Leopold Alexis Elijah Walker Thomas Gareth Mountbatten, played convincingly by Hugh Jackman, is a nobleman, the Duke of Albany, among the last of a dying breed of true gentlemen in the late nineteenth century who sees the future in men like Edison. He is attending the unveiling of the first phases of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge on April 28, 1876 when a young man catches his attention. The man escapes into the crowd, but later turns up at the Duke's home, at a party at which the Duke is being pressured to select a wealthy bride. This time Leopold follows him upstairs, where the man is using something very like a Kodak® Instamatic® camera to take pictures of the designs and models in the Duke's private room. It seems the Duke has already invented, but not yet unveiled, the elevator, a model of which sits on his table. The culprit runs, and attempts to escape by first climbing and then leaping from the Brooklyn Bridge. In an effort to rescue the man from his foolishness, Leopold falls with him toward the East River.
In this film, time travel is accomplished by fissures in the fabric of time; Stuart Better has predicted a recurring fissure just above the East River below the Brooklyn Bridge, which opens cyclically, and has traveled to the past. As they plunge from the bridge, they pass through the fissure, and emerge in the present.
We have the predictable comedy of errors as the displaced time traveler comes to grips with the fact that he really has come to the future. It is complicated by the neighbor, Meg Ryan's Kathryn McKay, or Kate, a former girlfriend of Stuart who is very annoyed at the time she wasted dating him and even more driven to succeed in her career in advertising research. Meanwhile, every elevator in New York is malfunctioning; one of them manages to leave Stuart seriously injured and hospitalized when he steps through the open door into the empty shaft. For Stuart, things go from bad to worse, as his insistence that he has to get home to return the Duke to his own time and so repair the time continuum result in his transfer to a locked down mental health ward. There he finds a nurse who believes him, and so helps him escape in time to return the Duke to his own time.
(A note on the names should be made. The credits list the roles as Kate McKay and Duke Leopold; the spellings of the full names, pronounced in the film, are my best guess, and might be contradicted elsewhere. I have chosen Kathryn from the several variant spellings that are pronounced that way because it is most likely to devolve into the nickname Kate, as compared with Cathryn or Catherine or even Katherine.)
But the story has not yet ended. Kate has gotten her promotion to Vice President in charge of the New York office of the company, and is attending a major celebratory dinner; not believing that Leopold could possibly be who he claims and not knowing that Stuart has sent him back, she leaves a message on Stuart's answering machine asking to see Leopold after the dinner. Meanwhile, Charles "Charlie" McKay, her brother (an actor who has all along believed Leopold was another actor brilliantly honing his craft by pretending to be a nineteenth century nobleman), comes looking for him at Stuart's, where he finds the photos Stuart is even now examining, realizes that the Duke's story was true, and discovers something else: Kate is in one of the photos. She was at the ball.
Stuart and Charlie manage to finagle their way in to see Kate, and get her to see the photos. In the middle of her speech, she realizes what it is at which she is looking, abandons her podium, her career, and her life, and rushes with them to the Brooklyn Bridge to leap into the fissure, which is about to close. She makes it, races across town, and is in the ballroom in time for Leopold to see her and announce that he will be marrying her.
There are quite a few problems regardless of what theory of time you choose; we will attempt to address them all.
The moment the Duke hits the fissure, the elevator in which Kate is riding pauses and resumes. Thereafter, every elevator in New York is reported to be out of order, with elevator maintenance companies running themselves ragged trying to determine what is wrong with them. It's a nice bit of fiction, but completely unlikely.
We know that the Duke had already invented the elevator, and already understood its function and purpose in relation to tall buildings. It may also be noted that Otis, the manufacturer of many of the elevators we see, is the name of the Duke's valet. It is entirely possible that the Duke's invention could be exploited by others after his disappearance, and he still be credited.
Suppose, however, that in the absence of the Duke no one in the house ever considered the elevator more than a silly idea. This would suggest that the elevator was not invented, because Leopold did not invent it. You might think this a smaller matter than it is. Elevators did not make skyscrapers convenient; they made them possible. Every authority agrees that the tall buildings of New York and every other city came into existence because elevators could be used to carry people up and down within them. Without the elevator, the entire skyline of New York would be altered. Removing this one invention from history alters everything. New York would have a fraction of its modern population--you can only fit so many people on an island if you cannot build up.
Yet it is not so serious as that. In science and technology, we say that certain things are ripe for discovery. This should not in any way be taken to suggest that those who discover are not brilliant; but had they not been there, it is likely that their discoveries would have been made by someone else shortly after they themselves made them. Edison is most famed perhaps for the light bulb; yet there were dozens of others working in the same direction with many of the same concepts. He got there first. Alexander Graham Bell is credited with inventing the telephone, but that credit is his because he reached the patent office fifteen minutes before the next applicant. The things that have truly changed our world have flowed from the changes which preceded them. Even the greatest scientific advances, the theories of Newton and Einstein, were coming; these might have been delayed a generation or two if their developers had not lived, but by the time they expounded their truths the world had come to a place where there were too many unexplained facts and many very intelligent people were seeking an explanation. Darwin devised his Theory of Evolution while a fairly young man, and only published it upon being made aware many years later that someone else was working on the same idea. Thus we may surmise that the elevator would have been invented, probably within a mere year or two, without Leopold. The only difference would be that Stuart would not know Leopold had invented it if in fact someone else had.
This does present a problem to the film, however. Stuart is injured, and so prevented from interfering with the relationship developing between Kate and Leopold, because the elevator in their building is not working properly. Since the removal of the Duke from history will not cause such problems with the elevator in the present, Stuart should not be injured, and so not hospitalized. In our understanding of time travel, it is clear that someone still invented elevators, and that they have been functioning ever since regardless of who invented them, so they will not cease to function now.
You might at this point think that the fault is in the theory, that it must be the case under the movie's theory that elevators would cease to work. But we have recognized that the movie suggests a fixed time theory (it is Stuart's explanation for why Kate is in the photos he took inside the Duke's home). According to the fixed time theory, if the Duke is going to be sent back to the past at any point in the future, then he has already arrived in the past--if Stuart will fix the time continuum, he has already done so. Thus under the fixed time theory Leopold has already reached the past, and nothing is wrong with the elevators.
Those who support the parallel dimension theory fare no better. Stuart left from the original history into the past, where he entered the first altered universe, in which he took pictures and took Leopold out of history to the future of that altered universe. He then took Leopold back to the second altered universe, where Leopold invents the elevator; but he sends Kate back to the third altered universe, confusing things even more. If removing Leopold from the history of the first altered universe undoes the invention of the elevator, taking him back to the second altered universe will not fix the first altered universe.
We may eliminate the material about malfunctioning elevators generally, however, and still retain the possibility that the elevator in this one building was not working properly. Such accidents do happen. It would be a grand coincidence that it happened to be an elevator accident that injured him, but movies are in some ways about coincidences and this one is reduced to humorous irony of a dark sort.
Just before Stuart sends the Duke off the bridge on his return trip, he informs him that he might find himself returning before he left. Indeed, this proves to be so. He suggests that the duke should go through the events he already experienced, except that when he (the duke) sees Stuart, don't pursue him. In fact, that is what happens--Leopold finds himself preparing for the party. He informs his uncle that in view of things he will announce his intention to marry whichever is the wealthiest young lady present (who happens to be a rather awkward girl, Miss Tree, of the Schenectady Trees). (The name is also a pun; it is a Miss Tree whom the Duke will marry if Kate does not marry him.) He goes through the motions of the ball, ignores that strange man from the future, and prepares to make his announcement.
I trust you see the problem. It is multifaceted, however, so we will have to pull it apart.
On any version of time travel, if you return to the past before you left the past, you will find yourself still there. There will now be two Duke Leopolds of Albany getting ready for the ball, two dancing with the ladies, two noticing the time traveler. This is evidently absurd; as soon as the duplicate appears there will be questions raised, and everything will be altered.
We have also suggested that the film attempts to present a fixed time theory. We are to believe that because Kate will be in the past eventually, she was already in the past when Stuart took those pictures. Although there are workarounds for why she is in the pictures in the other two theories, they presume that the pictures represent a metaphysically later time trip, and that the original photos did not include her (more below). But at this point, even if we somehow accept that the Duke has replaced himself, we must admit that he is altering history--something forbidden absolutely on the fixed time theory. He is a more somber man; he is promising to marry the richest girl present for the sake of his family fortune, rather than standing by the principle that he cannot promise eternal love when he has never experienced momentary love; he intentionally does not pursue Stuart. The past has changed.
Although Back to the Future Part II is riddled with errors, it did recognize quite clearly that once Marty and Doc return to 1955 they must work around the other Marty and Doc who were already in 1955. If the Duke arrives before he departs, he cannot merely replace himself; he must wait for his self to depart. He could easily have done this. He could have come up the back stairs (mansions always had these) to his rooms after everyone had left, cleaned up and prepared himself, slipped back down into a hidden corner, and watched. When he saw himself leave, he would emerge from the same direction, knowing that his other self would not return.
This shows the other major problem with the changes Leopold makes to history at this point. He chooses not to pursue Stuart; if he fails to do so, he will never travel to the future. The fixed time theory is destroyed at this point; the duke never travels to the future, meets Kate, and returns, is not now melancholy and will not choose to marry any of the girls here. As a fixed timeline film, it fails.
Yet with a few adjustments, it may yet work under our theory.
Fundamental to our theory of time is the notion of the original unaltered history. If someone will travel from the future to the past, they cannot leave the future until the future has arrived. Thus there must be an original past in which no one arrived from the future. This is the necessary temporal chain of events which leads to the time traveler's decision to travel to the past, and until it has played through the time traveler cannot begin his trip. Once the time traveler begins his trip, we rewrite history, erasing what was and replacing it with the new version induced by his interference. In this case that interference was serious--but we are not yet there.
The Duke Leopold attended Roebling's unveiling of the Brooklyn Bridge, as we saw. That evening he attends the ball, full of his notions of nobility, dances with a number of less than desirable ladies (not all of them young), and retires probably without announcing anything. All the would-be Cinderellas (and after all, this movie is just Cinderella with Time Travel elements) go home disappointed.
He will patent and publish his invention of the elevator, and Otis will license it and build them as the skies of New York City fill with monolithic edifices. His family fortunes will be somewhat restored by this, and he will live comfortably. It is not clear whether he will ever marry.
This last point may cause trouble. It might be that he would meet and marry someone eventually. We cannot guess who that might be, but that it is not going to be Kate and it is extremely unlikely to be that awkward Miss Tree girl from Schenectady (which will matter in a moment). He might produce offspring. This means that from his position in the late nineteenth century he will have a significant (but not by any means global) impact on the population of the late twentieth century. Each of his children could be the ancestor of one of the key characters in the present, and that would mean that should the child cease to exist, so would the descendant. It is becomes more complicated than that, but at the moment we can be satisfied that there is no evidence that Kate or Charlie, or Stuart, or Kate's boss or secretary, are descended from Leopold. In a city the size of New York, a million people could have been replaced by a million different people, and the chance that one of these five significant players would have been changed would be small--less than even odds.
Leopold eventually dies; Kate is probably born. But consider this: It does not actually matter whether Kate, Charlie, Kate's boss J. J., or her secretary Darcy ever existed before Stuart's trip. Nothing that they did or do will impact that trip. We can accept the possibility that the population of New York changed entirely; as long as Stuart still exists to make his trip and is substantially the same person up to that moment (sufficiently that he would make the trip at the same moment--and he has little control of the time, as it is a natural phenomenon) he might never have known Kate at all. She does not matter until after he alters history.
Stuart is about to create the first of three anomalies. Before we have even met Kate, he alters history. Leaping from the Brooklyn Bridge toward the East River, he catches his fissure and travels back to April 28, 1876. He is playing a dangerous game, as people are seeing him and his modern camera and strange appearance--and particularly the Duke Leopold, who chases him. Perhaps he did not recognize him right away; it was very foolish of him to then turn up at the Duke's party. Again the Duke pursues him, this time to the bridge, and falls into the future.
That night, Duke Leopold vanished forever. It will be over a century before he emerges from the fissure, into a world in which no one would believe his story but one man, who himself is taken for a madman. But as we discussed, someone will invent the elevator. It may even be Otis; Leopold may even receive the credit for this. Whatever children might have been born to him will not be born; whatever women scorned whatever men in the faint or certain hope that Leopold would marry them will have abandoned that hope and settled for other suitors. Leopold will meet Kate, and much of this part of the movie will be as we saw.
While in the past, Stuart took pictures. Kate was not in these pictures; however, this is of no consequence, as no one will ever see those photographs. Kate is not interested in them, and never takes them to be developed. Stuart does not open them until after Leopold leaves--and this departure changes everything again.
Heartsick that Kate does not love him or believe him, Leopold is persuaded to leap from the Brooklyn Bridge--not to oblivion, but to his own time. This puts him back into history, and means that all of history must rewind to the moment of his return.
It is not at all clear why or how this fissure works. It is a week later in the future, yet Leopold arrives perhaps an hour or so earlier in the past. We have already examined the problem of whether there is now one Leopold or two; but by any theory there must be two. Thus he must stay in hiding until his other self vanishes in pursuit of Stuart, and then emerge to complete the ball. He has not told anyone that he will announce his intent to marry Miss Tree, so his uncle will not be so confident of the purpose of the speech; but heartbroken and in need of money, this is what he will do.
Kate will not arrive, because she cannot yet have left. Leopold will marry Miss Tree, and do his best to make her happy (because he is an honorable man, and although she is an awkward girl she would be so thrilled with the possibility of being a duchess that she would do whatever she could to make him happy). It is entirely likely that they would have children--probably a small family. This creates the next problem.
We have recognized that Kate's parents do not have to exist in the original timeline, as long as they exist in the first alternate timeline. That means that whether or not Leopold married originally doesn't matter, but that when he does not marry (because he has vanished without a trace) this must lead to a world in which Kate (and Charlie) exist. Now the problem is compounded. If Leopold and Miss Tree have children, those children become part of the gene pool. They will marry people who would not otherwise have married them; the people they marry will thus not marry other people to whom they would otherwise have been wed; and those people will now be free to marry others. This recurs with the next generation, as the children of the children repeat this process. In a very few generations, the entire population of New York might be altered. If it results in the disappearance of Kate, the entire story fails--but the time travel problem also fails, because now the Duke who left from 1876 did not meet Kate in 2001 (this is the date of the film copyright; at no point does the film give us the date of the present), and so is not heartbroken or chastened, and still retains his old ideas about not promising eternal love. This throws us into an infinity loop, since if he does not marry Miss Tree, Kate will be born, and so he will marry Miss Tree, so she will not--and so we are caught in an infinity loop.
Yet it might not happen. Leopold might not have any children after all; he might move to his wife's family's estates in northern New York and so have considerably less impact on the city. On top of that, there are only five people in all of New York who truly matter to the story, two of them are brother and sister, and two of them could conceivably be replaced by characters of similar personality, meaning that only two genetic lines need be unaltered--Kate's (which is also Charlie's) and Stuart's. This is not too much to ask. We must say that the probability that those two lines would be unaltered may be low, but since it is not impossible our policy is to recognize it as improbable and allow it.
Stuart's journey is repeated, as is Leopold's. Both of these again result in simple N-jumps, and time continues.
It is not until after Leopold returns to the past and all of the intervening time is rewritten that Stuart opens the photographs and looks. But here we have a problem.
In the film, Charlie spots Kate in one of the pictures. But Kate can't be in those pictures. She has not yet made the trip to the past. This becomes a major problem, and it sets up the next anomaly as a slightly complex one.
In the film, Stuart and Charlie go to find Kate to get her onto the bridge so she can jump back into the past to be with Leopold. But their motivations for finding her, and her motivation for going, are all tied up in the fact that she is in that photo. Without that photo of her, the story ends here; but if the story ends here, that photo cannot exist. We have the tragic ending that the lovers failed to recognize each other until it was too late. The end--that is, it is the end unless we can find something else.
Our time is short. The fissure is going to close soon, and we do not know if there will be another one in Kate's lifetime, or if it will lead to Leopold early enough to matter. Kate needs something which will enable her to recognize that Leopold is for real, which will convince her that he really is from the past; and she needs to see that she is passing up what she really wants in favor of the substitute she created for it.
She has all of that.
During his stay, Leopold walked into a building and found a secret drawer in a room he claimed had been his bedroom. The drawer was painted shut with several coats, apparently undisturbed for generations, but he walked directly to it and removed from it his mother's ring. He gives her the ring from his pocket, and removes it from the box in 2001 to take back with him.) That in itself gives his story credibility. (It is a simple question as to whether that ring would have been there had he married Miss Tree from Schenectady; he already had the ring in his pocket, and might easily have forgotten that this was the temporal duplicate of the one in the box, which he never needed.)
They had a fight; it was about personal integrity. He was arguing that he did not wish to endorse this horrible tasting butter substitute as if it were delicious because it reflected badly on him; she was arguing that what mattered was the money behind it, not the taste. It would probably be on her mind that they had this fight, particularly since making that commercial was one of the reasons she was getting this promotion. Right here, at the podium, she has to face the fact that she is embracing her lies for the sake of a career, when what she really dreams is to be with Leopold.
And of all the awkward reminders, somehow this party is being held in that very same building he said was his house; she has just revisited his room. She is surrounded by reminders that suggest he is exactly who he said he was. It is not unlikely that she would suddenly put it all together, even without the pictures.
It is a much more difficult situation this time. She has to find Stuart--but she can call on her cell phone, and he is home with his pictures. She has to convince him to tell her how to get to Leopold, and he is going to be reluctant, since if he's done any research on the man ever he knows the man married Miss Tree of the Schenectady Trees. But there are ways she could convince him. If you ever cared for me at all, you've got to help me now. Or perhaps After what you put me through, you owe me this. She must convince him.
One additional comment on the ring: it might be thought that once Kate travels to the past, the Duke will remove the ring from the box. However, there is no need for this to happen. He removed the ring from the box already, and still has it in his pocket; the one in the box could lie forgotten for the remainder of their lives. Note that it is a bit difficult to imagine that the Duke and Duchess would leave anything at all in that box, let alone his mother's ring; but once we have established that the secret drawer was never emptied in any previous timeline, it is simple to suggest it was again not emptied.
She jumps. She arrives in the past, and this alters history. The Duke--the one who just arrived from the future himself--sees her and recognizes her. He announces their engagement, and they marry.
This anomaly is at least a sawtooth snap. We again have the problem that his marriage to Miss Tree, created in the previous history, is now undone, along with any progeny it produced. It is compounded by any offspring Kate and Leopold might have, for whom the entire problem cited above must be reconsidered. But again, it is possible that none of the key people were affected by this change in the gene pool. More significantly, Kate appears in the photos now. Stuart will open them in the future, and Charlie will see a picture of his sister. This inverts the end scenario, as they are rushing to bring about what might be inevitable--Kate's decision that she would rather be a duchess than a corporate vice president (was that a hard choice?). Events unfold as we see them in the film.
If it goes right on the first repeat, it will go right on the second. The only thing that has changed is that Kate has already seen a photo of herself at that ball, so she knows she will make it. Having made it, she is again seen, and history replays into an N-jump termination. They lived happily ever after.
The movie makes the mistake of prefiguring the discovery that Kate was at the ball. It does this through the Duke's comments that she looked familiar to him, like someone he had met. This is not a pickup line (it might be that she thought so). It is his honest expression that he has seen her somewhere before.
But he has not.
The first several times, metaphysically, that he meets her for the first time, experientially, she had not been at the ball at all. Thus he could not have seen her in the past, as she was never there. But this leaves the last time, the time when, about to announce his choice of bride, his eyes fall on her and he speaks her name. The fixed time theorists would maintain that she was always there, each time, and so he saw her each time. They would say that the assertion he has not seen her is proof that this theory doesn't explain this movie. However, the fixed time theory does not explain the movie either, on this point.
It is clear that Kate rushes to reach the ball, and manages to get there just before Leopold makes his announcement. However, it is equally clear that Leopold left the party considerably earlier in pursuit of Stuart. Thus even if we suppose that everything that will happen has happened, we are left with this: Leopold arrives at the party, sees Stuart, leaves for the future, meets Kate for the first time in the future, returns to the past; Kate then leaves the future and arrives in the past, reaches the party after Leopold has both left and returned. Leopold never saw Kate in the past until after he met her in the future, because she was not at the party until the very last moment, after all the dancing had ended.
The prefiguring is a mistake. Excuse it, if you like, as a case of mistaken identity, but clearly Leopold had not seen Kate before.
Kate and Leopold tells a story which is possible, and which permits time to continue into the future when it is over. That is a respectable accomplishment. If you have thoughts or comments, Write to me about this film, or questions that you have on this page. You might also wish to look at other pages on this site.