“The year is 1986. An Old West nerd must stop an angry senior citizen from assassinating President Grover Cleveland’s assistant in 1886.”
Whoa, just calm down there, Movie Logline! You had me at “the…”
Timestalkers is a made-for-TV movie that premiered on CBS in 1987. Its casting director snorted mountains of Crystal Light to generate the chutzpah needed to net William Devane, Klaus Kinski, Lauren Hutton, and John Ratzenberger. Michael Schultz, who directed The Last Dragon, helmed Timestalkers. Englishman Brian Clemens wrote the screenplay. Clemens worked on The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, and Highlander II.
Add all that up, and Timestalkers should be one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s not. Yet, its simplicity charmed me. There is something special about TV movies that exist because a writer dared ask:
“Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”
A network executive then saw the opportunity to sell ads for toilet paper, oatmeal, and Rice-A-Roni, and it all came together to be broadcast on a Tuesday night for kids to talk about on the playground the next day.
Timestalkers is built around a solid idea. Devane goes to an antique auction and buys a box of old tintypes. While examining them, he notices something weird. A man in the background of one of the photos looks like he is holding a modern revolver, perhaps a Colt Python with a swing-out cylinder.
The story takes off from there and bounces back and forth between 1886, 1986, and 2586. Since Timestalkers is a made-for-TV movie with no real budget for sets and special effects, the past and future are depicted by wardrobes. When the movie is in 1886, people wear Western clothes. During the (very brief) scenes taking place in 2586, people wear silver jumpsuits.
Timestalkers using silver jumpsuits to denote the future is the movie in a nutshell. It has a quaint 1950s sensibility to it. Making fun of it is like making fun of your grandma. Sure, it’s possible, but all you are doing is hurting someone who simply wants to give you cookies and hugs.
Out Of Timestalkers
Let’s hit some talking points for Timestalkers. First, the title waaaaay oversells the movie. The moniker of Timestalkers brings to mind a VHS title that has a cover featuring a desert setting, a man with a glowing sword, and a woman in torn clothing, clutching his leg.
All Timestalkers has is William Devane in corduroy, Lauren Hutton in buckskin, and Klaus Kinski looking like Witch Hazel from the Bugs Bunny cartoons. Despite this being a TV movie, old Klaus gives it his all. He rants, runs, jumps, dives, and shoots Tracey Walter, who maybe wasn’t even there in the first place. Walter’s brief appearance is such a Tracey-Walter kind of role that he could just as well be a watermark pre-exposed on the film stock.
Nothing about Klaus is token, however. I can see Klaus standing there in the setting sun after the last day of shooting. Everyone has gone home. Finally, as night falls, Klaus whispers:
“They will remember me for this role…”
And then he disappears in a puff of crazy. Has anyone noticed that the world missed out on something by not having William Devane play a live-action version of Mr. Toad? No? Just me then? Yet, the guy totally looks like a human toad. Wonderful career. Wonderful man. Still would have made a great live-action Mr. Toad.
Danny Pintauro is William Devane’s son in Timestalkers. The movie shows them bond by having them shoot cap pistols at each other. That’s how I knew I wasn’t in 2023 anymore. Can you imagine a TV movie showing a father and son shooting play guns at each other? That’s definitely not “thinking of the children.” Timestalkers is very pro-gun. After a traumatic event, William Devane uses the healing power of quick-draw shooting to learn how to love again.
And does Devane’s quick-draw skills eventually play a part in the movie, perhaps in the finale? You better believe it! You are dealing with Brian Mister-Falconing Clemens here! He knows how to plot. Dude wrote Highlander II: The Quickening, for goodness sake!
Got the Timestalkers
A couple of other character actors show up in Timestalkers. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air patriarch James Avery plays a blacksmith. Get it? Black. Smith. Because Avery is black! I’m sure that’s the pun they were going for when they cast him for that part. Man, that would freak Twitter out now! R.D. Call shows up as a rootin’-tootin’ outlaw. Whenever I see R.D. Call, I’m always reminded of a line he had in the lost Stephen King series Golden Years.
Perfect paranoia is perfect awareness…
Timestalkers also features a 1986 version of Photoshop. It is what I used to put together the photo of Klaus from Timestalkers below. Timestalkers seems proud of its tech. It also likes to show off a digital telescope and its time-travel technology, which is like the jewel from Romancing the Stone with a digital readout superimposed on it.
Timestalkers does have a cool use of time travel that I don’t remember seeing done before, though. Klaus uses time travel for infiltration. He comes up to an electric fence in 1986 that he needs to get past. He simply travels into the past where the fence doesn’t exist. Then he moseys where he needs to go and returns to 1986 on the other side of the fence.
One other amusing note is that in the future world of Timestalkers, scientists are closely monitored. They are only allowed to go so far in their experiments. The reason: they almost destroyed the planet. What was supposed to seem draconian to 1987 viewers probably makes a lot of sense to 2023 viewers after experiencing various scientific follies.
Wrong place, Wrong Timestalkers
If Timestalkers had been a 1970s TV movie, it would have been a lot cooler. As it stands, it is post-Terminator, which pretty much became the benchmark for time-travel movies. Time travel flicks now are all about changing the past. Before Terminator, they were more about adventure. I’m thinking along the lines of The Time Machine, Time After Time, Somewhere in Time, Planet of the Apes, etc. I guess The Final Countdown touched on trying to change the past, though, so maybe I’m wrong.
Whatever, I don’t have time to pontificate on time-travel movies. Let’s rate Timestalkers and get out of here. Considering the limitations of the budget and the restrictions of TV, Timestalkers did an all right job. It told a simple story with a solid cast. One can see how it would have played on a Tuesday night in 1987 and where the commercial breaks for oatmeal and toilet paper would have happened. In fact, let’s go out on some commercials from 1987. See you after the break…
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