Director – Henning Schellerup, Teleplay – Wallace Bennett, Based on the Novel by H.G. Wells, Producer – James Simmons, Photography – Stephen W. Gray, Music – John Cacavas, Special Effects – Harry Woolman, Art Direction – Paul Staheli. Production Company – Schick Sunn Classics Productions.
John Beck (Dr Neil Perry), Priscilla Barnes (Weena), Andrew Duggan (Worthington/Washington), Rosemary DeCamp (Agnes), Whit Bissell (Ralph Branly), John Hansen (Ariel), Jack Kruschen (John Bedford), R.G. Armstrong (General Harris), John Doucette (Sheriff Finley)
Neil Perry is a genius scientist working for the weapons manufacturer Mega Corporation. Asked to account for the appropriation of $20 million dollar worth of funding, Neil demonstrates a miniature model of what he claims is a time machine. He is ordered by his military backers to stop the project immediately and start work on developing an anti-matter bomb on Monday. However, when Neil learns that an essential transistor part has been delivered early, he decides to test out the full-size working version of the time machine. He first journeys back in time to the 18th Century where the locals immediately try to burn him at the stake as a warlock. He then travels to the 19th Century West where he is jailed thought to be an outlaw trying to steal gold. Determined to examine the effects that the weapons he is building will have on the world, he journeys forward into the far future where the world has been devastated. There he encounters the peaceful, child-like Eloi and develops an attraction to the lovely Weena. However, the Eloi are preyed upon by the beast-like Morlocks who live underground and have now stolen the time machine.
The Time Machine (1895) was the first novel from H.G. Wells who subsequently went onto a seminal career in which he set down many of the major themes in science-fiction. It has become duly regarded as a literary classic. The book’s significance was that it created the idea of the time machine and led to the development of time travel as a major genre theme (although was not as is sometimes misreported the first work to deal with time travel). It was memorably filmed by George Pal as The Time Machine (1960) starring Rod Taylor, which in turn became the first major film work on time travel and proved highly influential. The work was never sequelised or remade until this 1978 tv movie. Of course, the book subsequently underwent a cinematic remake as The Time Machine (2002) starring Guy Pearce, which had the distinction of being directed by H.G. Wells’ great-grandson.
This version was made by Schick Sunn Classics, a US company that specialised in tv adaptations of classic stories – The Last of the Mohicans (1977), The Fall of the House of Usher (1979), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1980), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1981) and The Adventures of Nellie Bly (1981). Later they moved on to a series of sensationalistic cinematically-released documentaries on subjects that have ranged from Bigfoot in Mysterious Monsters (1976) to life after death in Beyond and Back (1978), The Bermuda Triangle (1979) and one fictional UFO conspiracy film Hangar 18 (1980), as well as Biblically-themed works such as In Search of Noah’s Ark (1977), In Search of Historic Jesus (1980) and the tv series The Greatest Heroes of the Bible (1978).
Schick Sunn Classics made a virtue of adaptations of classic literary works, which were pitched with quasi-educational intent. Despite the clear purpose in what they were doing, the finished results often varied widely from the source material. The H.G. Wells novel is such a classic that it is indelibly identified with taking place in the Victorian period. Thus it becomes a considerable jolt here when the story has been updated to contemporary 1978 and the opening scenes show the time traveller (John Beck) surrounded by computers, US military and missile launch programs – even has a secretary who is constantly trying to set him up on a date.
All of the backstory about John Beck as a military contractor and having to stop a runaway missile adds 26 minutes to the story before we even get to where Wells started. Even then, this is only set up so that Beck can come to the realisation later on that the destruction of the world was (improbably) all down to the two weapons programs he was working on. We also get the addition of two journeys into the past – something that was not in the book – firstly, where John Beck is about to be burned as a warlock by Puritans and then where he is jailed mistaken for a Western outlaw (both of which are so cheaply and perfunctorily handled as to be completely forgettable).
All of that said, The Time Machine 1978 is less a new version of the H.G. Wells book than it is a work directly modelled on the George Pal film (a problem also shared by the 2002 remake, which went so far as to directly remake the screenplay for the 1960 film). The Eloi are dressed the same, there are the same sped-up action effects used to demonstrate the time travel (albeit far more cheaply than in the original). This even goes so far as to cast Whit Bissell who played a role in the 1960 film.
Similarly, the plot once we are among the Eloi and Morlocks follows the 1960 film beat for beat, even down to the ending that abandons Wells’ vision of the end of humanity for a more optimistic one involving the traveller needing to venture into the Morlock underground to get his machine back, then returning to the present to restock and heading back to the future to help the Eloi. At other times, the film seems to be trying to avoid looking too much like the 1960 film particularly when it comes to the creation of its time machine, which comes out as an ungainly and ugly pyramidal creation.
The Time Machine is made with a painful cheapness, something that was endemic to all of Schick Sunn Classics’ literary adaptations. It does not bode well for the finished film when in the very opening moments the character played by Andrew Duggan is described by the narrator as Worthington in complete contrast to the on-screen credit that describes him as Washington. The time travel effects are represented by some pitifully cheap-looking opticals. The Morlocks look like they are wearing ill-fitting rubber Halloween masks.
Full film available here