Saturday, May 10, 2014

Things to Come (London Films/United Artists, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

[My then-partner] Bob R. had called me in the morning and asked me if I had heard of a movie made in the 1930’s that predicted the future. I told him I’d not only heard of it, I had it in my video collection — H. G. Wells’ Things to Come, made in 1936 in Britain by Alexander Korda (producer), William Cameron Menzies (director) and a motley group of technicians, including the great editor from King Kong, William Hornbeck. He wanted to watch it, so I brought the tape over. He wasn’t all that impressed; as I’d worried he might, he found the film too dialogue-driven, too relentlessly philosophical and just too damned loud, especially in the middle sequence, set in 1970, in which Ralph Richardson’s idea of how to play a petty fascist was to bellow virtually all his lines at top volume. Things to Come was a film I remembered as better than it seemed this time round. (Video has a way of doing that; sometimes, as with the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon or the restored Orson Welles Macbeth, a re-encounter with a major film on tape has the effect of exalting it and making it seem considerably better than it did originally; sometimes, too, it does the opposite.) The script was really afflicted with Wells’ philosophizing; it tended to drag and be overly dialogue-driven (Bob was right about that!) — indeed, Things to Come makes an interesting comparison with 2001: A Space Odyssey, another film that involved a major science-fiction writer (Arthur C. Clarke), only in 2001 the writer was disciplined by an equally major filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, who forced him to translate his concepts into visual terms. In Things to Come, Wells reported directly to producer Korda, and the director, Menzies, was a marvelous set designer but not a strong filmmaker, and not able to exert overall control over the project.

Things to Come also suffered from Wells’ hatred of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, and his consequent determination to avoid anything that might have been construed as a Langian influence. Bob was especially irritated that the spacecraft that is supposed to fly to the moon in the film’s final sequence (set in 2036, considerably later than it happened in real life) was supposed to be launched there by an electromagnetic gun instead of a rocket. He was even more irritated when I mentioned that rocket technology was known in 1936, when Things to Come was made, and the only reason I could think of that Wells went for a space gun instead of a rocket was that Lang had done a rocket trip to the moon in his 1928 film Woman in the Moon, the immediate follow-up to Metropolis. (This was the film for which Lang, seeking to increase the suspense of the launch sequence, decided to have the actors count down and launch the rocket at zero — a practice his technical advisors, Willy Ley and Hermann Oberth, followed in their experience with real-life rockets for the German war effort in the 1940’s, and the American space program subsequently.) Bob said the space gun concept wasn’t intrinsically impossible, but the amount of electromagnetic energy that would need to be generated to break the Earth’s gravitational field was so great that, even if the technology developed to the point where it was possible, it still wouldn’t be the economically preferred method. (And Bob was speaking from direct experience, too; his last job assignment was somewhat similar, only instead of using electromagnetic energy to launch something, he was using it to try to stop flying objects, i.e., landing planes.) — 5/25/93


I first heard of the film Things to Come in the 1960’s when the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland did a feature on it. It was hardly the sort of movie they usually covered — there aren’t any monsters in it (at least any supernatural or science-fictional ones) and it’s not in any sense a horror film. It was a serious work of science fiction produced by Alexander Korda’s London Films studio in Denham, England (which, as Charles once commented to me, would be like having a studio called “Los Angeles Pictures” in Bakersfield) based on a 1933 novel called The Shape of Things to Come by H. G. Wells, who also wrote the screenplay for the film and, according to one “Trivia” poster, was originally slated to direct as well. Then, realizing that Wells didn’t know the first thing about directing a film, Korda fired him, put art director William Cameron Menzies in charge of directing the film (it was Menzies’ seventh directorial credit but the only other Menzies-directed films I’ve seen are one that preceded this from 1933, Chandu the Magician, and one that well post-dated it, the original 1953 version of Invaders from Mars). Korda then put his brother Vincent in charge of the art direction, though the “Menzies touch” is very much evident in the film’s physical look, especially in the futuristic indoor city of 2036, when the film concludes (exactly 100 years after it was made). I remember the last time Charles and I watched this film he said afterwards, “H. G. Wells’ novels are this didactic, too.” It’s a film that certainly reflects a lot of his political ideals, including pacifism, socialism and the virtual worship of science and technology (though somehow he left animal rights, the center of his oft-filmed book The Island of Dr. Moreau, out of this one), and as with a lot of science fiction that takes place at least partially in times that were “future” when it was made but are today’s present or even past, a lot of the fun of a movie like this is seeing what the author got right and what he got wrong.

The film begins in 1940, at Christmastime, and a complacent British population is reading newspaper stories and hearing radio reports of war looming on the Continent but they don’t really think the war is going to happen, and even if it does they don’t think the war will affect them. Much of the film is simply depiction of how life is lived in “Everytown,” the community where it takes place (though the location is obviously supposed to be London), but soon after it opens we meet two central characters, John Cabal (Raymond Massey) and “Pippa” Passworthy (Edward Chapman) — so nicknamed by Cabal because Passworthy’s obliviousness to the dangers of the upcoming war reminds him of the terminally optimistic heroine of Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes. Then the war began with a surprise air attack on “Everytown” — according to the trivia posters, British audiences in 1936 laughed at the scenes of a recognizable London being bombed into popcorn by sinister-looking black airplanes from a carefully unspecified foreign power, whereas anyone watching the film today who’s seen the newsreel footage of London digging itself out from under the real-life air attacks from Nazi Germany in 1940 will be struck at how realistic the scenes were (just as I was astonished that the actual footage of the World Trade Center towers crumbling on September 11, 2011 looked like the special-effects scenes of cities under attack by alien spacecraft in the film Independence Day, made five years earlier) and how they got the “look” of a bombed-out city right. (Of course, the British had had at least some experience of having their cities bombed by German aircraft, both Zeppelins and Gotha bombers, during World War I.) Wells’ World War II is, if anything, even more devastating than the real one; instead of ending in 1945, it continues for 2 ½ more decades and ends with the world facing a new Dark Ages. Not only has technological progress stopped, but the entire industrial infrastructure has collapsed and Britain (there’s really no use keeping up Wells’ pretense that the setting of his story is a fictional country) is a failed state, ruled by a network of warlords.

The one in power in “Everytown” variously calls himself “The Chief” and “The Boss,” and he’s played (superbly) by Ralph Richardson as a sort of mini-Napoleon or Mussolini (even a movie as nervy as this one didn’t dare cast him as a knockoff of Hitler!). The population that hasn’t been killed by the war or the privations as Britain’s (and the rest of the world’s) industrial infrastructure is destroyed are threatened by something called the “Wandering Sickness,” a devastating plague that the title compares to the Black Death of medieval Europe but may also have been inspired by the real-life influenza epidemics of 1918-19 (a more recent real-life plague incubated by a world war, which put so many people together in trenches under filthy conditions they supplied virtually ideal vectors for the deadly flu viruses to spread.) The war is still going on in 1970, when the Boss is determined to force Richard Gordon (Derrick de Marney, who the next year would play the innocent man on the run after being accused of murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent), one of the few people left in “Everytown” with any knowledge of technology, to fix up the remaining planes from the old days and use them for an assault on the Hill People, whom we never see but who seem to be the only enemies left in the immediate vicinity. (Though we’re carefully told that the entire industrial infrastructure has been destroyed, the Boss’s armies go into battle against the Hill People with machine guns and other firearms that in real life would be useless without factories to produce ammunition for them.) Then a white-haired John Cabal flies into “Everytown” on a futuristic (though still propeller-driven — jet aircraft were one technological development Wells did not predict) plane. Gordon, whose great frustration is that he wasn’t around when gasoline supplies still existed and therefore planes could fly, is excited to see a plane in the skies. Cabal steps out of it in a sequence that obviously influenced Robert Wise and Harry Essex, director and writer (respectively) of The Day the Earth Stood Still; though he isn’t extraterrestrial, Cabal is in “Everytown” on a similar mission to Klaatu’s — to get the petty warlords to lay down the arms and let the technocrats of his international organization, “Wings Over the World,” headquartered in Basra, Iraq, take over and run things as a sort of Platonic benevolent dictatorship to rebuild civilization and resume industry and technological progress. (Why Basra? I suspect Wells was thinking that the original “cradle of civilization,” the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, was in what is now Iraq, and also during the original “Dark Ages” after the fall of the Roman Empire — remember that Wells’ best-selling non-fiction book was The Outline of History — Muslims in general and Arabs in particular preserved the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans while the Christians running Europe were regarding it as heretical and destroying it right and left.)

Cabal is imprisoned by the Boss, as is Dr. Harding, but Gordon is able to get one of the planes to work and fly it to Basra, where the leadership of the technocratic dictatorship is able to outfit an armada of bombers with so-called “Peace Gas,” named that because it merely incapacitates instead of killing. The Boss eliminates himself when his reaction to the “Peace Gas” attack is to wave his gun in the air, fire it at random and ultimately shoot himself accidentally. The rest of the population meekly submits to their new scientific overlords and there’s a remarkable montage scene of almost 10 minutes, a slice of techno-porn in which we see the giant new machines that have been constructed to extract earth’s resources for limitless supplies of construction materials and energy, leading to the construction of the “Everytown” of 2036. “Everytown” of 2036 is entirely enclosed — it looks like a giant indoor shopping mall, really — and the people zip around on monorail cars and seem to have little or nothing to do, since giant machines do all the production and the government, to the extent that it has any function left (Wells was a Fabian socialist rather than a Marxist but he apparently shared Marx’s conviction that once socialism was achieved, government’s purpose would shift from controlling people to managing things), is run by the scientific/technological elite that established itself back in 1970 and, now that they’ve solved all the problems on Earth, have prepared a space gun to launch a flight to the moon — though, like the first Apollo missions, they’re originally just going to orbit the moon and only later are they going to attempt a landing. Just why Wells, who got so many things right in this movie, copied Jules Verne’s conceit that humankind would propel itself to the moon in a projectile fired by a gun instead of a rocket is a mystery, especially since director Fritz Lang and his wife and screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, had sent people to the moon by rocket in their 1928 film Woman on the Moon (and for that film Lang invented the rocket countdown; he asked his technical advisor, Professor Hermann Oberth — who later worked on the Nazis’ V-2’s and then on the American space program — how they signaled when the rocket would be launched. “We just count to 10, and launch on 10,” Oberth said. “That’s awfully undramatic,” Lang replied. “What if we count backwards and launch the rocket on zero?” So he did, and later real-life rocket launches followed the example of his movie). But then Wells hated Lang; at the start of production on Things to Come he sent a memo to everyone connected with the film on both sides of the camera and said how much he hated Lang’s (or “Lange,” which was how he spelled the name) Metropolis and he wanted everything on his film done just the opposite of the way “Lange” had done on Metropolis.

The big dramatic issue in 2036 is a confrontation between the great-grandsons of two characters we saw in the earlier parts of the film, who of course are played by the same actors: Oswald Cabal (Raymond Massey) is in charge of the rocket project, while Raymond Passworthy (Edward Chapman) is determined to stop it by crashing his way onto national TV (as one commentator noted, Wells’ future has bypassed the cathode-ray tube sort of TV and gone directly to LED panels and flat screens) and stirring up a mob to destroy the Space Gun. Of course, the conflict is complicated by the fact that the first two astronauts who are going to go to the moon are Passworthy’s son and Cabal’s daughter (the first woman we’ve met in the movie who actually does something more than just be an ornament or a seductress! For all his advanced attitudes on a lot of other things, Wells’ concept of women and their role in the future was decidedly retrograde and sexist). Cabal realizes the only way to save his space program is to launch the capsule from the gun before the mob can get to it and destroy it, and with the enthusiastic support of his daughter and Passworthy’s son he does so, with the film ending with a paean called “Which Shall It Be?” composed by Sir Arthur Bliss, whose rousing score is one of the best aspects of the movie, as Cabal sends off the spacecraft with a stirring ode to technological progress and humanity’s manifest destiny, now that it’s solved the problems of its own world, to spread and colonize the universe. Things to Come is in some ways one of the most extraordinary movies ever made, covering a far wider range of tonalities than most films — from the overstuffed, complacent population of the early scenes to the devastation of the war, the failed state (I suspect Wells was modeling it on China, which like “Everytown” in the film had disintegrated into a barely functional central government and feuding warlords, though the scenes are particularly poignant now that we’ve experienced “failed states” like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia in the modern world) that follows it and the stunning-looking technocratic future of the 2036 scenes. Charles wondered this time around if Wells had been influenced by the 1936 Russian film Cosmic Voyage and its depiction of a technocratic future that gets ready to launch a spacecraft, though I doubt it; by the time Cosmic Voyage was released Wells had already published his novel The Shape of Things to Come and was deep in pre-production on this film, and given that it was a silent movie (it was begun before the Soviet studios had equipped for sound), it’s unlikely that Cosmic Voyage had much of a release outside Russia.

Things to Come is a sophisticated movie, with quite convincing special effects, though it suffers not only from Wells’ didacticism but also his failure to do something he did in many of his other, now better-known works: to give us multidimensional characters we could either admire or detest but at least understand. The people in Things to Come are merely mouthpieces for Wells’ views on the world, its history and what he wanted for its future, and though some of the acting is surprisingly powerful (Massey’s and Richardson’s especially — watching this performance it’s easy to see why Robert Sherwood thought Massey would make a great Lincoln!) it’s obvious a quite talented British cast is doing the best they can with the stick-figure people they’ve been given to play. It’s certainly one of the best movies in a genre that has proved surprisingly disreputable on film — ranking along with The Day the Earth Stood Still (which, as I noted above, was obviously influenced by it!) and Forbidden Planet just below the summit of sci-fi films represented by Metropolis and 2001: A Space Odyssey (which if pressed I’d cite as the only serious rival to Citizen Kane as the greatest movie ever made — when the latest decennial Sight and Sound poll of the ten greatest films of all time displaced Kane at the top in favor of Hitchcock’s Vertigo my reaction was typical: I love Vertigo but not only don’t I think it’s the greatest movie ever made, I don’t even think it’s the greatest movie Hitchcock ever made!) — though with Wells so much in charge of the project it’s held back by the didacticism of his writing style, and frankly if I had to pick one movie as the all-time best adaptation of H. G. Wells on screen it would be James Whale’s 1933 masterpiece, The Invisible Man. (And if I could pick a Wells adaptation from another medium as the best it would be, of course, the famous Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.) — 5/10/14