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August 17, 2010

The Time Machine (1960)

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George Pal - 1960
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

I was eight years old when The Time Machine was released. I was set on seeing the movie after reading the Illustrated Classics comic book version dozens of times. And then my mother said, "No". It never occurred to me why she would not want me to see a movie based on an acknowledged classic novel. By my reasoning, if a film was based on a great book, that automatically made the film worth seeing. Begging, pleading, and a very dramatic temper tantrum finally proved persuasive. Spending that summer in Detroit with my grandparents, it was my grandmother who took me to see George Pal's film. I remember going by another theater in downtown Detroit, and seeing a poster of an attractive woman wearing nothing but a bra, and a fat guy telling the would be audience that they weren't allowed entrance once the movie started. I also recall seeing the last few minutes of the movie playing with The Time Machine, a film I would catch up with in total on DVD, Edgar G. Ulmer's Amazing Transparent Man.

As far as I was concerned, The Time Machine pretty much lived up to my expectations given some of the liberties taken with the story. But what I never told anyone was that part of the film freaked me out. It wasn't the morlocks that I found scary. What gnawed at me for a few youthful years was the scene of the "atomic war". Somehow, I got it in my mind that George Pal knew that life as we know it was going to end on August 16, 1966. Again, it never occurred to me to wonder how George Pal had this special knowledge. I just knew it had to be true. Part of me, especially at night when I was suppose to be sleeping, felt like Toshiro Mifune in I Live in Fear, cowering with awareness that the "big one" was going to be dropped any day. George Pal's taking advantage of one very impressionable eight year old boy never stopped me from rereading H.G. Wells' novel, or seeing Pal's movie several times.

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Seeing the film recently, what struck me was how easily fooled I was by the Oscar winning special effects. The imperfect matte photography, the use of models, the insertion of some documentary volcano footage, good enough to fool an eight year old boy who was clearly less sophisticated in such matters as Hollywood trickery. Then again, what might have been more important is what Wells and Pal were trying to say, regarding the human predilection for warfare. The scene of destruction by an "atomic satellite" was not in the novel, but isn't out of place either, with the incorporation of cold war anxiety giving the film more contemporary resonance between the Victorian era that bookends the film, and the far distant future of Eloi and Morlocks.

On the other hand, has anyone learned anything? George, the hero played by Rod Taylor, arguably teaches the basics of war to the Eloi, temporarily defeating the Morlocks with brute strength. For myself, the film raised a lot of questions that the film skirts over. All of the Eloi are college age, attractive and blond. While it's understood that there are no old Eloi, presumably because they are eaten by the Morlocks while still young, there are no baby Eloi being raised. Likewise, the Morlocks all appear to be male. There is also the question about a balance between the Eloi and Morlocks, based on an implied evolution by one of the talking rings. Being Morlock happy meals seems to be the trade off the Eloi have for a short life of leisure in the sun. The Morlocks might be ugly looking characters, but they are also the ones who make life sweet for the Eloi. I don't know how much of this was intended, but the Eloi seem to also stand in for California's evolving youth culture, blond youth, living lives revolving around pleasure and leisure, post-literate, interested only in life in the present tense, where there is no past or future. On the plus side for some is that the Eloi diet is decidedly vegan, and pairs of girls holding hands suggest that if you are young and reasonably cute, being lesbian will always be cool.

George Pal considered Paul Scofield, James Mason and Michael Rennie in the lead role before deciding on Rod Taylor. Shirley Knight was once considered for Weena. While the other actors may have had an edge in conveying the intellectual side of H. G. Wells, the younger Taylor seems like the better choice as a man of action. Rod Taylor isn't someone usually named in discussions about great screen actors, but having worked with Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Michelangelo Antonioni should be more than adequate validation. Whatever feelings I have about Yvette Mimieux pretty much rest on her presence in The Time Machine. That Mimieux made an impression on other boys of my generation could be felt nine years later when, at NYU, a group of freshman surreptitiously tended to a little kitten named Weena.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 17, 2010 12:37 AM


I always felt the Eloi and Morlocks represented idealists and realists, respectively. Sure, you can try and live an ideal life, with your head in the clouds, but sooner or later you'll be swallowed up by those vicious bastards who really run things!

Posted by: Patrick Galloway at August 18, 2010 04:01 PM