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Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Time Travelers (1964)


Director: Ib Melchior
Writer: Ib Melchior, from the story by Ib Melchior and David Hewitt
Stars: Preston Foster, Philip Carey, Merry Anders and John Hoyt


Index: 2017 Centennials.

There are things we have come to expect from science fiction movies of the sixties, not least that they’re sci-fi not science fiction. The terms are interchangeable today but, for a while, there was a real battle going on. Serious writers often felt a need to draw a line between their new works of imagination and what they saw as pulp schlock, so they stuck with ‘science fiction’ or ‘speculative fiction’, both often abbreviated to ‘sf’, but followers of the original fan, Forrest J. Ackerman, who just wanted to have fun, adopted ‘sci-fi’ as a riff on hi-fi. And so science fiction was deep and meaningful exploration of ideas while sci-fi was bug-eyed monsters and rayguns. I mention this because Ackerman, who coined the term ‘sci-fi’ in 1954, has a cameo role in this picture and because, while The Time Travelers looks like sci-fi, it’s surprisingly full of serious ideas, shifting it into science fiction territory. Or, in the cinematic equivalent battle, where movies are mindless entertainment and films are high art, it’s closer to film than movie.

Of course, such debates are pointless. Any creation has to stand on its own merits, whether it’s intelligent or not, and this one does surprisingly well. More than anyone, that’s surely due to a man named Ib Melchior, who would have celebrated his one hundredth birthday today, had he lasted only a few years longer than he did; he passed in 2015 at the age of 97. Melchior was a real character, born in Copenhagen to a Danish opera singer who was the most notable Wagnerian tenor of his day. The title of his autobiography highlights what he felt was his greatest contribution to society: Case by Case: A U. S. Army Counterintelligence Agent in World War II; this work included being part of the liberation of the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria, the capture of a Werwolf unit and the discovery of the Nazi hoard in the salt mine at Merkers-Kieselbach. It also led to him being honoured as Knight Commander of the Militant Order of Saint Bridget of Sweden, though this seems to be a self-styled order not officially recognised by any nation.

However, he was far deeper a creator than he has probably become in the minds of many, who recognise the name only because it happens to be rather memorable; no, it wasn’t a pseudonym; he was born Ib Jørgen Melchior. Those with more detailed memories may tie that name to a short story, The Racer, which was memorably adapted into the cult classic movie, Death Race 2000, with David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone. He wrote and directed two interesting features, The Angry Red Planet and The Time Travelers, with the latter serving as the inspiration for Irwin Allen’s successful TV show, The Time Tunnel, which first aired in 1966. He argued that he had inspired another Irwin Allen TV show, Lost in Space, which was very similar to a treatment he’d written for a feature called Space Family Robinson. This rankled for years and led to Melchior’s being hired as a consultant on New Line Cinema’s adaptation of Lost in Space in 1998. He also wrote scripts as varied in quality as the intriguing Journey to the Seventh Planet and the awful Reptilicus.

I’ve seen a number of Melchior’s films, so I know that they shouldn’t be summarily disregarded (except for Reptilicus, which really does deserve every negative word said about it). What surprised me was how widely he wrote. Beyond movies, he wrote a number of novels, not science fiction but well-regarded thrillers like Eva, about the escape of a pregnant Eva Braun from Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, and The Haigerloch Project, all about Nazi attempts to develop an atomic bomb. He wrote non-fiction about the Nazis as well, including Order of Battle: Hitler’s Werewolves, about the destruction of that organisation just before it attempted the assassination of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. He also wrote for television, though rarely; his most prominent TV script is surely The Premonition, a 1965 episode of The Outer Limits, but I’m intrigued by an apparently unaired Swedish/American horror anthology from 1959 by the name of 13 Demon Street, which was presented by Lon Chaney Jr. and for which Melchior wrote two episodes.
However, with The Angry Red Planet relatively widely reviewed and Death Race 2000 far too obvious, I settled back to watch The Time Travelers and found myself much more impressed than I was expecting. On the face of it, it looks like the same ol’ same ol’, with an annoyingly clichéd set of lead characters. The majority are scientists, attempting to obtain a glimpse into the future with gadgetry that fills a room. There’s Dr. Erik von Steiner, Dr. Steve Connors, Carol White (a miss not a doctor) and Danny. Now, if you’ve seen more than one sixties sci-fi flick in your life, you can surely picture all four of them and describe all their characteristics, just from their names alone, and you’d be spot on. The dialogue is just as cheesy. ‘All stand by for time synchronisation,’ says one white coat, and, when it doesn’t work, ‘Increase the power!’ Then: ‘Accelerate the laser cycling.’ And: ‘Steve, is that safe?’ You can surely write the next bit yourself. ‘I’m going to open up the laser cycling all the way!’ cries Steve and sparks erupt from the equipment. Right?

No, this doesn’t start well at all, but it soon ratchets into gear. The huge screen shows a wasteland, not the university campus they expect; the circuits of the machinery that made that happen are fused and the time selector says that they’re looking at 107 years into the future. It’s Danny, our mild mannered comic relief, who realises that the screen isn’t merely a picture, it’s a portal, and he literally clambers into the future and vanishes. Some warp of the space-time continuum has given them a door into the future and, of course, they’re going to explore. Dr. von Steiner and his goatee follow Danny, then Big Steve and, eventually, Careful Carol. She does take out two monsters with a fire extinguisher to stop them leaping into their past but, once our characters are all safely into the future, the portal collapses, leaving them all stuck in 2017. Erm, 2071. I wasn’t surprised by any of this, but it was done capably, with neat little touches like the fact that sound doesn’t travel through the portal. And hey, it all looks great.
That’s due to the cinematographer, which highlights another false assumption about sci-fi movies of the sixties, namely that they were created by talentless hacks interested only in the revenue from their slots on the bottom half of a drive-in double bill. Some of them were, of course, but Roger Corman famously started the careers of what seems like every important Hollywood name for a few decades: Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Howard... the list goes on and on. But he wasn’t alone; other future greats started out in genre cinema and one of those is Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who escaped his native Hungary with 30,000 feet of footage of the 1956 revolution, shot with his friend, László Kovács. They both became major names in the New Hollywood of the seventies: Kovács shot Easy Rider and six movies for Peter Bogdanovich; Zsigmond shot multiple films for Robert Altman, Michael Cimino and Brian de Palma.

Neither of them walked straight into fame and fortune in Hollywood; they had to work their way up the ladder, their footage of the Soviet invasion of Hungary getting them onto the first rung. Kovács shot the sci-fi nudie cutie, Kiss Me Quick!; the biker movie, Hell’s Angels on Wheels; and the counterculture flick, Psych-Out, among many other non-award winners. Easy Rider landed him Five Easy Pieces in 1971 and he was off and running for a fantastic decade. Zsigmond shot more films but also made his breakthrough in 1971. His early career includes Arch Hall Jr. pictures like The Sadist and Deadwood ’76, Al Adamson schlock-fests like Psycho a Go-Go and Horror of the Blood Monsters and other exploitation flicks like Jennie: Wife/Child and Hot Rod Action. His break was McCabe & Mrs. Miller and the seventies were his: Deliverance, The Long Goodbye, Sweet Revenge, Obsession, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter and The Rose a wildly varied septet, every one of which was elevated by his work. He won an Oscar for Close Encounters.
So, with Vilmos Zsigmond on board, The Time Travelers looks fantastic. Acting and scriptwriting are important, of course, and the director has to coordinate everything, but when he puts his trust in a cinematographer who knows what to point the camera at, how to move it and where to put it in the first place, any film improves in quality. Here, we see our white-coated time travellers chased through the post-apocalyptic landscape of California by a horde of mutants in skull caps and duct tape and, to emphasise the tension, Zsigmond even shoots some of that with a shakycam, seventeen years before The Evil Dead and thirty-five before The Blair Witch Project. It wasn’t a new technique in 1964; it was pioneered by Europeans in the silent era with Varieté in Germany and Napoleon in France, but gained traction with American filmmakers of the sixties, whether avant garde artists like Kenneth Anger or Stan Brakhage, indie mainstays like John Cassevetes or cinéma vérité documentarians like Fred Wiseman.

To save our stomachs, Zsigmond uses the technique sparingly, but it’s appropriate while it lasts and it highlights the innovation in play here. The music by Richard LaSalle fits that too, being somehow both retro and futuristic, two adjectives that sum up the film pretty well on their own. For instance, our heroes escape the mutants by climbing into a cave that they discover is protected by an electrically charged forcefield. Behind them is a brace of androids with microphones for ears and speakers for mouths; they’re the charge of Gadra, an elegant lady in a space-age pastel jumpsuit. They leave by opening up a portal in the rock wall with a laser gun and follow Gadra to meet the council and find out some future history. ‘It was Man’s own folly,’ says Dr. Varno, triggering a stock footage montage of mushroom clouds and nuclear tests. Earth is now ‘a burned out sterile slag in space’ and the ‘offspring of the radiation saturated survivors roam the desolate surface possessed by the insanity of crippling deformities of mind and body.’
Beyond fantastic B-movie dialogue, this gives Melchior the opportunity to get imaginative, trawling the fecund history of science fiction for a whole slew of ideas. Varno leads the few humans left, the descendants of forward-looking scientists, their goal being to leave for a new Earth-like world they’ve found in Alpha Centauri. It’s a long trip, of course, even with a photon drive that’s far superior to the old ion drives, so they’ll spend it in suspended animation, overseen by androids. We see a factory where the latter are maintained, with walls of legs and trays of eyeballs; head units are locked in place with magnetic rings, so can be removed by simply demagnetising them; their memory banks store everything they see and do. Hydroponic labs create guaranteed non-sour oranges. A prophetic rover on Titan and probes in space snap images that flit home at the speed of light to be printed on film held between a couple of glass panes. There’s even a wild psychedelic theremin called a luminchord in the rec hall. It’s good stuff.

But, for all the futurism and forward thinking, The Time Travelers ironically cannot escape its era, not only because of recognisably retro-futuristic costumes but because of the tone, the humour and the sociology. This is a late example of an era in science fiction that’s perhaps epitomised by The Day the Earth Stood Still, a warning that we’ve reached a point where we’re dabbling in things that we shouldn’t. This isn’t the earlier fear of progress we know from Frankenstein a century and a half earlier, which prompted a long list of things that were the domain of God not man (you know, like transplants). It’s the fear of progress that says that once we can destroy our entire planet and everything on it, we’ve gone too far. The history of science fiction swings like a pendulum between the pessimism that we’re going to destroy ourselves and the optimism that we’ll save ourselves first. The fifties and sixties were a pessimistic period, hardly surprising after the forties gave us Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
The humour is sixties sitcom through and through, the clever writing restricting itself to ideas and suitably purple prose. Perhaps it can be summed up in the scene where our comic relief electrician, Danny, leans on a table in the android factory and a removed hand gooses him. By sociology, I mean that, as much as Gadra is a capable scientist and member of the 2071 council, the women do little except flutter their eyes at the men. And, while I’m sure we don’t want this particular future to come true, given the ‘burned out sterile slag in space’ problem, at least we know that it’ll be full of pretty young things in contour-hugging outfits keen to invite any male visitors back to their cubicles. Oh, and they hang out together naked, but for Production Code-friendly towels or tanning bars. So this is a real fantasy of a nightmare; enjoy that dream until the mutants break in to spoil it. It’s worth mentioning that the mutants are all done with physical effects rather than computer generated imagery, not that they’re particularly ambitious.

The only effective mutant is the one who isn’t using any effects, which deserves some explanation. Whenever the mutants attack, these super-scientists of the future run around in a state of mild panic in corridors that remind of cheap BBC sets that Doctor Who characters chased through every other episode. During one such attack, Carol gets lost and runs into a mutant and a half-hearted attempt to humanise the mutants and shift the future folk (all shining examples of humanity except the token villain) into shades of grey. He has lobster hands and no feet and he can’t speak, though he can understand what he hears. He’s apparently somehow in between the animal mutants and the human scientists, hunted by the former and shunned by the latter. ‘He’s a deviant!’ states our villain. ‘He’s a human being!’ cries Carol. He’s played by Peter Strudwick, a German born in 1930 to a mother who had rubella while pregnant. He really had lobster hands and no feet, but he still became a marathon runner. Now, that’s optimism.
The other quintessentially sixties element is John Hoyt, who plays Dr. Varno. Our time travelers are portrayed capably enough by experienced actors, but they’re walking clichés and they have little opportunity to bring anything of substance to their roles. This was late in the film careers of all of them, except for Danny, who wasn’t remotely as young as we’re expected to believe. Preston Foster had but two of his hundred and one movies still to come; he was prominent in pictures as varied as The Informer, Destination 60,000 and Kansas City Confidential. Philip Carey is best remembered for playing a villain on soap opera One Life to Live, or for other TV shows, but he made a lot of films, mostly westerns, before this. Merry Anders co-starred with Barbara Eden on How to Marry a Millionaire, but that predates this; at only thirty, she was also closing on her last picture. However, Steve Franken’s most recent film came as late as 2016, four years after his death.

None of them are particularly memorable, but John Hoyt was always memorable and it’s well within the bounds of possibility that his performance here led to his casting the next year in The Cage, the original pilot episode of Star Trek, as the ship’s doctor, Boyce. He’d already played major roles in a few sci-fi features: When Worlds Collide, Attack of the Puppet People and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, but he’s known more for his TV work in the genre: two episodes of The Twilight Zone, three of The Outer Limits, two of The Time Tunnel and one of Battlestar Galactica. These are fondly remembered, not least by people claiming to have been abducted by aliens rather similar in appearance to those he played, but they never stereotyped him; he was far more likely to be found adding great menace to a long line of crime shows or westerns, often as the villain, at least until Gimme a Break! in 1982 when his cantankerous role as father to the lead endeared him to millions over six seasons. He was a highly versatile actor.
The Time Travelers is hardly a groundbreaking slice of forgotten celluloid, but it deserves to be remembered a lot more than it is. It isn’t the acting, Hoyt excluded, or even the thoroughly capable cinematography, but Ib Melchior’s script that stands out most. It’s fair to say that not all of it is particularly original and some of it isn’t as successful as it perhaps should have been, but it was a rare feature at this point that was so thoroughly full of interesting ideas; some of them seem very familiar today, especially that rover trundling along the surface of Titan. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but Melchior sets up a number of layers of catastrophe and still manages to end on a positive note. It wasn’t the ending I was expecting, three quarters of the way through the movie, which has to be regarded as another positive aspect. This wasn’t Melchior’s most famous film, that surely being The Angry Red Planet, but this deserves as much, if not more, attention from those who filter through sci-fi to find interesting science fiction of the sixties.

Notable bibliography:
Unsteadicam Chronicles (davidbordwell.net)

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