Back to the Future III (1990)
STORY: ROBERT ZEMECKIS and BOB GALE
SCREENPLAY: BOB GALE
DIRECTOR: ROBERT ZEMECKIS
RELEASE DATE: May 25 1990
Director Robert Zemeckis brought the Back to the Future trilogy to a conclusion with 1990’s Back to the Future Part III, blending the science fiction and comedy of the previous films with a healthy dose of Western. Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s story, transferred into a screenplay by Gale, pays off in numerous ways and makes nods both to where the films have come from, as well as the genre of movie Westerns. And it brings back the leading actors, Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, as well as a number of supporting actors, some of whom are in new roles this time out - characters who are nonetheless familiar to us already.
The film opens up with the ending of the previous film - in 1955, Marty McFly (Fox) finds the 1955 Doc Brown (Lloyd) seconds after he helped send Marty back to the future - and of course the sight of him shocks the Doc. Marty’s stranded in 1955, having had watched the 1985 Doc and the DeLorean vanish during a lightning storm, but there’s a way out - the Doc sent a message through time to Marty from the year 1885, where he ended up, urging his friend to get the assistance of his 1955 counterpart to get back to his own time. In locating the hidden DeLorean, Marty and Doc make a stunning discovery - the grave of Emmett Brown, killed in 1885 by Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), the great-grandfather of franchise irritant Biff Tannen.
Marty decides to travel back seventy years and save his friend. He takes the DeLorean back through time and ends up in the Hill Valley of 1885, a western settlement with Indians in the countryside and wild animals. He first meets his own Irish born great-great-grandparents, Seamus and Maggie McFly (Fox and Lea Thompson), and has a run in with Tannen and his gang. The intervention of Doc, who’s established himself in town as a blacksmith, saves Marty from getting hanged. The two friends intend to leave 1885, but fate throws them for a curve when they save a schoolteacher, Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen), and Doc falls for her.
The original McFlys
Maggie, Seamus, and little William
The kernel for this film starts with the original film, in which Zemeckis asked Fox what time period he would want to visit - Fox mentioned the Old West, and Zemeckis and Gale held onto the idea until they started crafting the story for the second and third films. There’s a bit of set-up in the second film pointing the way, and with this, the two continued to tell a story blending together the science fiction and comedy of the earlier films, while infusing a rich Western sensibility seamlessly. The story moves along briskly, and retains its sense of humour while still playing on characterization - Marty and Doc are both as we know them, while it seems stupidity and malice run deep in the Tannen clan.
The nods towards the Western genre include the almost obligatory views of Monument Valley, numerous character actors who’d played in countless Westerns, showdowns in the street, saloons, and Indians versus the cavalry. Filming was done largely on location in California and Arizona, and the way Zemeckis films all of this definitely feels like a Western, grand sweeping landscapes and all. Crews were kept busy rebuilding Hill Valley from scratch as a set in the countryside - one can see hints of the future, such as the courthouse and its clock, in the dusty western setting. The place certainly feels like something that would have existed at the time - buildings look of that era, the way people speak and dress evoke the time (with the exception of the clothing Marty’s wearing when he first arrives in the period, which are completely wrong, but reflect the mid 1950s obsession with Westerns, sequined shirts and all - Marty looks like Roy Rogers). Even Alan Silvestri’s score, while maintaining the themes from the other films, brings in music that sounds distinctively like a Western.
The casting is ideal all around. Elizabeth Shue reprises her role once again as Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer, seen briefly at the end after her whirlwind time spent in 2015 in the second film. She gives the character a believable connection with Marty. James Tolkan returns once again as an ancestor of the principal from the first two films, this time playing Marshal Strickland, and the character’s just as much of a hard ass as his descendant (a grandson, one would think). Lea Thompson, who spent the first two films playing Marty’s mother, ends up playing his great-great grandmother Maggie (strangely, on his paternal side). Maggie McFly comes across as no-nonsense in character, and it’s curious watching her with Fox as he plays Seamus (quite often in the same space as Fox also playing Marty).
Bufford "Mad Dog" Tannen
Thomas F. Wilson’s take on “Mad Dog” Tannen is actually my favourite of the different Tannens (in more than one time period) that the actor played through these films. If anything, he’s dumber than Biff (though not as dumb as Griff Tannen). Buford Tannen is a nasty, foul tempered lout, perpetually angry and drunk, just a despicable excuse for a human being (he reminds me of one or two people). Wilson plays to that in his performance, giving us an antagonist we find both dangerous (a drunkard with a gun is a bad thing) and repugnant.
Mary Steenburgen is a delight as Clara. The role, it seems, was written with her in mind, though she was initially reluctant to take it, until her children pressed her to take it. The character is a schoolteacher in distress when we first meet her, casting her presence into Doc’s life particularly in a big way, and Steenburgen plays her as a smart woman with imagination, curiousity, and heart - as well as courage late in the film. The relationship that develops between Clara and Doc is sweet, and the two actors bring that to life in the way they portray the characters.
Lloyd finishes his three film performance as Doc Brown in just the right way - the same eccentric scientist that we’ve seen before, though there are some new nuances to the character. The 1955 Doc plays to the humour of the character - his shock at seeing Marty again seconds after he sent Marty into the future is priceless. The present day Doc (trapped in 1885) shows that he’s adapted well when we first find him in the Old West, showing a resourceful trait in the character. We also see old hints of Doc as a child - his love of classic science fiction books still stays with him. And we see a man who falls head over heels in an instant- one wonders how he reconciles that as a scientist. In his last run as the character, Lloyd seems to be having a whole lot of fun.
Emmett and Clara Brown
Fox completes his role as Marty, still finding himself as a fish out of water - he arrives in the Old West in a tumultuous way, and takes time getting used to the Old West. He doesn’t have to be the romantic lead of the film - the character still has a girlfriend back in his own time, after all. There’s the natural charm and the wisecracking traits of the character, and at the same time, we see other elements to the character. His tendency to dislike being thought of as scared plays itself out through the film - is he easily provoked or can he think his way to a solution? I like that Marty proves to be resourceful and does as much thinking as fighting in how he deals with Mad Dog Tannen - it shows character growth beyond that rash dislike. And I also like how he quickly makes the decision early on to go back in time and help the Doc - he has the opportunity to go back to his own time, but selflessly chooses to do the right thing.
Back to the Future Part III nicely caps the trilogy in just the right way. The notion of taking things into the Old West was a good one, giving the audience sight gags and nods to the genre. It has heart, too, and moves along smoothly. The story gives us a particularly repulsive antagonist, and the sweetness of a romance for one of the leads. It’s a whole lot of fun, and as such, it works wonderfully as the final chapter of the adventures of Marty and Doc.