HG Wells wrote his ground-breaking novella The Time Machine in 1895, and George Pal’s movie of it, made in 1960, kept to that timeline, with of course a detour some 800,000 years into the future. The film was fairly sensational at the time of its release and won an Oscar for best special effects for the time-lapse images, particularly the disintegrating corpse (we’ll get to it). It took some liberties with several aspects of the story for the purpose of fitting a lot of science and a lot of fiction into under 100 minutes of film, but was generally true to the social commentary of the book, particularly the division of humanity into the effete intellectuals and the menacing workers. To this, the Director, George Pal, added a sixties flavour that was quite prescient for a work made in the first year of that decade, particularly a strong antiwar theme, including a horror of nuclear conflagration and resulting environmental devastation, which occupied a large part of the public imagination in the Cold War years.
Why is the Time Traveller interested in time travel?
“I don’t much care for the time I was born into. It seems people aren’t dying fast enough these days. They call upon science to invent new, more efficient weapons to depopulate the earth.”
Freud said that the two most profound taboos are incest and cannibalism, and he traced their origins, as linked events, to Darwin’s primal hordes and the murder and consumption of the father who was monopolising the women. Anyway, fast forward (very fast) to the year 802701 and incest seems to have had a revival (insofar as everyone looks the same) while cannibalism, somehow, is still frowned upon. Or rather it has gone underground.
The Time Traveller meets the humans of the future, the Eloi, who look like a bunch of beautiful but listless hippies, even though hippies did not exist for a few years after the film was made. A separate race of humans known as Morlocks live underground, shunning the daylight and any kind of fire. In their deep caverns, they have dark, satanic mills and chop up the Eloi, who are clothed and fed by the industrious Morlocks and then “harvested” at maturity. This is why there are no old Eloi, although there don’t seem to be any babies either, which makes the sustainability of the cannibal diet a little tricky.
But wait, are the Morlocks cannibals? To be a cannibal, you really need to eat the flesh of someone of your own species, and it seems unlikely that the Eloi and Morlocks are even related, having evolved into different niches centuries earlier. The Time Traveller, known only as George, is shown some “rings” (a form of data disks which require no energy except for a quick twirl with finger and thumb) which reveal that a 326 year war destroyed the environment, causing the human race to retreat underground. Some remained in the infernal depths as white-eyed demons, preying on the innocent, while those who got the subterranean homesick blues eventually returned to the surface when it cooled down. There they continued to be fed and clothed by the Morlocks, but when the factory whistle goes, they march glassy-eyed into the factory – as raw materials.
The Morlocks are dressed in baggy skin and flabby paunches and have bulging eyes and long, shaggy white hair. In fact, they look more like decrepit twenty-first century boomer hippies than the Eloi ever did. They are also no match for George who has his fists and his matches. There is also a love interest – Weena, (Yvette Mimieux), an Eloi girl whom George saves from drowning, since the Eloi can’t really see the problem if she does. He accuses her of being a child, then hopes to take her home with him on the Time Machine, a nice precursor to Lolita, which was filmed two years later. In 1895, in contrast, George has only male friends, and his off-sider is the Scotsman David Filby, played by Alan Young, who went on to be the side-kick of a horse in Mister Ed for many years.
All right, there are some very silly things in this movie, and leading the list is the fact that the Eloi all speak perfect twentieth century English. Considering we can barely understand Chaucerian English from 600 years ago, it seems a bit odd to be able to converse with the locals straight off the boat, as it were, some 801,000 years into the future. In the book, the TT has to learn the Eloi language, but there’s no time for such nonsense in a 90 minute movie, unless it’s a European art-house film. Then there is the time machine stopping in 1966, just in time for nuclear war to break out, giving the film only six years before proving itself wrong.
There is a Robinson Crusoe feel to this film – although the planet seems quite heavily populated by young pretty hippies and old decrepit cannibal hippies, George is the only civilised patriarchal figure there, shouting at the Eloi and setting fire to the Morlocks as he sees fit. His first encounter with the Morlocks involves seeing – yep, a footprint. Lots of footprints, showing where the Morlocks have absconded with the time machine. We know the year; we don’t know whether it’s Friday though.
Anyway, George gets down and dirty into the underground, beats up some Morlocks, and sets the place on fire. He also fires up the Eloi who reclaim their power and beat up a few Morlocks too. Their totally vegan diet apparently has not left them, as George rudely claimed, “living vegetables”. His judgement of the Morlocks though is more severe: they had:
“… degenerated into the lowest form of human life: cannibalism!”
He gets his machine back and flees into the future, after killing a Morlock, who decomposes in time lapse mode, a scene that was quite the talk of the audience at the time.
But really, George. They have a system that works. His plan appears to be to return to 802701, impose regime change, and “free” the Eloi from the mouths of the Morlocks to build a new world. But of course the Eloi have no idea how to grow their food or make their clothes. With George as absolute monarch, they may learn. Or might they splinter into cliques, as humans always do, and soon go back to eating and wearing each other?
Filby, back in 1900, realises that George wouldn’t go off to build a civilisation without a plan. He figures out that he has gone back to the future and has taken just three books with him. Which books? No one knows.
Which books, Filby asks with a twinkle, would you have taken?
Maybe Janice Poon’s cookbook?