David Duncan

In Memory of David Duncan   

I recline there joyously
My lips on the silent heart
Derived from geometry
Time and passion depart.

My lips on the silent heart
My eyes asleep on her breast
Time and passion depart
The spirit resumes the quest.

Excerpt from a poem by David Duncan

"To me the great virtue of the science-fiction story doesn't reside in its elaborate gadgets and twistings of time and space -- although these can be majestically entertaining -- but in its possibilities for analysis of man and the social order.  From the vantage point of one hundred years hence, the writer is free to speak his mind on what he thinks of present-day developments, or -- by laying his story on another planet -- he can parody our worldly strengths and weaknesses without fear of being stoned by his neighbors.  He can damn or praise governments, wipe out offending religious faiths, expose hypocrisies, create Utopias, and bring on the millennium simply by means of an unfettered imagination."

- David Duncan


An Interview with David Duncan


David Duncan didn't begin to write full-time until the age of 33, in 1946, after around ten years of work in government administration and public services. He began screenwriting in 1953 and started writing science-fiction movies after one of his SF novels, "Dark Dominion," was serialized in "Collier's" magazine. After "The Time Machine," David wrote the screenplay for "Fantastic Voyage..." and before "The Time Machine," he wrote, or contributed to, a number of late 50's genre films.

His favorite among the sci-fi films he wrote was "The Time Machine"--"by a huge margin."

With relentless insistence -- perhaps for the sake of simplicity -- many people tend to ignore the collaborative nature of filmmaking... and attach a single name to each film, assigning each film a single "creator."

For "The Time Machine," that name is, unquestionably, George Pal.

While Pal perhaps deserves that credit, he unquestionably benefited from the contributions of a number of  people. Even a quick review of Duncan's scripts (I've seen the first and second drafts) reveals Duncan's role as a primary contributor. Duncan himself was quick to acknowledge the blending of talents that created the film: in the interview that follows, he explains that one of the film's most memorable sequences -- as well as one of its most regrettable lines of dialogue -- was not written by him.

Welles had his Mankiewicz, Hitchcock his Ernest Lehman... and George Pal was no doubt quite pleased at the way "his" movie  developed thanks to the substantial talents... of David Duncan.

Or did you think that two of the main characters in this movie happened to be called "George" and "David" by sheer coincidence?

David graciously agreed to answer a few questions for this web page.
(Conducted via mail, David's answers were written May 29, 1999.)

Your most recent work related to "The Time Machine" was on "The Journey Back," for which I'm told you wrote the brief 'reunion' scene between George and David. Was it enjoyable?

The five-minute scene I wrote for "The Journey Back" came at a good time for me. My wife had died a few months previously and I had been spending my time driving aimlessly around the Northwest -- not because I enjoyed driving but because I couldn't stand our empty house. So the job kept me home long enough to learn to endure it. I met the producer only by telephone. The scene was supposed to be a prologue but ended up as an epilog.

How about writing the original film?

I liked the assignment because Wells's "The Time Machine" was one of my favorite stories when I was a boy.

How much help were you given, by Pal or others, in the structure of the first Draft? In other words, had they decided that they would add The Time Traveler's stops where he learns about  World War, or did you suggest these?

To the best of my memory I wrote the screenplay pretty much on my own.

How was Pal to work for?

George Pal was great to work for. He wanted to keep the project secret lest someone forestall him by bringing out a cheaper film on a similar subject. So I worked in my bedroom at home and occasionally he'd drop by to discuss things.

My copy of another, later draft lists another author, Phillip Yordan. Who was this writer, and what contributions did he make?

I never met Philip Yordan, but he is responsible for what I consider an excellent scene with the "talking rings."

In Chapter 8 of "The Time Machine," Wells writes: "And so, in that derelict museum, upon the thick soft carpeting of dust, to Weena's huge delight, I solemnly performed a kind of composite dance, whistling THE LAND OF THE LEAL as cheerfully as I could. In part it was a modest cancan, in part a step dance, in part a skirt-dance (so far as my tail-coat permitted), and in part original. For I am naturally inventive, as you know."

Your first draft incorporated this song... and the second draft contains a page of lyrics titled "The Land of the Leal" with "Words and Music by Peggy Lee." Was this written for the film?

I don't know why [the original] "Land of the Leal" wasn't used as the theme music. It was a wonderfully sad melody that  Wells referred to. It bears no relationship to what Peggy Lee wrote.

Did you visit the set of Pal's Production?

I visited the set only once. At the time, a bunch of costumed Morlocks, being off camera, were performing antics that had others on the set laughing loudly. I recall a worried George Pal approaching me and saying "My God, do you think people will laugh at them in the film?" Or words to that effect.

I've read that you actually had a hand in designing that set.

It's impossible for me to write dialogue and stage directions without knowing what the stage looks like. And no scene designers had been put to work yet. So I spent a couple of hours with pencil and paper sketching out a picture of the Morlocks' underground world. When George [Pal] saw it, he took it home with him. The following Sunday morning, when I went to his home for a conference, I was flattered to find him out on the lawn before his easel translating my sketch into a full-color finished version -- upon which the actual set was later based.

Your name appears on the cover of the Dell Comic Book of The Time Machine! Did you ever expect to have a credit in a comic book?

delltmcomic_small.JPG (3425 bytes)

No, I never expected to have credit on a comic book. I wouldn't have known if you hadn't told me.

Did you attend the premiere? Any photos of that, by any chance?

Yes, I attended the premiere. No photos, but I recall my wife giving me a vicious jab in the ribs with her elbow when The Time Traveler made some remark indicating that the people of Bali were as stupid as the Eloi. I quickly gasped, "I didn't write that! I didn't!" But I don't know who did.

Neither The Time Traveler nor Filby have first names in Wells's book, but they do have first names in the movie.

It was George Pal who told me to name The Time Traveler "George" and to name Filby "David." So I did.

The Department Store scenes -- It was Klinger's Department Store in your early Draft; it became Filby's.

In my version the department store was always Filby's. His son grew up awfully fast to take it over.

In Draft two, Weena has what amounts to a 'nude scene,' taking off her robe before going for her near-fatal dip. Was that scene sacrificed on the altar of censorship? Did you ever think that scene would make it into the movie?

I know that George Pal wanted to have all the Eloi nude in the scene by the river but couldn't.

Your daughter tells me that you write poetry, and much of the dialog in your script borders on the poetic; it's one of the main charms of the film, I think. Your dialog elevates the film far beyond the typical sci-fi movie.

The real poet in my family is my sister, Joyce La Mers, seven years younger than I, who is becoming well known among those who still read poetry. I'm enclosing one of hers which a computer bug like yourself might appreciate. [Joyce's Poem]

There's an earlier counterpart to the "How do they wear their hair, the women of your day" scene, where Weena asks The Time Traveler what a 'kiss' is and if he has one in his pocket. This cut scene reminds me of a scene in Peter Pan: "She also said that she would give him a kiss if he liked, but Peter did not know what that meant." Were you thinking of that scene in 'Peter Pan' when you wrote the 'kiss' scene for 'The Time Machine?'

No. I wasn't influenced by "Peter Pan."

missbook.JPG (184478 bytes)

Sorry to pose the inevitable question, but… what three books did The Time Traveler take with him into the future?

Several people have asked me what three books The Time Traveler took with him. The truth is -- I don't know. But the idea of the three books dates back many years to a time before I became a writer and was manager of a farm workers community in Ceres, California. One of the tenants struck me as a very intelligent man, and it was odd that he supported his family by working in the fields. So I got part of his story.

He had been reared by an aunt and uncle on a remote farm in Kansas. He had never attended school and was about ten years old when he went with his uncle in a horse-drawn wagon to the closest town for supplies. Here he met some boys his own age and discovered that there was such a thing as reading and writing. Subsequently he taught himself to do both and told me that three books had been very important in his life. Of course, I wanted to know what they were. He told me.

(a) The Bible. He read passages from it every morning and evening to his family.

(b) Charles Darwin's "The Origin of the Species" which the bibliophiles of Darwin's day found nauseous.

(c) "Das Kapital" by Karl Marx -- about as far from the other two as one can get!

I found this trilogy very strange which is why it stuck in my memory, but they are not the three books The Time Traveler took with him.

Your script offers an alternate explanation for the division of mankind into two species.

In the original story, Wells uses the Industrial Revolution to explain why mankind split into two species. By the time I was writing the screenplay this would have seemed absurd. So air-raid alarms which sent people underground seemed a good substitute.

The film pegs the date of an Atomic War on or about August 18, 1966, at the time of the film's release, about 6 years in the future. Were you aware that those of us who were in school at the time and saw the film multiple times marked that date on our calendars?

I was not aware that anyone would take this as prophecy.

At the end of the film, you had the displacement of the time machine such that it reappeared in another portion of the laboratory... yet in the film, it appears out in the garden.

I suppose this was just a production action.

You've explained that the decision to call Filby and The Time Traveler "David" and "George" was Pal's request. In Draft two, at the end of the film, when the guests are leaving, Filby says to the driver, "Take them home, Dave." This didn't make it into the film. Was this, perhaps, a sly reference on your part to yourself as the person 'moving the characters about?'

Draft two becomes more and more mysterious!

Is there anything you'd change in the finished film?

Not now.

David Duncan's Script, the second draft from 1959

Davidd~1.jpg (58711 bytes)
(David Duncan circa 1949)

DAVID DUNCAN also wrote these novels:

bulletRemember the Shadows
bulletDark Dominion
bulletThe Shade of Time
bulletBeyond Eden
bulletThe Madrone Tree
bulletThe Trumpet of God
bulletThe Bramble Bush
bulletOccam's Razor
bulletThe Serpent's Egg
bulletYes, My Darling Daughters
bulletNone But My Foe
bulletThe Long Walk Home From Town
bulletWives and Husbands



Most of David's books were written in the 40's, 50's and early 60's and are hard to find. Complicating matters is the presence of another author, "Dave Duncan," who has written quite a bit of science fiction and fantasy.  He and "our" David Duncan  met a few times and Dave told David that he's Dave in order to differentiate himself from David. There's also a famous photographer, David Douglas Duncan. And there's at least one other David Duncan of note, since Carl Sagan, who sat in Pal's Time Machine during an episode of Sagan's PBS series Cosmos, was David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University.

David's favorite of his books was "The Serpent's Egg," which he believed to be  "the best  written." Appropriately, it received the best reviews... and made the least money. "The Bramble Bush" and "The Madrone Tree" were serialized in Colliers Magazine. "The Trumpet of God," about the children's crusade, was an alternate book club selection. "Dark Dominion," "Beyond Eden," and "Occam's Razor" are all science fiction, and were also published in paperback editions. The last book Duncan  published was "The Long Walk Home from Town," in 1964. Duncan  had an ongoing correspondence with a man in England, a published writer himself, who claimed this book caused him to have some sort of cathartic experience, and he holds it in very high esteem. While David viewed most of his TV and movie work more as income than as art -  he was "proud of" his work on "The Time Machine."

David Duncan passed away in December, 1999. 

How many people were inspired... and will continue to be inspired.... by the work of David Duncan?

One cannot choose but wonder.

Who is Angus Duncan?

young2.jpg (21194 bytes)

In the Feb/Mar 1998 issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, an interview with Alan Young appeared. Early in the interview, Young suggests that it was his idea to have Filby be red-haired in "The Time Machine." Well, Filby has red hair in H. G. Wells's novella. But that's not the only intriguing statement Young makes.

Far more interesting is the following quote, a response to a question about why George Pal did not update the Wells story to modern times, as he had done earlier in his movie of Wells's "War of the Worlds."

Young: I don't know. I presume he wanted to be near H. G. Wells' time, but I rather think George was fascinated with the Victorian Era, which was so mannerly and so dignified, and the friendship [between Filby and The Time Traveler in Pal's movie] was really underplayed, although very deep. It would be all George's decision. In fact, I think he wrote most of the script. I think he wrote it under a fictitious name - Angus Duncan. My real name is Angus, and George  knew that. I don't know -- maybe there is an Angus Duncan -- but I know that whenever there were re-writes to be done, George did them. 

Clearly, Young has great fondness for "The Time Machine." Perhaps his memory may simply be playing a few tricks. And Pal doubtless made contributions to the original script. Where "Angus Duncan" comes from, however, is anybody's guess.

Young has tried his own hand at scriptwriting. He was commissioned by Clyde Lucas, the producer of "The Journey Back," to write the script for yet another "Time Machine" sequel. 

Lucas: I did ask Alan Young to write a script, but not for "The Journey Back." I did not even know Alan at that time. Mr. Duncan wrote "The Journey Back." It was after we had met and Alan did the scene with Rod that we all three decided, along with Bob and Kathy Burns and D.C. Fontana, to try and make a new Time Machine movie. 

D.C. wrote the first outline, then, later, Alan wrote one. Rod, Alan & I had several meetings about story ideas -- this was after we made "The Journey Back." That is why I built the new Time Machine prop, so it could carry TWO:  Filby & The Time Traveler. I, as producer, along with Gross & Weston Productions, made pitches to every Major Studio, including MGM and all TV Networks, including the SciFi Channel, but at the time they did not want to do any Victorian Time Travel movies or series. 

Don Brockway, March 3, 2000 (updated October 12, 2004)

Back to Contents

Back to The Time Machine Home Page