‘The Time Machine’ (1960) revisited

❉ An appreciation of George Pal’s film, one of the cornerstones of “Steampunk”, released during the height of the nuclear arms race.

Released in 1960, ‘The Time Machine’ wasn’t George Pal’s first adaptation of a novel by H.G. Wells. Seven years earlier the Hungarian-born animator and filmmaker produced a very loose, modern day version of Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’, and it could be argued that many of his 1950s science fiction spectaculars (‘When Worlds Collide’, ‘Destination Moon’, ‘Conquest of Space’) wear their Wells influences upon their sleeves.

Unlike ‘War of the Worlds’, however, ‘The Time Machine’ stays relatively faithful to its source material, adding only a few scenes, early on, in which the film’s hero (Rod Taylor) stops off to witness World Wars I, II and III. (The novel was published in 1895, and – unlike Wells’s ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ avoids making any predictions about the coming century.)

Though Pal originally intended the role of the Time Traveller to be played by an older, more established actor such as David Niven or James Mason, ultimately the decision was made to cast someone younger and more athletic, and so it went to a then-30-year-old Taylor. This was a wise move on Pal’s part, for at its heart ‘The Time Machine’ is a traditional action-adventure story, the tale of a civilised, Victorian man who finds himself among savages, albeit well-groomed and creepily Aryan savages, in the year 802,701AD.

In this futuristic world, several great civilisations have come and gone, leaving behind them only the ruins of their cities. What’s more, humanity itself has separated off into two distinct species, the young and beautiful Eloi and the hideous, subterranean Morlocks. The Eloi live lives of leisure, frolicking in streams and eating nothing but fresh fruit, while the Morlocks toil away beneath the surface of the Earth. The pay-off to this unusual living arrangement is that the Morlocks are, in fact, the masters of the Eloi, treating them as cattle and – much to our hero’s disgust – a source of food.

Wells was never a pure fantasist, in the mould of contemporaries such as H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. He was an early member of the socialist Fabian Society, and remained politically outspoken throughout his career. Around the period when he began working on The Time Machine he developed an interest in the then-nascent field of eugenics, the belief that humanity can be improved through the careful selection of the “best genes”. This was long before such ideas were co-opted and put into practise by the Nazis, and Wells would later amend and clarify his position on the subject, but the unsettling coexistence of the Elois and Morlocks continues to resonate with issues of class and wealth to this day.

It doesn’t take much imagination to draw parallels between this fictional world, and our own ever-widening gulf between the richest and poorest in society. When our newspapers complain of a “feral underclass”, preying on the well-to-do, the imagery is not a million miles away from that of Morlocks lurking in the shadows, ready to drag unsuspecting Elois back into their caves. Where Wells and the film adaptation of ‘The Time Machine’ go one further is in suggesting that the apparently “privileged” classes might themselves become the exploited ones. More than this, the Elois have been conditioned through centuries of living a charmed life, into illiteracy and ignorance.

When the Time Traveller arrives in the 8,028th Century, he’s shocked to learn how little the Eloi care about anything.  Their only books lie unread and crumbling on seldom-visited shelves, and when one of them – a beautiful young woman with the unfortunate name of ‘Weena’ – falls into a river, none of her “friends” run to her rescue, instead watching her splutter and scream with blank-eyed indifference. Again, this cold, anti-social solipsism may prove familiar for a contemporary audience that has seen images of bystanders dispassionately filming crimes and disasters on their mobile phones.

More specific to when the film was made, Pal and screenwriter David Duncan give the Time Traveller a speech in which he laments how it seems “(as if) people aren’t dying fast enough these days. They call upon science to invent newer, more efficient weapons to depopulate the earth.” It’s a speech that’s appears nowhere in Wells’s novel, but which would have had a particular resonance when the film was first released, during the height of the nuclear arms race.

It’s very difficult to overestimate the influence that The Time Machine – both the original novel and the 1960 film – have had on science fiction. The novel not only introduced the concept of time travel to popular culture, it also coined the term “time machine” itself. While earlier stories involving time travel (Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’, Samuel Madden’s ‘Memoirs of the 20th Century’) involved an element of magic or the supernatural, Wells was the first author to suggest it might be possible through scientific invention, and ‘The Time Machine’ is among the earliest literary works to position time as a “fourth dimension”.

In more recent years, George Pal’s film has been heralded as one of the cornerstones of “Steampunk”, thanks not only to Pal’s decision to keep his Time Traveller a Victorian gent, but also to the stunning work of MGM art director Bill Ferrari. His design for the eponymous machine is a thing of beauty. With its decorative spinning wheel, plush red velvet barber’s chair and crystal topped lever, the time machine is gloriously eccentric (is there any scientific need for it to be quite so ornate?) but also tangible and practical. Every knob and dial looks as if it has a use, even if the science behind it is left deliberately vague. Unsurprisingly, given Pal’s background as an animator, the stop motion effects are another highlight, and would help earn ‘The Time Machine’ an Academy Award for Best Special Effects.

A second adaptation, starring Guy Pierce and directed by H.G. Wells’s great-grandson Simon, was released in 2002. However, in meddling with some of the story’s most fundamental ingredients (the Eloi here are noble savages, while the Morlocks are led by a jarringly urbane Jeremy Irons) it feels less self-assured and far less faithful to the novel’s spirit than its predecessor.


David Llewellyn is a novelist (Eleven, Ibrahim & Reeni) and script writer (Dorian Gray, Torchwood, Doctor Who).

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