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The Time Machine (1960)

Reviewed by David Longhorn
Posted March 6, 2005

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Based on the novel by H. G. Wells

I first saw this film when I was very small and not at all cynical, and it brought a tear to my eye. It still does, which is a measure of how successfully the rather underrated George Pal handled Wells’ first and most audacious novel. The beginning and the end of Pal's The Time Machine are (more or less) faithful to the original story. Wells’ nameless protagonist is given the name George, and makes a few pithy comments about the Boer War, but is otherwise the distracted genius of the book. His discussion of time as the fourth dimension is well-handled, and the demonstration of the model Time Machine remains a magical moment.

The full-scale Time Machine is one of the iconic designs of big-screen science fiction cinema. (I’ve always wanted one of my own - preferably a working model.) The machine embodies the Victorian ideas of progress and restless motion. Not bad for some flashing lights and a rotating metal parasol. The DVD, incidentally, has a good featurette on the making and ultimate fate of the prop machine.

The time-lapse photography used during the time travel sequences has also stood the test of, well, time. Stop motion photography is nothing new to us, but it was a relative novelty at the time and is used to good effect. A snail whizzing by and the rapid changes to the attire of a shop window mannequin sum up the appeal of time travel - to transcend our everyday limitations, and acquire a godlike perspective.

As the film departs from the original story it becomes a little uneven. The episode when George stops during the First World War and mistakes his friend Filby’s son for the man he knew - and who has died in action - is very effective. The ‘Cold War turns hot’ sequence in which he encounters the same man as ‘atomic satellites’ zoom towards London is distinctly ropey. But, again, the visual effects are pretty good. It’s notable, however, that Pal’s time machine is trapped in solid rock for many millennia, presumably because he didn’t have the budget to put geological change on screen.

Then we arrive in the year 802,701. This is an unimaginably vast leap of time and Wells needed it because, in his version of events, Darwinian forces gradually turned the human races rich and poor - the haves and have-nots - into two distinct species. Pal’s version takes the rough edges off Wells’ bleak vision by having the Eloi remain essentially human, if rather insipid. A recording of Orson Welles explains quite neatly why global war led to two human species, and the use of air-raid sirens as a means of herding the Eloi into the Morlock caverns is a nice conceit. [Editor's note: Perhaps Orson Welles was used in the UK release of the film, but here in the US we heard Paul Frees. - Galen]

The cannibal Morlocks are much bigger and nastier than Wells’ monsters, but you’ve got to have some action and that means baddies big enough to knock the hero down. The showdown fight sequences are well-choreographed, although the Morlocks’ defeat seems a tad easy. The love affair between George and the insipid Weena is admittedly a low point, but romance is always required in mainstream movies.

Wells’ Time Traveller simply left the Eloi and Morlocks to their fate, which was of course extinction, in common with all earthly life. Somehow I can’t see a Hollywood executive giving that the green light, so George returns to his own time, picks up some useful books, and goes back - i.e. forward - to build a new society. Thus we get the obligatory uplifting ending for a mainstream movie, complete with an actual line from the original story: ‘One cannot help but wonder.’

While more cynical viewers might find any number of faults with this film, it remains a real classic of science fiction cinema. Its heart is in the right place, and of all the movie treatments of Wells’ stories, this is perhaps the best.

Related Links:
David's review of the remake, The Time Machine (2002)


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George Pal

David Duncan

August 17, 1960

Rod Taylor
Alan Young
Yvette Mimieux
Sebastian Cabot
Whit Bissell
Doris Lloyd

Oscar (Special FX)
Hugo nomination

Full Credits at IMDb

On DVD & Blu-Ray

A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.