(1936) Directed by William Cameron Menzies; Written by H.G. Wells; Based on the novel The Shape of Things to Come by H.G. Wells; Starring: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott and Cedric Hardwicke; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“War can be a highly stimulating thing, but you can overdo a stimulant.” – John Cabal (Raymond Massey)
“All the balderdash one finds in such a film as Fritz Lange’s (sic) Metropolis about “robot workers” and ultra skyscrapers, etc., etc., should be cleared out of your minds before you work on this film. As a general rule you may take it that whatever Lange (sic) did in Metropolis is the exact opposite of what we want done here.” – H.G. Wells (excerpt from his memo to the visual effects team)
H.G. Wells made his first foray into motion pictures with an adaptation of his 1933 future-history novel, The Shape of Things to Come. Originally titled Whither Mankind, a reference to one of his socio-political speeches, the film was eventually released as Things to Come (aka: H.G. Wells’ Things to Come). Wells’s collaboration with producer Alexander Korda and director William Cameron Menzies was not a harmonious one, as the prolific author insisted on supervising every aspect of the creative process.* According to historian Christopher Frayling, Wells wrote numerous memos to the filmmakers, providing guidelines about casting, costumes and effects.** Unfortunately, since Wells wasn’t a filmmaker, he couldn’t adequately articulate what he wanted to see, resulting in a laborious process of trial and error.
* Fun fact #1: Although Wells succeeded in micromanaging most of the production, he lost the battle to have only his name appear in the film’s credits.
** Fun fact #2: At Wells’s insistence, his son Frank assisted the producer’s brother, Vincent with the art direction.
The original version of Things to Come was 130 minutes, but numerous cuts over the years whittled the running time closer to approximately 90 minutes (The Criterion DVD clocks in at a relatively brisk 97 minutes). While the novel covered the years 1929 to 2105, the film version, spans 1940 through 2036, and divides the story into three distinct time periods. Each of the three periods is set in the generic Everytown, which serves as a common thread.
The story begins on Christmas Eve, 1940, the dawn of a great global war. As the citizens of Everytown celebrate, a massive air strike is about to occur. The filmmakers capture the panic and mass destruction that ensues, prefiguring the real-life blitzkrieg attacks that were just around the corner for World War II England. In the context of the film, however, Wells is careful not to mention the opponents on either side. John Cabal (Raymond Massey) is a young idealist who joins the fight against the unnamed adversary. In a later scene, he comforts a dying pilot whose plane he shot down.
The second segment takes place in 1970, after the war has ended. It’s easy to see how this segment could have influenced the Mad Max films, nearly a half-century later, with its depiction of post-apocalyptic tribes fighting over the rubble of civilization. Humanity has devolved into a quasi-dark age, and Everytown is under the rule of a warlord known as The Boss (Ralph Richardson).* Margaretta Scott plays one of the film’s most interesting and under-utilized characters, Roxana. As his de facto queen, she observes how the present version of civilization can’t continue, and unlike her short-sighted partner, sees peace as the inevitable answer. An elderly, white-haired Cabal returns to his home town, arriving in a sleek monoplane and wearing an enormous bubble helmet. He represents the Wings of the World, a shadowy, technologically superior organization that aims to bring an end to the petty squabbles, and rule humanity through a benevolent world council. The council plans to subdue the masses with their fleet of massive airplanes, which dispense the “gas of peace,” a sort of non-lethal chemical warfare.
* Fun fact #3: According to film historian David Kalat, Richardson fashioned The Boss after Benito Mussolini, despite the fact that Wells wanted the character to be generic.
The third segment depicts the future Everytown of 2036, built on the ruins of the devastated landscape. The city of tomorrow is a wonderfully dated 1930s version of the 21st century, with its underground skyline (Wells believed future societies would build down, not up), artificial sunlight, raised moving walkways and glass elevators. The residents stroll about in broad-shouldered tunics without pants, and sport long, flowing capes. Raymond Massey returns as John Cabal’s descendent, Oswald, who presides over Everytown, and plans a space launch, using a gargantuan “space gun.” But all is not well in this utopia, as the rabble-rouser Theotocopulos* (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) attempts to thwart the launch, and spurs social unrest, citing dissatisfaction with this rapidly progressing society.
* Fun fact #4: Ernest Thesiger, fresh off of The Bride of Frankenstein, was originally cast as Theotocopulos. His scenes were shot, but when Wells disapproved of the footage, Hardwicke was re-cast in the role. Thesiger appeared in Wells’s lighter (and arguably more enjoyable) follow-up, The Man Who Could Work Miracles.
Things to Come was Wells’s polemic against the ills that plagued society. As a keen observer of history, he attempted to extrapolate from current events, and create a blueprint for the forward progress of humankind, but his squeaky clean vision carried some unsavory implications. Wells failed to consider that an oligarchy, even with benign intentions, could become corrupted over time. A central governing body, with no checks or balances, would leave no room for individualists and malcontents. He also doesn’t make a very strong argument for living underground, or why artificial sunlight would be preferable to natural sunlight. Constructing the subterranean city of the future would probably require a much greater expenditure of time, physical effort and material resources, compared to simply building up. Also, everyone in the world of 2036 looks and dresses the same, reinforcing the homogenous themes.
As the reflection of one man’s singular concept of a future society, Things to Come excels. As a whole, the film is a mixed bag. It’s visually spectacular, but far too preachy, sparing no opportunity to bring everything to an abrupt halt, so one of the characters can proselytize to the audience. On the other hand, the film does an admirable job reflecting the era when it was made, depicting social unrest, provincialism and looming global war. By comparison, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which Wells harshly criticized, seems more relevant to modern society, with its themes of dehumanization and urban sprawl. In contrast, Things to Come is a bit of a quaint relic; compelling to look at, but full of outdated platitudes. All the same, it’s fascinating retro look at a future that never was.