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From the Vaults: 'The Time Machine' (1960)

November 8, 2010 |  1:49 am

Timemachineposter Nope, not the Guy Pearce version from 2002, lovely as he and his cheekbones may be. This is the classic adaptation directed by George Pal, who'd adapted H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" a few years earlier. Wells' "The Time Machine" seems at first like it'd be a lower-budget idea -- you don't need to design Martian war machines this time, just a fancy little chair -- but Pal's use of time-lapse photography is pretty impressive even today. Plus his storytelling is excellent, riffing nicely on Wells' unbeatable premise. I was exhausted and cranky when I put this movie in my DVD player, and I still had a blast.

Wells doesn't name his protagonist, so the movie thoughtfully gives Rod Taylor's time traveler the name "H. George Wells." Aww! (Three years later, Taylor would go on to captivate Tippi Hedren in "The Birds." Here, he comes across like a proto-Bill Pullman, round-chinned and lovably earnest.) On New Year's Eve 1899, George gathers several close friends  and tries to convince them he's invented a time machine. When nobody believes him, he bids them good night, climbs in alone and sets off to explore the future!

I haven't read Wells' novella but my understanding is that the action heads immediately into the distant, sci-fi-style future. Since we're watching a 1960 version of an 1895 story, Pal has George make a couple stops of historical interest: 1917, where George is appalled by World War I; and 1940, where he's appalled by World War II. Most chillingly, the action stops again in the 1960s, where George is perplexed by an air-raid siren -- and then watches in horror as a mushroom cloud brings civilization to an end.

Timemachinetaylor George's machine -- unable to move through space, only through time -- is somehow trapped in a mountain by the nuclear destruction, and since he's still hell-bent on visiting the future on his maiden voyage (instead of popping back to 1899 and hauling his machine a few feet into the living room), he hurtles forward thousands of years until the mountain has eroded. Here the action reunites with that of the original story, as George meets the peaceful, passive Eloi and the violent, subterranean Morlocks. Eek!

It sounds really episodic and bizarre -- and there is sort of a break when we finally get to the Eloi era, with George spending a lot more time there than he has anywhere else. But the pacing of this movie really works. We hang out with him and his 1899 friends for quite a while before the action even starts, and we get a good sense of their passion for knowledge and inquiry. George's motivation is very clear: He's just curious. And he's tired of the ravages of the Boer War and anxious to help humanity find peace (though you should ask the Morlocks if he really believes in nonviolence). His mission is kind of sweet.

George is pretty adorable on his journey, too. To help display the spiffy time-lapse photography, he spends a lot of time in his machine looking out his lab window as the flowers in his garden open and close; the seasons pass in rapid succession; and a department-store mannequin changes clothes and then styles of clothes. ("That's a dress?" he muses at one point.) He's not so much a stop-and-smell-the-flowers guy as a watch-the-flowers-speed-by guy. And when he leaves the machine to explore whatever time he's in, he's got this great gee-whiz air that makes you worry for him without being exasperated by him.

Timemach   But once among the Eloi, he quickly loses patience with their passivity. "Thousands of years building and rebuilding," he splutters at them. "For what? So you can swim and dance and play!" He's like a grouchy Midwesterner wandering into Malibu. The bleach-blonde Eloi just blink at him, then resume sunbathing and eating fresh fruit. (I also love the bit where, lured by a promise of a library, he's taken to see a shelf full of dusty, ancient, disintegrating books. Unmindful of their historical value to a prospective Eloi civilization, George sweeps an entire shelf of them into dust so he can bang his head on it in despair. He totally needs to take a chill pill.)

Bizarrely, this adaptation did make me long a bit for my least favorite part of the 2002 version: Jeremy Irons as the lead Morlock. I know, I know -- it wasn't brilliant but it would be nice for George to have an antagonist, or at least someone to talk intelligently with during the last part of the movie. He's stuck with the fetching Eloi female Weena (Yvette Mimieux), who can't make much conversation beyond asking how women of the 1800s style their hair. ("I don't know. Sort of up?" replies George.)

But these are minor quibbles. This movie is a fine romp! Oh, and you can also see future "Mr. Ed" star Alan Young as George's best friend Filby (also as Filby's grown son, Wee Jamie). And speaking of animals, did you know Rod Taylor does the voice of Pongo in "101 Dalmatians"? OK, I might have a crush on that earnest round chin.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

PS - Arye & fibber, your insane recommendations from last week have been noted and filed away! Much appreciated. Keep them coming -- you know my periods of interest here.