Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.
Today is October 21, 2015. You know, the actual date that Doc, Marty, Jennifer and Einstein travel forward to in Back to the Future Part II. And here we are to complete the trilogy of Movies to Watch lists devoted to the trilogy of Back to the Future movies.
By the end of this post, along with the previous two lists you will have a total of 30 recommendations, one for each year since the original installment debuted in theaters. Hopefully it’s enough to keep you distracted from being sad about all of the Back to the Future stories now being set in the past. Well, the movie stories, anyway, because in the animated TV series there’s an episode set in 2091 (see you again then, fans!) and in the comic books Doc and Marty travel to 2585 and then millions of years beyond (I might not make it that far, guys).
As you might expect, this third list is full of Westerns, most of them directly influential on Back to the Future Part III. If you’re one of those people who dislike this sequel because it’s almost entirely set in the Old West, then you may not be interested in a lot of the below picks. I’ve tried to balance the list out a bit with other essentials, though I will note that all the Westerns represented are classics and must be seen whether it’s because of the references in BTTF3 or not. Happy trails…
The Lonedale Operator (1911)
Although not in the filmed version of BTTF3, the original draft of the script and the novelization both feature cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith as a character. At least it’s supposed to be him, even though as described as being seven years old, the kid is too young, and also the real Griffith would have been living in Kentucky at the time. The boy confronts Marty (Michael J. Fox) just after he defeats Mad Dog Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) in their showdown and asks how he thought of using armor under his serape. Marty tells him he saw it in a movie. The boy asks what a movie is (the first official one wouldn’t show up for two more years, after all), and Marty says, “You’ll see.” It would have been reminiscent of his line in the first installment of the trilogy when he tells the kids at the dance that their kids are going to love the kind of music they’ve just heard him play.
Griffith directed many Westerns himself in the first decade of his career and was a major influence on the genre going forward. He’s credited with giving us the first instances of a few Western conventions, such as the Native American siege on a wagon train and the cavalry rescue, both in 1911’s The Last Drop of Water. In fact, most of his Westerns involved Native Americans, usually attacking or being attacked by whites. 1912’s The Massacre is an easily seen example of that bunch. The Lonedale Operator is different, an action-oriented short dealing with a robbery at a train station, similar to Edwin S. Porter’s much earlier, much more famous The Great Train Robbery. Griffith’s film, though, is notable for its use of crosscutting and close-up for the time. He remade The Lonedale Operator a year later as The Girl and Her Trust, which features a greater train-chase action sequence for those thrilled by the climax of BTTF3. Watch the former in full below, and then watch the latter here.
The General (1926)
Speaking of great 19th century locomotive action set pieces, if there’s ever one better than the BTTF3 climax, it’s the entirety of Buster Keaton’s masterpiece about a boy and his train during the Civil War. I just included this silent comedy back in May on the list of movies to watch after Mad Max: Fury Road, but the BTTF sequel is just as related, if not more so. Keaton is a Southern engineer denied enlistment in the Confederate Army who becomes a hero anyway while trying to save his girl and his locomotive (mostly his locomotive) from Union soldiers. Like in BTTF3, the train in The General winds up very spectacularly (and at least for this film very expensively) crashing to the bottom of a gorge.
The Chicken of Tomorrow (1948)
One character you may not know the story of in BTTF3 is the barbed wire salesman who chats with Doc at the saloon. Although unnamed, he’s supposed to be John W. Gates, a pioneer of the fencing material and later an integral part of the founding of The Texas Company, aka Texaco, a brand that is more prominently represented in the previous two BTTF installments. What does that have to do with this old documentary short? Well, it was produced by The Texas Company and is about the future – of poultry. Also, Universal’s lot, including the Hill Valley set, is all on land that was formerly a huge chicken ranch. The first tours even included a chicken lunch apparently made from the remaining poultry farming on site. It’s no wonder people kept calling Marty chicken. He was basically born out of fowl territory. Mystery Science Theater 3000 mocked the short, and you can watch that version here. The original is below.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
While getting to know each other, Doc (Christopher Lloyd) and Clara (Mary Steenburgen) bond over their love for sci-fi and fantasy author Jules Verne. It’s a connection that would lead to them naming their children (Todd Cameron Brown and Dannel Evans) Jules and Verne. The first book of his mentioned in the scene is “From Earth to the Moon,” which Doc quotes. He then says that “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is his absolute favorite, that he wished he could be Captain Nemo. In another scene, when he marks the cave with his initials, a la “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” Doc mentions that “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” was the first he’d read, at age 11, and that was when he knew he wanted to devote his life to science.
Presumably Doc also enjoyed this Disney adaptation of the book as his time-machine locomotive at the end looks like it was inspired by the design of Nemo’s Nautilus. In fact, production designer Rick Carter was inspired by that submarine and labeled the new vehicle the “Jules Verne Train.” It’s unclear if the Enchantment Under the Sea dance was also named for the story, but that would have been perfect since it would mean the Browns and the McFlys each fell in love through something involving Verne.
In each of these lists for the BTTF trilogy, I’m including one older movie shot on the Courthouse Square lot later used for downtown Hill Valley. Interestingly enough, while I’m pretty sure no scenes were filmed at that location for BTTF3, the sequel does reference a couple movies that were. At the drive-in theater, the marquee advertises Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki, a 1955 installment of the franchise I previously acknowledged in the BTTF2 list. That series used the square for the characters’ hometown but in this one it also was employed for scenes set in Hawaii (as seen in this image). Also seen at the drive-in is a poster for Tarantula, which not only was shot in Courthouse Square but also features an uncredited appearance by a young Clint Eastwood, as the lead jet pilot.
Eastwood, whose name is borrowed by Marty while he is in 1885, began his movie career in the BTTF-appropriate year 1955, appearing also uncredited in Return of the Creature, the poster for which is next to Tarantula’s, and Francis in the Navy, his first credited work, which is featured on the theater’s marquee. Like the BTTF movies, Tarantula is about a well-intentioned scientist who invents something that he later regrets – of course, by the end of BTTF3, Doc changes his mind and is just fine with time travel again.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
It would be a shame not to include at least one John Ford Western on this list, what with the drive-in scene being shot in Monument Valley and the dance scene referencing My Darling Clementine and Ford regular Harry Carey Jr. being one of the old timers in the saloon (the three of them collectively provide so much more to watch, by the way) and most significantly Wilson’s inspiration for Mad Dog coming pretty much entirely from Lee Marvin’s title villain from this movie that also stars James Stewart and John Wayne. The homage, which clearly wasn’t only on Wilson’s mind, can be found in his look, his props and especially his movement and expressions during the scene where he’s beaten by Marty.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Clint Eastwood makes an actual appearance in the BTTF trilogy, via this classic Sergio Leone Western played on a TV in the second movie. Its influence, though, is felt in the third installment, with the use of the Eastwood name, the more authentic clothing worn by Marty and of course the showdown scene. Like the Jules Verne Train, the way Marty uses a hidden cast-iron stove door like a bulletproof vest is both the movie and the character taking inspiration from an old movie. BTTF3 also has visual tributes to two other Leone Westerns: when Doc saves Marty by shooting his noose, that’s out of 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the shot of the town when Marty arrives is reminiscent of one from 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West.
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
One more Eastwood movie, this is recognized by BTTF3 in the form of a couple cool cameos. When Marty enters the saloon and gives us his 1885 equivalent of trying to order a Pepsi Free in 1955, he tries to order a water. He’s told by Chester the bartender that they only have whiskey. Chester is played by Matt Clark, who is also the bartender (named Kelly) in this Eastwood-helmed film, where he tells Eastwood’s title character that they have no whiskey. Or beer, or anything really. Later in BTTF3 we see Bill McKinney as the train’s engineer. In this, he’s got a much bigger role as the villainous Captain Terrill.
Time After Time (1979)
Steenburgen was sought to play Clara in part based on her role in this movie where she plays the love interest of another time traveller. Instead of a man from the future who is a fan of a famed 19th century sci-fi and fantasy author, her leading man is from the past and an actual famed 19th century sci-fi and fantasy author, H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell). He’s gone to 1979 – on November 5, which is also the date in BTTF when Marty arrives in 1955 – to find Jack the Ripper (David Warner). After doing so, and killing the notorious serial killer, he brings Steenburgen’s character back to his own time period, just as Doc does with Clara.
An American Tail (1986)
It would seem Steven Spielberg had a thing for the year 1885 in the late 1980s, as he produced both the BTTF movies and this animated feature directed by Don Bluth. An American Tail shows us a very different part of the country at that time, of course, being set in New York City. Also, after opening in Russia in 1885, much of the movie’s action carries over into 1886, which would be more appropriately exactly a century before its release. The sequel, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, which was co-directed by H.G. Wells’s great-grandson, Simon Wells, took the characters, as you can tell from the title, way out west.