Princeton University WWS 320
Professor Lee M. Silver

Commentary for watching the film

The Time Machine
based on an 1895 novel by H. G. Wells

After scoring popular hits with When Worlds Collide and The War of the Worlds, special-effects pioneer George Pal returned to the visionary fiction of H.G. Wells to produce and direct this science-fiction classic from 1960. Wells' imaginative tale of time travel was published in 1895 and the movie is set in approximately the same period with Rod Taylor as a scientist whose magnificent time machine allows him to leap backward and forward in the annals of history. His adventures take him far into the future, where a meek and ineffectual race known as the Eloi have been forced to hide from the brutally monstrous Morlocks. As Taylor tests his daring invention, Oscar-winning special effects show us what the scientist sees: a cavalcade of sights and sounds as he races through time at varying speeds, from lava flows of ancient earth to the rise and fall of a towering future metropolis.
The movie's charm lies in its Victorian setting and the awe and wonder that carries over from Wells' classic story. The pioneering spirit of the movie is still enthralling, but it gets a bit silly when Taylor turns into a stock hero, rescuing a beautiful blonde Eloi (Yvette Mimieux) and battling with the chubby green Morlocks whose light-bulb eyes blink out when they die. Although it's quaint when compared to the special-effects marvels of the digital age, the movie's still highly entertaining and filled with a timeless sense of wonder. --Jeff Shannon

Another reviewer of the Time machine calls the film "An exciting and faithful cinematic production of H.G. Wells' 1895 classic." (
Click here to bring up the text of the original book.) Indeed, the film does follow the storyline pretty faithfully with two glaring and purposeful exceptions that are signs of the time in which it was made. Wells was influenced greatly by the ideas of Marx and other socialists. More than anything else, Wells intended The Time Machine to be a morality tale that held capitalism responsible for the awful imagined future of humankind. If you saw the film without reading the book, you would have no way of knowing that this was his intent, for it was purposely hidden in the screenplay for the film.

In the original story, the capitalists -- who made all the money, but did none of the work -- no longer had any need for intelligence, curiosity, or the drive to accomplish. The only thing that mattered to them (according to Wells) was "
pleasure, comfort and beauty." As a consequence, they evolved into the spiritless, apathetic but beautiful Eloi. The working class, on the other hand, were forced to spend their lives in dark factories that Wells imagined migrating underground when space became limiting on the surface. Wells knew from Darwinian theory that when populations were reproductively separated from each other, they would evolve into different species. He imagined the working class becoming acclimated to the dark and losing their ability to function in the light (just like animals that live in tunnels or caves lose their ability to see). "So, in the end, above ground, you must have the Haves . . . and below ground the Have-nots."

The anti-capitalist twist that Wells threw into his story, though, is that the workers (who become the Morlocks) ultimately reverse the master-slave relationship by taking advantage of the extreme apathy evolved by the Eloi, who no longer care about anything (including the life or death of fellow members of their own post-human species). Although the Frankenstein theme doesn't influence this story to the same extent as others that we have seen (like Blade Runner and Embryo), there is the subtle implication that technology -- and the capitalism it promotes -- is the root cause of humanity's decline.

For the film version, the scriptwriters eliminated the anti-capitalist theme and rewrote the initial separation between the Eloi and Morlocks as being based on a simple choice between free men and women. Some had "chosen" to go underground, while others had "chosen" to stay on the surface. And then, "by some awful quirk of fate, the Morlocks had become the master, and the Eloi their servants." Not only does this rewrite completely distort Wells' intention in creating the story, but it eliminates any rationale for the differences that emerge between the two species. Why are the Eloi beautiful and vapid? Why are the Morlocks strong and industrious? Unfortunately, the scriptwriters had no choice but to change the story as they did because the film was produced in 1960, when Americans were scared to death of communism/socialism and Russia. A blatantly anti-capitalist (and as a consequence, pro-socialist) film could not have been shown on movie screens in the U.S.

The second important way in which the film differs from the original story is in the Hollywood-like ending which has the Morlocks defeated and the Eloi triumphant, with the protagonist as the hero. Whether intentional or not, this can be viewed as the capitalist establishment rising up against the workers, in a reverse play on the notion of a socialist revolution.

A third critical way in which the film differs from the story is in the assumption that the Eloi are not inherently vapid and apathetic because of their genetic makeup, but are made that way by their culture. The film's hero (changed to represent George Wells himself) will return to the future to rescue the future of our species by re-instilling the human spirit in our descendants with the power of ideas alone. The notion that human beings are molded entirely by their culture, and not at all by their genes, dominated the intellectual landscape in 1960. The obvious flaw is that the Morlocks are as much our descendants as are the Eloi, but the Morlocks are portrayed as incorrigible and deserving of extinction.

One final sign of the times (in 1960, that is) is the pessimistic idea that all of humanity would be constantly at war with each other. Obviously, Wells himself could not have imagined the two world wars of the twentieth century, or the nuclear bomb and air raid shelters, which were all components of the movie. To understand the pessimism of the film, it is important to remember the following facts: (1) World War I and World War II were only separated by 22 years; (2) 1960 was only 15 years after the end of World War II, and (3) most people were convinced that an all-nuclear World War III, with the Soviet Union (Russia) and the U.S. on opposite sides, was all but inevitable. Any support, or discussion, of communism or socialism in any form was viewed as consorting with the enemy.

Points for Discussion

1. The unquestioned assumption in this story is that we should care about our descendants in the year 802,701. Why do you think that we should, or should not, care? Be aware that it is extremely unlikely that any of your own particular genes will actually be present in any member of the population 800,000 years hence. So they won't actually be your descendants within any future human-derived population!

2. Is the rationale described by H.G. Wells for the evolution of the Eloi and the Morlocks valid or not? (Click here to read it)

3. In the film, the Eloi are seen as the proper descendants of humankind, while the Morlocks are seen as an aberration. It is on this basis that the audience cheers when the Eloi are rescued and the Morlocks are destroyed. But on what basis is this distinction made? The Morlocks are clearly more intelligent and industrious than the Eloi, and their use of a different mammalian species as a food source (portrayed as a moral shortcoming) is no different than what we humans do today with cows, pigs and lambs. Do you agree or disagree?


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