Back to the Future III (1990) is perhaps the most unique of the time travel film series that came to define the 1980s by showing other points in our nation’s. What does that mean? Late last night I got a text from my dear cousin asking me about the historical background of the connection between gun ownership and so-called evangelical Christians. Given that this was in a text, I felt there was only so much I could say. Had I had more time (and not wanted to go to bed), I would have gone on to explain how the decade of Reagan was a period of retrenchment of what society perceived as lost values. Thus it is not mistake that the first time jump Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) performs in Dr. Emmet “Doc” Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) famous DeLorean is to the 1950s in Back to the Future (1985). Before the 1960s seemingly ruined, well, everything, the previous ten years (with a boost provided by the Red boogeyman) was seen as a time when true American values were widely accepted. When Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, it was on a platform of returning to those values. Back to the Future Part II (1989) moves forward from 1985 by thirty years, and the idea is that those same values had led us into a brighter tomorrow. The only thing missing is the idealization of the American West, when men were supposedly men and rugged individualism could conquer anything (or anyone). This is where Back to the Future Part III comes in.
The year that Back to the Future Part III spends most of its time in is 1885 (what is with these Back to the Future movies and years that end in five? Simple math?), though it starts in 1955. If you remember in my review of Back to the Future Part II, each sequel in the series picks up right after its predecessor. We last left off with Marty finding the 1955 Doc to tell him that he is stranded there owing to a future version of the two of them traveling to this time to stop Biff from becoming (for lack of a better term) ruler of Hill Valley. Initially they think there is no hope until Marty reads more of the letter he had received from the Doc who disappeared and ended up in 1885. The additions explain that Doc buried the DeLorean in a nearby mineshaft, and gave instructions as to how to fix the machine. Doc wants Marty to return to 1985, forget about Doc, and destroy the device. But when they discover a tombstone by the mine that shows Doc dying a week after he wrote the letter, Marty decides to go back to 1885 to save him. Unfortunately, when he gets there he ends up in the middle of a battle between local native peoples and the United States cavalry, during which an errant arrow ruptures the fuel line for the car part of the DeLorean. There is now a second problem, in addition to saving Doc’s life: how do you get a vehicle up to the requisite eighty-eight miles per hour in order to travel through time using 1885 methods? While Doc and Marty work out the solution, the 1885 Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) in the guise of Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen begins causing problems for both of them. Buford claims Doc owes him eighty dollars for a horse of his that threw a shoe and had to be put down. As for Marty, he makes the mistakes of referring to Buford as “Mad Dog,” a nickname he apparently hates. Though Marty eventually convinces Doc to come back to 1985 when they figure out the speed situation, their new plan is further complicated by Doc’s growing feelings for Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen). She is the new town school teacher, and they bond over a love of science and Jules Verne novels. Initially Doc resolves to let Clara down, even though Marty encourages Doc to just bring her, ahem, back to the future. Doc rejects this notion, and when this exchange does not go well he proceeds to spend the night in the saloon on the eve of their planned escape. This move causes Marty, who goes looking for Doc, to have to face Buford and they both nearly miss the train that is supposed to push the DeLorean up to the proper velocity. It is while performing this maneuver that Clara manages to track down Doc, having decided to not let him go. Seeing her causes him to stay, and Marty returns to 1985 alone. Once there, he manages to bail out of the DeLorean just before it is demolished by an oncoming train, thus neatly accomplishing one of Doc’s stated goals. Still, Marty finds everything just as it should be, and he and his girlfriend, Jennifer Parker (Elisabeth Shue), get one last glimpse of Doc who arrives in a new time machine to introduce Marty to his and Clara’s new family.
Throughout Back to the Future Part III there are many call backs to the previous films, and as I discussed in my review of Back to the Future Part II, they are all really one movie. Some of this is charming. Other moments can be irritating and make the movies a little predictable. Charming is seeing Hill Valley’s main square with the famous clock tower in its various phases of construction between 1885 and 2015. Irritating is Marty’s inability to back down when somebody accuses him of being a coward. Then again, I suppose if he were a little more level-headed there would not be a movie(s). Still, it becomes almost an almost eye-rolling routine throughout all three because whenever somebody says to Marty “What are you, chicken/scared/yellow?!” get ready as something crazy is about to happen. The Bible teaches us how to avoid such situations. It is pretty simple: turn the other cheek. Accusing somebody of cowardice is a challenge, akin to doffing a glove, slapping another across the face, and daring that person to duel. History is full of people that believed that by submitting to such trials they are being brave, and a lot of those people died needlessly because of their foolhardiness. True bravery comes from not being so easily duped, in knowing right action and sticking to your principles in the face of peer pressure. That is the kind of strength of character that can only come from God, but even then it is not easy. This is a lesson that Marty learns in Back to the Future Part III, though without the religion. At the very end, with Jennifer in the car with him, a group of local flunkies pull up next to Marty at a red light and try to entice him into a race. In Back to the Future Part II it is suggested that this little sprint will result in a car crash that will wreck Marty’s prospects. The lessons that he has learned in the preceding two films, though, convince him to turn the other cheek. With this new knowledge, it also helps underscore how all these films fit together.
It is nice to see the main characters in Back to the Future Part III not bounce back and forth between the years 1955 and 2015. That is part of what makes this iteration unique. It also kind of works as a Western, if you ignore the modern talk of Marty and Doc and the existence of a DeLorean in 1885. Like the other films in the series, it is a fine adventure flick that is reasonable for the whole family to watch. If you find yourself with plenty of time on your hands one of these days, it is also fun to watch all three back-to-back-to-back. I did not do this for these reviews, but maybe I will at some point in the future.