THEY’VE SAVED THE BEST TRIP FOR LAST... BUT THIS TIME THEY MAY HAVE GONE TOO FAR
And so we come to the final chapter in the temporal displacement hi-jinx factory that is the Back to the Future trilogy. We’ve seen Marty get up to some very crazy stuff, haven’t we? Over the course of two movies, he’s lived a little over a week, spanning 60 years, and all within the space of a couple of days. During that time, he’s been hit by a car, stopped his parents from meeting, inadvertently caused an alternate 1985, made out with his mother, invented skateboarding and rock n’ roll, and saved his own son from jail. And Doc, well he’s… been there, too. Come to think of it, Doc has never had much in the way of development, other than getting to see that his life’s work towards travelling through time would indeed be realised. He’s always just been an agent of the plot, someone to keep things going in the background. In that case, it seems only right that we now look to him for our third time out – Back to the Future Part III.
Stranded in 1955, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) received written word from Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) that he is in the Old West, 1885. Instructing him as to where he can find time machine, he asks to be left where he is and for Marty to return home. However, a discovery about Doc’s fate prompts Marty to go travel back to 1885 and save his friend from local bad guy, ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). As Marty tries to bring him back, Doc falls for the new schoolteacher, Clara (Mary Steenburgen). Doc then must choose whether to stay or return home.
Have you ever had to answer the question, ‘if you could visit any historical time period, when would that be?’ If not, you need to get some more imaginative friends. Well, back when the first Back to the Future film was still in production, Zemeckis apparently asked Michael J. Fox this very question. His answer was that he would like to visit the Old West, meet some real cowboys. When the call came for there to be some sequels to follow up the huge success of that first film, this seed of an idea stayed with Zemeckis and Gale. Another seemingly throwaway line was placed into Part II, along with the odd subtle hint, that this would perhaps be a direction to go in. When Doc decides in Part II that the time machine should be destroyed, he mentions that his biggest regret would be that he never got to see his favourite time period, the Old West. He goes on to say, “time-travelling is just too dangerous. Better that I devote myself to study the other great mystery of the universe… women.”
It’s important that these words that form the basis of the third Back to the Future film come from Doc because, as I said before, we’ve never got as much of a journey from him as we have from Marty or George or Lorraine. It’s only down to how well the character is written and performed that you don’t seem to notice that he spends most of his time acting simply as a functionary of the plot. But it’s about time we got to know him better. We know he’s got a crazy passion for science, and that his home is littered with bizarre half-finished contraptions and framed pictures of great scientists of the past, but what else is there to him? Why does he have such a strong urge to pursue science as a career? Does he have anything else he would like to pursue? We get a sort of answer in those couple of lines from Part II, but it’s about time he got the spotlight.
Doc’s initial decision to remain a blacksmith in 1885 becomes compromised because Marty finds out that, not long after sending his letter to 1955, Doc is killed by local gunman Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen. As such, Marty goes back to save him from this fate. Doc is willing to go along with it, mainly to help Marty get home, until he rescues Clara Clayton from a runaway wagon. The two instantly spark and Doc finds it harder to leave, knowing that Clara is perhaps the Jennifer to his Marty. Doc and Marty have a few days until they are set to leave, so Doc spends as much time with Clara as he can, the two clearly in love with each other, brought together by passion for science and a love of Jules Verne. Earlier, 1955 Doc mentions that when he read Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, that was the moment he decided to become a scientist. Not only does this act as a commonality between Clara and he, but also it completely opens up so much about Doc. The giddy scientific enthusiasm, the completely off-the-wall theories and pursuits, the sheer awe at the nature of the universe. It all comes together, and Doc seems to shine all the brighter for it. Christopher Lloyd’s performance takes a boost for these new aspects, too. And Clara is such a sweet character, played wonderfully by Mary Steenburgen, and so well suited to Doc that you do feel how torn he is between his head and heart, which is clearly not a decision he is used to.
This is not to say that the film is all about Doc and Clara. There is still the shenanigans with Marty, who comes to town and almost instantly runs afoul of Biff’s ancestor, Buford Tannen. Marty is almost successfully hanged (which actually rendered Michael J. Fox unconscious), though he is saved by Doc. When Marty then saves Doc and Clara at the town dance later on, Buford challenges him to a gunfight. Marty accepts, thinking he’ll be gone by the time the Monday deadline rolls up, but seeing as how Doc is now so smitten with Clara, he isn’t sure he’ll join him getting out of town. The typical relationship between Doc and Marty has now been reversed, with Doc trying to follow his heart, and Marty trying to follow his head. It’s a nicely underlined moment when they also exchange catchphrases:
Marty: Great Scott!
Doc: I know, this is heavy.
Zemeckis does a great job of transposing the Hill Valley that we’ve come to recognise into its beginnings of 1885, locating the familiar places like the diner into the saloon, and showing the first ticks of the courthouse clock, which would come to have such significance for these characters. Zemeckis has also utilised the vistas and the iconography of westerns to great effect. There’s also several nods to westerns of the past, such as giving Marty the alternative name Clint Eastwood, and then having him use the stove hatch/bulletproof vest trick Eastwood used in A Fistful of Dollars. The shot that sees Marty enter the township for the first time is itself an allusion to a similar shot in Once Upon a Time in the West. Even the casting of Dub Taylor, Pat Buttram and Harry Carey Jr., three actors who are as synonymous with westerns as John Wayne, is an inspired touch. And a very interesting part comes from the moment when ‘Mad Dog’ fires into the saloon floor, calling for Marty to dance. Not only is this a reference to the 1903 Edwin S. Porter western The Great Train Robbery, which contained a similar scene, but it is actually one of two big films from 1990 to have this reference, the other being Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
I know I’ve said very little about Alan Silvestri’s music over the series. In fact, almost nothing at all, so I’ll mention it now. From beginning to end over the course of the whole trilogy, Silvestri’s music has been one of the most enduring elements of the films. It’s a shimmering, soaring, absolutely superb work. I actually have the soundtrack to all three films, and I tell you this – it is very difficult to be driving on a long journey, have the Back to the Future theme come on, and try to not instantly aim the speedometer for 88mph. It is very difficult indeed. And in Part III, Silvestri conducts all of the energy and spirit of the originals into a new vein, channelling it through the likes of Elmer Bernstein and Alfred Newman, creating a sound that is at once familiar and distinctive. As far as I’m concerned, Silvestri could have screwed up everything else he ever did, because the music for the Back to the Future trilogy is his pass to permanent fame. Of course, just to show off, he did other excellent work in other films. Some people are just show-offs like that.
Back to the Future Part III was received much better than Part II, largely because it seemed to recapture the heart that seemed to be missing from that previous instalment. It’s also much less convoluted than Part II, although I did enjoy the interweaving nature of that film. It more clearly mirrors the simplicity and fun of the first film, whilst still very much having its own personality. What’s more, it feels like a proper ending to the series. The characters have made their journeys and come good. They have come through it all, and what makes it better is that we were with them through it all. It’s always great to be able to part ways with the characters you’ve come to love on such amiable terms. Between you all, you’ve got some fond memories.
So many people say they long for a fourth film; I don’t. I’m honestly okay with no continuation of this series. Not that I don’t wonder about where the characters went and what else happened to them, but I’m happy with having that exist solely in my head. To bring out another one would be an uncomfortable stretch. These characters have been through so much, and us with them, that to drag things out further would feel like an act of cruelty to them. I don’t want Marty and Doc to be subjected to more temporal displacement lunacy for my amusement, or the amusement of others. I’ve grown to care about them too much for that. I’m sure that what they would want is to sit back with their lives as they are now and happily recollect the ups and downs, the scores and near misses of their adventures. Who are we to shake them out of that?