It’s About Time

Today on TCM, we travel back through time as we air the 1933 time travel romance, Berkeley Square, with Leslie Howard and  Heather Angel.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s a pretty interesting take on time travel in which Leslie Howard goes back in time to become his own ancestor.  The dates traveled are from the contemporary time of the movie, 1933, back to 1784, when Leslie must intervene in the affairs of his ancestors to make things right (they always have to do that when they travel through time, don’t they?).   I enjoy it for many reasons but the primary reason is simple:  I love time travel stories.  I’ve even written a couple myself.  That’s how much I love them.  Even though they’re usually thrown into the science fiction category, they just as often exist in the purely fantastical realm of magic, rather than science, making the time travel theme a sub-genre in itself.


There are two types of mechanisms used in time travel movies and, as a science fiction fan, I’m a little surprised at which one I prefer.  While there are endless variations within the two mechanisms used, it essentially boils down to a battle between the magical and the mechanical.  Taking the mechanical first, this is the method associated most explicitly with science fiction.  Within the story, an actual technological mechanism is used for the time travel that takes place.  Back to the Future, The Time Machine, Looper, and Time After Time, for instance, all use actual working time machines to do the transporting.  On television, in two classic episodes of Star Trek and The Outer Limits; The City on the Edge of Forever and Demon with a Glass Hand, respectively; both written by Harlan Ellison, technological devices that seem magical are used but they are technological devices nonetheless.   In other time travel tales, like Berkeley Square, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Somewhere in Time, and Time Bandits, the device is truly magical:   a dream, a wish, a supernatural map, etc.  In A Christmas Carol it’s a ghost that brings Ebeneezer Scrooge back to his youth and in a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, Back There, the protagonist, after discussing Lincoln’s assassination in the present day, walks out of the club he’s in to find himself back in 1865 just because.  There is no mechanism, period.  He’s just there.  And as a sci-fi fan, I honestly prefer it that way.  Oh, I love all the true sci-fi time travel movies and tv episodes, where an actual time machine is used.  But since the pained explanations of the science, in an attempt to make it seem more realistic for the viewer, often feel pointless, I’d much rather just have the character wish he was back in time and then, boom, he’s back in time.  Just don’t pull a 1979 penny out of your pocket once you get there.

Beyond the mechanisms, there are also generally two types of plots, either personal or historical.  In the personal tales, the characters travel through time on a mission that’s about them, their family, or a loved one.  Back to the Future, Berkeley Square, A Christmas Carol, and Somewhere in Time all have characters going back to correct mistakes or fall in love.  In Back There, The Final Countdown, The Terminator, and Time After Time, the characters are either trying to change history, prevent a dystopian future, or stop a historical character from killing again.  Looper is one of the few movies where it’s both a personal journey and an attempt by the lead character to change a past, his present, that will lead to a future he doesn’t want to happen.  It has effects on society but also, and mainly, just himself.  It’s a bit confusing to explain if you haven’t seen it and, like almost any time travel movie, is filled with plot holes upon reflection but, ah hell, if it’s engaging, I honestly don’t care.


So what are my favorite time travel tales?  Well, I’ll tell you but I should warn you first, by paraphrasing Will Munny, quality’s got nothing to do with it.  Are these the best time travel movies?  Oh God no, not by a long shot.  I just like them.  Somewhere in Time is kind of silly and goopy and, for goodness sake, Christopher Reeve travels back in time by laying on a hotel bed and telling himself he will go back in time!  And I love it.  The Final Countdown has Kirk Douglas lead the crew of the aircraft carrier Nimitz into a magic portal that takes them back to the day Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941.  The whole affair is pretty low rent but I’ll be damned if it’s not a personal favorite.  And Malcolm McDowall as H.G. Wells pursuing David Warner as Jack the Ripper in 1979 California?  More, please!  Of course, I think all of these movies are actually pretty good and many of my favorites, like Time Bandits, are excellent.

For whatever reason, having characters travel through time almost exempts the movie from any criticism for me.  Hell, I even like Star Trek IV: The One with the Whales.  And, of course, my fellow Morlocks and I wouldn’t even have a call name without The Time Machine so, right there, I owe the sub-genre a debt of gratitude.  Naturally, I’ve left out dozens of time travel movies and tv episodes in an effort to keep this post from turning into one long list (but, if that’s what you want, feast upon this list and, if you like the sub-genre, start viewing some titles).  For starters, you can give Berkeley Square a look today (or DVR it for viewing… in the future!).  It’s a lot of fun and, it should go without saying, timeless.


13 Responses It’s About Time
Posted By Emgee : March 20, 2015 8:23 pm

“Leslie Howard goes back in time to become his own ancestor.”
Now that’s just bad science; you see, for that to happen….aw ferget it!
Would you say a movie like Sleeper is in the timetravel category?

Posted By Qalice : March 20, 2015 9:57 pm

I love time travel, too, and I’m glad I’m not the only one. Looper was a good example, as are all the movies you mentioned. And on TV, the Flash has now run fast enough to travel in time. It couldn’t make less sense, but I love it!

Posted By Sharon : March 21, 2015 12:40 am

I don’t know why no one has filmed Jack Finney’s novel “Time and Again.” If you love time travel and 19th century New York City, you must read it.

Posted By gregferrara : March 21, 2015 2:23 am

For me, Emgee, any character in a time not his own is a time travel movie, so yes. Also, Austin Powers.

And with BERKELEY SQUARE, I kept thinking of the song, “I’m my own grandpa.”

Posted By gregferrara : March 21, 2015 2:25 am

Qalice, speaking of making no sense in comic book time travelling: Superman flying really fast around the planet and reversing time instead of, you know, destroying all life on the planet.

Posted By gregferrara : March 21, 2015 2:34 am

Sharon, I know Time and Again well. I myself have written some time travel fiction and the lead character in that is a big influence.

Posted By george : March 21, 2015 2:45 am

There have been plans to film “Time and Again” over many years, but no movie has yet emerged. At one point Paul Newman was developing it. He eventually passed it on to Robert Redford. Again, no movie.

A 2012 Variety article states Doug Liman would film it. Three years later, still no movie.

If you haven’t yet read “Time and Again,” I envy you. You have a great reading experience ahead.

Posted By Gamera2000 : March 21, 2015 3:38 am

Love time travel and alternate world stories both in literature and film.

There was a very interesting recent low-budget adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s classic All You Zombies, titled Predestination. It has a fascinating time loop narrative, and it has an amazing performance by a young actress, Sarah Snook and a very good one by Ethan Hawke.

Posted By Cool Bev : March 21, 2015 3:01 pm

A time travel story I rather liked was Tyrone Powers’ I’ll Never Forget You from 1953. It sounds like it was inspired by Berkeley Square – at least the synopses would be the same.

Posted By swac44 : April 2, 2015 8:51 pm

I’ll give another vote for Predestination, saw it recently and enjoyed it quite a bit, and also mention the 1932 Lee Tracy film Turn Back the Clock, in which a humble tobacconist gets hit by a car and wakes up 20 years in the past, with a chance to (he hopes) change his life for the better. I’ve seen it pop up in the TCM schedule a few times, so keep your eyes peeled.

And, if I may be so bold, feel free to tune into a movie podcast I co-host titled Lens Me Your Ears, whose first installment is a free-wheeling discussion of Time Travel Movies:

Posted By robbushblog : April 10, 2015 5:25 pm

SWAC- I’m gonna give you a listen.

Posted By swac44 : April 11, 2015 5:31 am

Thanks Rob!

Posted By robbushblog : April 13, 2015 2:29 pm

Yup yup!

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