One of the pleasures of writing film-reference books is that I get to watch films I’ve always meant to see but never found the time for. Another is rewatching films and rediscovering how good they are. For example, when I wrote Now and Then We Time Travel, I had the pleasure of rewatching a favorite time-travel romance, 1971’s Quest for Love. I enjoyed it just as much as the first time, even though the ending relies on one of my least favorite time travel cliches. Spoilers follow.
The film is based on John Wyndham’s short story Random Quest and vastly improves on the source material. In the short story, a physicist drops by an old country doctor and asks him if he has a younger relative called Ottilie. The physicist explains how a freak accident flung him into a parallel world where his counterpart, a successful novelist, was married to a woman of that name. The marriage wasn’t good, but the scientist eventually won her heart before he snapped back to his own world. Now he’s moving heaven and earth to find this world’s Ottilie, and has tracked down the doctor as one of her family members. The doctor — who’s deductions about what’s going on are the best part of the story — insists that there never was such a woman. In the ending, it turns out he’s wrong; the scientist has found his love again.
It’s a low-key “drawing room science fiction” story, with the doctor puffing on his pipe as he listens to his guest’s odd claims. Quest for Love is not low-key. It’s a romantic melodrama that jacks up the stakes and adds several neat touches. As in the story, Colin’s (Tom Bell) physics experiment thrusts him into a parallel world in exchange for his counterpart. In this timeline WW II and the Vietnam War never happened. The touches are the world’s details: JFK heads the League of Nations, Lesley Howard is the grand old man of British theater (in our world, he died in WW II) and Everest has yet to be climbed. Alt.Colin is a successful writer married to Ottilie, played by Joan Collins, so it’s no surprise he falls in love with her at first sight.
It’s not reciprocal. Alt.Colin is a womanizing, abusive, drunken shit and Ottilie’s feelings for him died long ago. Colin tells her the truth but she dismisses it as one of her husband’s gaslighting tricks. Even when Colin convinces a brilliant physicist to back him up, it doesn’t overcome Ottilie’s distrust. Finally, though, she realizes Colin’s the man she’d once thought her husband was, and they come together in true love.
Not for long, though. Ottilie has a heart condition our world could cure, but in this timeline it’s fatal. After assuring Colin that “if the time we’ve had together is all there is — it was enough,” Ottilie dies telling him to return home and find her counterpart. Her death wasn’t in the Wyndham story, so I’d bet money they borrowed it from the previous year’s mega-hit Love Story. But where Ryan O’Neal lost Ali McGraw, being in love in a parallel-world romance means never having to say goodbye.
Colin breaks into a physics lab and duplicates the accident that brought him to this world. It successfully sends him home, where he’s been in a coma since the original accident (this simplifies the plot as his double hasn’t been able to get up to mischief). He sets out to find Ottilie only to learn she died with her family in the Blitz. Then he discovers she survived, misidentified, and wound up adopted under the wrong name. Knowing that she’s on the brink of death, Colin rushes to find her and succeeds, just as the heart disease strikes her down. He gets her to the hospital in time to save her life. As the film ends, their romance begins again.
Which is the cliche that normally drives me nuts. In the short story, the doctor points out that his world’s Ottilie won’t be the same person that the scientist met and fell for (though Wyndham ignores that to arrange the happy ending); Quest for Love is one of many films that pretend otherwise. Time and again (pun intentional), the protagonist loses his love across the gulf of eons or the walls between Earths, then meets someone played by the exact same actor — he hasn’t lost her after all! He has, of course, but this resolution crops up in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949), The House on the Square (1951) The Love Letter (1998), Forbidden Kingdom (2008), Prehistoric Women (1967) and The Edge of the Garden (2011).
It never makes sense, but sometimes it’s worse than that. In Forbidden Kingdom, the bland teenage hero sees his true love in ancient China die in his arms, then comes back and finds her double — well, no need to grieve now! In Edge of the Garden, the double is the granddaughter of the protagonist’s lost love. Granny has groomed the woman her entire life to meet this man and replace her in his heart, which I find way creepier than the film meant it to be.
It’s not that bad here, only illogical. Ottilie’s not only living in a different world from the first Ottilie, she’s grown up with a different family, lived a different life (airline hostess rather than socialite), never been married. She’s not the woman Colin loved. unless all he loved was Joan Collins’ beauty. But as I adore Quest for Love in all its over-the-top melodrama, I’ll overlook the absurdity, just this once.
Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.