVD’s somewhere around here !) ,,,was miffed to find out the Stutz Bearcat they used was a George Barris build only to realize later when I had a Ford Model T that using a real one never would have flown……
I suppose Rod Taylor could have made a very good James Bond. I know of a lot of actors who turned down Doctor Who for their own reasons even though they could have been great. It’s depressing when a well-known actor may think that an iconic role is beneath him.