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Things to Come

Directed by William Cameron Menzies with Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Sir Cedric Hardwick and Margaretta Scott, black and white, 91 minutes, 1936

Crowds at blast-off

Crowds at blast-off

By Carter B. Horsley

In 1936, Things to Come painted a grim, ominious and shocking portrait of a future world partially ruled by warlord and fabulous visions of new cities and huge planes and rocket launchers and flat-screen television.

In his April 18, 1936 review of the film in The New York Times, Frank S. Nugent noted that "H. G. Wells, the eminent fortune teller, has painted a pessimistic, frightening, yet inspiring picture of our next 100 years in his first film, "Things to Come," which had its local première at the Rivoli last night."

 

"Typical Wellsian conjecture, it ranges from the reasonably possible to the reasonably fantastic; but true or false, fanciful or logical, it is an absorbing, provocative and impressively staged production which does credit to its maker, Alexander Korda of London Films; to its director, William Cameron Menzies of Hollywood, and to its cast and technical crew.

 

"As a historian Mr. Wells is convinced that struggle is universal and inescapable. His film, being a premature history of the next century, therefore is a record of conflict; conflict between man and man, between idea and idea. In the beginning—and he starts his forecast in 1940—there will be another world war, a monstrous thirty-year débâcle which will wreck our civilization. Slaughter, poison gas and pestilence will bring industrial activity to a halt. Science and invention will cease. Agriculture will return to Stone Age methods. Only the war will go on, with petty despots of petty city-States snarling over the rotting bones of civilization.

 

"So until 1970, when, out of the East, will come a new civilization which has carried over the scientific spirit of the old. 'Wings Over the World' will be its name, says Mr. Wells, and it will be composed of the scientists, the inventors, the fliers and other knowledgeful men who had the wisdom and the fortune to band together in exile while the rest of the world was engaged in war. They will have formed a new empire—the Freemasonry of Efficiency, the Brotherhood of Science—and, with the anesthetic Gas of Peace, they will subdue the combatant States and, led by the purposeful John Cabal and his descendants, will model a new world over the ruins of the old.

 

"It is a spotless, white world Mr. Wells envisages, and it has been depicted fascinatingly on the screen through clever trick photography, full-size and miniature sets, and all the camera wizardry at Denham's and Hollywood's command. If our historian is correct, the year 2036 will find us living in underground cities, basking in artificial sunlight, breathing conditioned air, enjoying marvels of communication and transportation, dressed in cloaks and shorts, free from cold, indigestion, poverty and dinner jackets....


"In the new world the issue is closed when it is proposed to send a young man and a young woman around the moon in a rocket ship. Theotocopulos, leader of the esthetes, calls for an end to this 'barbarous mechanical progress' which risks even human sacrifice. 'The object in life is happy living. Progress is not living, it should be only the preparation for living,' he tells his television audiences. 'Is there never to be any rest, an end to it?' asks the conservative Passworthy, whose daughter is making the flight....

 

"'Rest enough for the individual man, too much of it and too soon, and we call it Death. But for Man, no rest, no ending,' answers Cabal (who is Wells's voice in the film). The space gun is fired, the rocket is off toward the stars, and another step has been taken in the struggle which must continue, says Cabal, until man has conquered the universe. That is the meat of Mr. Wells's forward-looking picture and it is, for all its melodramatic and fantastic dressing, probably as solid a prophecy as any. Certainly the film strikes perilously close to current truth in its phases dealing with the next great war and with its presentation of The Boss, the petty dictator of Everytown, who might be mistaken for a comic opera despot, except for his impious resemblance to certain internationally prominent figures of today....

 

"'Things to Come' is an unusual picture, a fantasy, if you will, with overtones of the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon comic strips. But it is, as well, a picture with ideas which have been expressed dramatically and with visual fascination....."

Massey


Raymond Massey


Ralph Richardson and Raymond Massey


Ralph Richardson and Raymond Massey

Raymond Massey plays John Cabel, who represents the voice of Welles, with impressive seriousness.  Ralph Richardson plays the Boss who become the ruler of his city/state with fearsome dictatorship, Maurice Braddell plays a frustrated doctor, Edward Chapman plays Pippa Passworthy, a friend of Cabel, Margaretta Scott plays the sexy mate of the Boss, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays Theotocopoulos who opposes Cabel's dreams and hopes for a better world and wants to retain the status quo and thwart Cabel's rocketship.

Edward Chapman and Raymond Massey

Edward Chapman and Raymond Massey


Margaretta Scott and Ralph Richardson

Margaretta Scott and Ralph Richardson

Richardson and Scott outdoors

Richardson & Scott outdoors

Cedric Hardwicke

Cedric Hardwicke

The TV Guide review of the movie noted that "Not since Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS had there been a science fiction film of such epic scope and vision as Alexander Korda's production of H.G. Wells's 1933 treatise on the future, The Shape of Things to Come," the title that was also used for the film.

"Set in an urban metropolis known as Everytown, the film charts the course of a chilling future in which war, disease, and totalitarianism nearly destroy mankind. THINGS TO COME is best remembered for its prescient depiction of massive aerial bombing, which was to change the face of war (and urban England) within three years of its release. Eager to have Wells's participation in the project, producer Korda approached the great author and offered him the chance to write the screenplay. Two years and four drafts later, with considerable help from Korda, writer Lajos Biro, and director William Menzies, the script was completed. Wells was allowed to wander around the set during production influencing every detail of the film from the costumes and set design to the blocking of the actors....

Tube

Tube

Ramps

Ramps

"Though the film fails as a human drama, it succeeds impressively in the scenes of devastation and reconstruction--a purely visual experience. Korda's brother Vincent was in charge of the production design and he plundered every new concept in architecture, industry, and design for the Everytown of 2036. Famed Hungarian futurist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was hired to contribute his vision, but his designs were scrapped as too impractical. Wells, of course, had final approval on everything, but eventually he grew frustrated with the filmmaking process and admitted he knew little about making movies.

"Menzies, one of the most influential art directors in the history of motion pictures, was the perfect choice to direct the film (though Lewis Milestone was signed on at one time). Though his skill in directing actors was negligible, Menzies possessed a true feel for design and knew how to photograph it. At Wells' insistence, Arthur Bliss was brought in before production started to compose the score based on the script and Wells' suggestions. (The author felt that the music should be incorporated into the filmmaking process from the beginning, instead of after the filming was completed.) The resulting music was thus wholly integrated with the visuals. Bliss's work on the film proved so popular with the critics and the public that his music for THINGS TO COME was the first movie score to be recorded commercially and sold in record stores. When it was all over, Korda had spent over $1.5 million on THINGS TO COME, an incredible sum for the time. The film failed to ignite the box office, but it eventually made money. The original release in Britain ran 130 minutes, but the running time was cut for the US....

"Despite its flaws, THINGS TO COME is a truly epic work which continues to fascinate."

In his Blu-ray.com review, Dr. Svet Atanasov said that the movie is "a spectacular sci-fi film with some truly fascinating observations about the future of mankind."

"...the film essentially predicts the division which the Cold War will introduce," he continued, "as well as the enormous role technology will have in people's everyday lives in the years ahead. The film's final act is particularly curious as it addresses a number of real issues that have emerged since the end of the twentieth century....

"Portions of the film have a preachy tone - obviously reflecting H.G.Wells' strong socialist views - but they never seriously disrupt its rhythm.

Atrium

Crowds inside massive building

"The film looks simply extraordinary. Many of the sets and decors here easily rival the ones seen in Fritz Lang's legendary Metropolis. In the final third of the film, where some of the most spectacular imagery is, there is also some fantastic camerawork. There is one particular sequence where the crowds gather on the ground level of a massive building and the camera slowly zooms over them which is quite remarkable.

Aircraft

Aircraft

Parachutist

Parachutist

Invasion

Invasion over the Cliffs


Big plane

Big Plane

"The aircraft designs are also stunning.

"An excellent orchestral score by Arthur Bliss compliments the film. The score was an immediate success with critics and casual filmgoers and was later on often performed as a concert suite at various venues.

"Note: When Things to Come reached Germany, Adolf Hitler was apparently so impressed with the imagery with the destroyed British city (Everytown) that he instructed the head of the German air force and founder of Gestapo, Hermann Goering, to screen it to his subordinates."

The City

The City

In his September 10, 2017 review at the Criterion Collection on DVD, Jamie S. Rich wrote that "Though billed as 'Everytown' throughout the film, these opening scenes look distinctly like London, and so the wholesale destruction of the city must have been extremely disconcerting for contemporary British audiences, especially if they had memories of having seen Things To Come when the German raids on England began just a few years later....Menzies’ attention to detail is still: the images of bodies amongst the rubble of a one-time thriving community deliver a potent anti-war message. And as the battles rage on for the next several decades, only coming to a sort-of end in the mid-1960s, I can’t help but think of the open-ended war America currently finds itself in.

"The Everytown scenario ca. 1966 is one of tentative peace. The townspeople are still at war with the hillspeople, and true to Cabal’s prediction that war will stifle progress, technology has taken a few steps back. Fuel is scarce, and machines don’t run. Cars are now pulled by horses, just like the carriages they are meant to replace. The remaining citizens have also just come through a zombie-like plague, 'The Wandering Sickness,' conquered not by medicine but by brute force. His plan to shoot anyone infected has elevated the Boss (Ralph Richardson...) to a place of leadership. More Donald Trump than Hitler, 'the Boss' continues to rule through fear and bullying, mostly content to close Everytown off from the rest of the world rather than expand too far into other territories. It’s a successful plan, and he would have gotten away with if not for an aged Cabal arriving in a high-tech plane, wearing spaceman armor, and touting a new peace under the rubric 'Wings of the World.' The Boss naturally distrusts this man from the skies, as any tyrant opposes science and invention that he can’t bend to his will. Cabal promises there are more like him coming, and the future of civilization depends on whether Everytown will join this cultural elite or be crushed by them....

"That Wells seems to be on the right side of these things speaks well for his philosophical character, but the future utopia he offers as an alternative seems ironically shortsighted. When Wings Over the World come in and unseat the Boss, using a 'gas of peace' to put the townspeople to sleep, effectively removing their choice of whether to join or resist (and presented as a noble alternative to the poison gas we see in a depressing wartime scene early in Things to Come), it’s hard not to view the new management as more fascistic than what they’ve come to replace, good intentions opening the highway to hell as they do. This is even harder to ignore as we jump ahead in the 2000s and see the utopia that the airmen are ushering in: it’s sterile, impersonal, and referred to as 'white' in a way that feels for more loaded than anyone intended, given that there is not one person of color in all of Things to Come. Likewise, the terraforming that makes this new civilization possible looks more like an ecological disaster now than the triumph of industry it must have appeared to be in the ’30s.

Architecture a la Charles Sheeler

Base of Space Gun with capsule about to lifted to cannon

"That said, the special effects that Menzies achieves, working with such talented people as production designer Vincent Korda..., special effects artist Ned Mann..., and director of photography Georges Périnal..., are nothing short of astonishing, including the scenes where gigantic drills destroy an entire mountain. The future world that follows is a self-contained, towering labyrinth--reminiscent of Krypton, all artificial structures and impossible curves, brought to life by a nigh-seamless melding of models, rear projection, and full-size sets. This imaginative future is made all the more believable by the complicated tableau of Everytown. Menzies and his team give as much attention to the city in ruins as they do the world of tomorrow, bringing a realism to Shakespearian drama that essentially gives Things to Come its spine.

"Here Theotocopulos looks more like an imposing fascist than what he opposes.

"Even with all that to appreciate, though, it’s hard to tell what message Wells is trying to convey with his future society, and whether or not this brave new world is as difficult to maintain as other fictions have led us to believe. Things to Come creates a dissenting voice in Theotocopulos..., a man that asks if there has been enough progress, if we should not focus on the society that already exists, and the initial debate from the 1940 scenes is reignited via Cabal and Passworthy’s grandchildren (played again by Massey and Chapman). Yet, there is something sinister in Cabal’s dismissing of Theotocopulos as merely representing 'artists' whose work will be made small by his scientific accomplishments, especially when Cabal wins, successfully launching a rocket around the moon with his 'space gun.' In his closing speech, Cabal declares that mankind cannot be stopped, nor should they. 'All the universe or nothing,' he tells Passworthy, his face in profile, framed by the universe in all its sparkly glory. Is Wells not merely trading an ignorant tyrant for an intelligent one? Hitler and Mussolini dethroned in favor of Gore Vidal and Neal Degrasse Tyson....

"Things to Come was an excellent combination of Alexander Korda as the producer, Sir Arthur Bliss for the music and H. G. Wells for the story. Wells, who was then 68, was determined to make a film of one of his books. Through his secretary, Russian refugee, Moura Budberg, he met Alexander Korda. Korda...was fascinated by Wells...and resolved to make a film with him....Wells was able to choose Sir Arthur Bliss to write the musical score. Korda wanted to add the music after the film was shot and edited. However, much of the finished score was recorded before the scenes were shot. Consequently, the rebuilding of Everytown by the giant machines was shot and edited to correspond to the music....

The masses

The Masses

New York skyline on flat-screen tv

New York skyline on flat-screen tv

"Things to Come was the most ambitious and expensive SF film ever undertaken until Kubrick’s 2001: A space odyssey, released in 1968...."


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This film is ranked 98th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films.


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