Every so often I take out my DVD of George Pal’s 1960 gem “The Time Machine” and give it a spin. I admit that I’m a bit of a sucker for its old-timey charm–the five friends gathered for a New Year’s dinner, the erudite explanation of the fourth dimension, and, of course, the gleaming Victorian time machine itself.
I had the good fortune to see “The Time Machine” in 1960 at the Surf Theater in Ocean City, New Jersey. I was ten years old and that was probably the perfect age to encounter Pal’s Technicolor (well, actually it was Metrocolor–but what does a 10-year old know about that?) fantasy. The white-haired, pot-bellied, green-skinned Morlocks weren’t really scary enough to give you nightmares, and I was still too young to be distracted by Yvette Mimieux’s otherworldly beauty. (I was also too young to be bothered by the fact that this Eloi maiden of the far-distant future and this burly young Englishman from the year 1901 spoke the same language.)
I was suitably impressed by the Eisenhower-era notion of this foreigner coming to rally the oppressed Eloi to overthrow their unsightly and cannibalistic masters. This is what good people were supposed to do. And of course the Eloi would be welcoming and once they saw how easy it is to kill a Morlock, would wholeheartedly join in the struggle.
Looking at the same film 55 years later, a certainly melancholy sets in. Would the Eloi really rally around this stranger from the past to overthrow their masters? Or would they say go back to where you came from and leave us with the evil that we know? When, as a teenager, I finally read Wells’ novel, I quickly found that there was no revolt, no overthrow of the Moorlock yoke and the time traveler ends his quest on a desolate shoreline, underneath a dying sun, watching huge, sluggish crustaceans and a strange jellyfish-like creature play out the final act of life on Earth. Now that scene would have scared the crap out of any ten-year old!
Pal and his scriptwriter David Duncan end their film with a challenge of sorts–when the time traveler, having recounted his adventures to his disbelieving friends, departs once again for the far-future world he now calls home, he takes three books with him. What, actor Alan Young wonders aloud, would they be. As a 10-year old I don’t think that I gave it another thought, but now, after numerous viewings of the film, I feel up for the challenge. First off–what books would George not take? “The Holy Bible” for one. Wells’ antipathy for religions of all kinds was well-known, so his time-traveler, who is meant to be a stand-in for Wells himself, would doubtless feel that the Eloi would be better off without it. Next, “Roberts’ Rules of Order.” Wells also felt that governments were doing a poor job of governing. George would probably feel that the Eloi would be better served evolving a sort of natural leadership and rule by consensus. So what books would George take? Well let’s remember that the Eloi are having to start a new civilization from the ground up. As long as the Morlocks ruled, they did the heavy-lifting. They were the manufacturers, the growers–the Eloi were merely the consumers who, in turn, became the consumed. So I think that the first book George would grab from his shelf would be some sort of textbook on agriculture and animal husbandry. The Eloi must now learn to produce their own food. Next I think he would select some sort of encyclopedia of the sciences. The Eloi would need to learn the metallurgical skills that the Morlocks possessed to manufacture tools and other necessary implements. They would also need a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry to create compounds and distillations. Lastly I think that George would take along one of those giant medical encyclopedias that were so popular with the Victorians. The Eloi would have to know how to set bones, deliver children, deal with infections and fevers. So those are the books that I think George would bring as the Past’s gift to the Future.