George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is one of those films that’s as good today as it was the day it first premiered.
Pal, a Hungarian born animator who emigrated to the United States, was the perfect choice to bring Wells’ intriguing 1895 novel to the screen.
Initially known for his Puppetoons, a series of innovative stop motion animations, including such famous and beloved shorts as Tulips Shall Grow (1942), John Henry and the Inky-Poo (1946) and Tubby the Tuba (1947), Pal ultimately switched to live action films due to the great expense involved in producing the Puppetoons.
Pal’s live action films, including two science fiction classics, When Worlds Collide (1951) and War of the Worlds (1951), were known for their very convincing special effects. Although he no longer produced Puppetoons shorts, he still utilized his stop motion animation techniques, which reappeared under the Pupetoons name in his fairy-tale movie Tom Thumb (1958).
Pal’s live action work culminated in The Time Machine, which utilized special effects, including Oscar-winning time lapse photography, to tell a mostly faithful version of H.G. Wells’ novel.
The story is told in flashback after a disheveled English time traveler, played by Rod Taylor and fittingly named H. George Wells, reappears to his friends, in 1900, after disappearing for several days beginning at the end of 1899. As the tale unfolds, we learn that Wells, an inventor, created an ornate and beautiful time machine that takes him more than 800,000 years into the future.
Pal expertly uses time lapse photography to capture the passage of years as George sits in his machine, looking through his workshop window, watching the change in women’s fashions through the years by following the progress of a mannequin in a shop window across the street from his house.
Although George’s journey through time starts out lightheartedly enough, it soon darkens when he stops in 1917, and learning of World War I, which will claim the life of his closest friend. He then stops in 1940, in the midst of the London Blitz, before moving on to 1966, when a nuclear war breaks out.
Barely escaping with his life, George travels far into the future, stopping in a seeming Eden-like paradise, full of gentle, blonde, vegetarian people called the Eloi. Utterly without guile, curiosity, gumption or knowledge of anything but their immediate surroundings, these delicate creatures are content to spend their lives playing, eating and making love without a care in the world.
They also have not the slightest bit of empathy or concern for their fellow human beings. George discovers this glaring character defect when an Eloi girl is drowning in a stream, and her companions make no effort to help her. George jumps in the stream and saves the girl, whose name is Weena, and is played by Yvette Mimieux. Ultimately, George falls in love with her.
In this strange sort of paradise, there is also a dark presence in the form of a gigantic sphinx sculpture that George initially assumes to be part of the Eloi’s religion. To George’s horror, he discovers that the sphinx has sirens that periodically go off, causing the Eloi to drop all they are doing and walk toward the sphinx in a hypnotic trance, entering into its interior through a portal with iron doors. Once those doors close and the sirens turn off, the Eloi within the sphinx are never seen again while those who remain outside go back to their mindlessly carefree existences.
George is appalled.
Over the course of his stay in the distant future, George discovers that the Eloi are actually no more than cattle being raised as food for hideous creatures called Morlocks who live underground and operate the machines that make the Eloi’s carefree existence possible.
Gradually, George deduces that the Eloi are the descended from England’s aristocracy, who disdained labor, while the Morlocks are the descendants of the working classes who operated the factories and machines that made Britain the great industrial power it was.
George resolves to teach the peaceful Eloi how to fight so they can overthrow the Morlocks’ tyranny. Of course, this is easier said than done since the Eloi don’t even understand the concept of fighting.
All of this leads to a thrilling conclusion that will leave you wishing there had been a sequel to this memorable film. Sadly, George Pal himself wanted to produce a sequel, but was never able to get this project off the ground before his death in 1980, 20 years after The Time Machine’s release.
Nevertheless, we can be more than happy with the wonderful film legacy Pal was able to leave us, and The Time Machine is one of his crown jewels.
It is not a perfect film. There are some very glaring plot holes in The Time Machine, including the strange ability of the futuristic Eloi to be able to speak and understand perfect 20th century English. Nevertheless, if you can suspend your disbelief long enough to allow Pal to work his film magic, you won’t be disappointed.
Perfection is not a perquisite for a classic film – and The Time Machine is every bit a classic.
Paul is a writer, editor and radio broadcaster with wide ranging interests including film, literature, politics, travel and history. Currently, he is managing editor of Washington Restaurant & Lodging magazine and produces and co-hosts the weekly DineNW radio show on Tacoma's KLAY AM. Additionally, you can hear him twice a week on New York Radio Korea where he explains U.S. politics to a Korean audience. He lives in Washington state.