Another day and the news that yet another actor or actress whom I was a fan of during my formative years has passed away. This blog is in danger of becoming little more than a string of obituaries.
This time the deceased was the Australian actor Rod Taylor, who last Wednesday left the building at the age of 84 – his death, unsurprisingly, received little coverage at the time thanks to the media’s attention being focused on events in Paris. Tall, solid, square-jawed and projecting an image of complete dependability, Taylor starred in three movies that had a big impact on me when I was a kid.
Firstly, there was his performance as the Time Traveller who travels to the year 802,701 AD in the 1960 version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, directed and produced by the celebrated sci-fi-movie impresario George Pal. Wells’ original story is a gloomy, melancholy and understated affair but Pal predictably gave it the full Hollywood treatment. Taylor plays a time-travelling beefsteak who’s handy with his fists and takes no shit from anyone, least of all from that future race of cannibalistic, subterranean ghouls, the Morlocks. Also, he wastes no time in trying to teach the wimpy, wishy-washy Eloi – the humanoid race living on the surface whom the Morlocks use as livestock – the American way, which is that they shouldn’t take any shit from anyone either.
But despite Pal’s simplifications I loved – and still love – The Time Machine. Most of all, I adore the sequence where Taylor tries out his ornate time-travelling device, which looks like a cross between a mass of clock innards and Santa Claus’s sleigh. Viewed today, the time-lapse photography and stop-motion-animation special effects by Gene Warren and Tim Barr seem almost as antiquated as Taylor’s time machine, but they remain immensely charming. I particularly like how the female mannequin in the clothes shop across the street from Taylor’s laboratory dons costume after costume while Taylor fast-forwards through the years and fashions change in the blink of an eye.
Actually, thinking about it, the time-travelling section of The Time Machine retains some of the melancholia and pessimism of Wells’ original vision. First, when Taylor stops off in 1917, he learns of the fate that’s befallen his dear and loyal friend David Filby (played by Alan Young, who later became the cartoon voice of Scrooge McDuck and is still on the go at the age of 95); a fate that befell countless men at the time. And then, when he reaches 1966, he sees civilisation succumb to a cataclysmic nuclear war. Never mind the fact that when I first saw the film, 1966 had already been and gone with no outbreak of nuclear war – this bit chilled me to the bone. In fact, it still chills me now.
Three years later, Rod Taylor appeared in a very different sort of fantasy film, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which for my money is still the scariest movie in which Mother Nature suddenly turns around and starts giving humanity hell. Here, the agents of Mother Nature’s revenge are the titular birds – lots of them, including seagulls, sparrows, crows and ravens. Hitchcock wisely follows the example of the material on which the film is based, Daphne Du Maurier’s short story of the same name from 1952, and offers no explanation for why the birds have suddenly started to attack people en masse.
(c) Universal Pictures
The film is more expansive than Du Maurier’s low-key, Cornish-set original – it opens out the story to allow for a series of tense set-pieces that demonstrate how far ahead of his time Hitchcock was – but it retains the same sense of claustrophobia and doom. Even the presence of Taylor in the film doesn’t make you feel any more hopeful at the end. With his solidness and reliability, Taylor might be a useful guy to have on your side when the feathered world starts pecking human civilisation to pieces, but even he is unlikely to tip the balance in your favour.
Finally, Taylor turned up in Jack Cardiff’s 1968 African-set action movie The Mercenaries, which was based on a book by – who else? – Wilbur Smith. When I saw this on TV in the 1970s, I was in my early teens and I decided that it was surely the grittiest and most realistic combat movie I’d ever seen. No doubt I felt this way because it was the first combat movie I’d seen that had a (relatively) contemporary setting and didn’t take place during World War II. Thus, it had an immediacy that those WW2 movies didn’t have. Mind you, the film did also feature Peter Carsten, playing a mercenary who’d served with the Nazis a quarter-century earlier and was, predictably, a thoroughly bad egg. Also in the film was Yvette Mimieux (who’d starred alongside Taylor in The Time Machine), Jim Brown and that dear old British acting cove Kenneth More, playing an alcoholic doctor who got killed off two-thirds of the way through. Phew! Hardcore!
Probably if I saw The Mercenaries now, it would seem no more gritty or realistic than 1978’s The Wild Geese, that notorious turkey (or goose) of a movie wherein Richard Burton, Roger Moore and Richard Harris play a trio of loveable former-public-schoolboy mercenaries leading a team to rescue a saintly Mandela-like politician from a central African prison. Then again, I’ve read that both Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese consider The Mercenaries to be one of the best action movies ever, so maybe it would hold up to a viewing today. (And no doubt that’s why Tarantino lured Taylor, then in his late 70s, out of retirement in 2009 and got him to play Winston Churchill in Inglourious Basterds.)
One thing that definitely is brilliant about The Mercenaries, though, is its poster-work by Frank McGrath. In my mind, when it comes to action movies, there was no better poster-artist than McGrath. And although McGrath did sterling work on posters for other 1960s action classics like The Great Escape (1963) and Where Eagles Dare (1968), nothing quite compares with the bravura of what he came up with for The Mercenaries, depicting Taylor, Mimieux and Brown perched on top of a crazily-tilting train carriage while other carriages explode, planes attack and villains drop to their doom down the sides of a vertiginously-high bridge.
Anyhow, the next time that The Time Machine appears on television – and it invariably does during the Christmas / New Year season, one morning on a TV channel somewhere – that sequence where the Time Traveller ventures forth into the future will feel a wee bit more sombre now that Rod Taylor is no longer with us.