Things to Come
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Synopsis: In this "history of the future," a second world war breaks out in 1940. War continues until 1966, by which time the social order has been destroyed altogether and a plague called the "wandering sickness" further decimates the population. A warlord referred to as "the Boss" now controls the ruins of Everytown. John Cabal, a former resident of the city, returns to depose "the Boss" and reveals the establishment of a new World State in Basra, run by an elite group of scientists and intellectuals who use superior air power to maintain order. In 2036, Everytown has been completely transformed into a technologically advanced and strictly ordered society. Oswald Cabal, John Cabal's grandson, is planning to send the first humans to the moon via a "space gun," but the dissident artist Theotocopulos rejects the notion of human progress and attempts to raise a mass revolt against the moon mission.
Things to Come (1936), easily the most expensive British production of its day, is a free adaptation by H. G. Wells of his own book, The Shape of Things to Come (1933). The original book is framed as a posthumously published, unfinished work by a certain Dr. Philip Raven, a member of the League of Nations Secretariat, who supposedly based it on a series of dream visions. Written as a historical chronicle, the book lacks a conventional narrative and characters, though it does incorporate a notebook by the fictional artist Ariston Theotocopulos, who also appears as a character in the film version. For the film script, Wells invented additional characters and placed them within conventional dramatic scenes, while retaining the overall "historical" outline of the book.
Today H. G. Wells (1866-1946) is best known for the books he published during the period between 1895 and 1909, among them: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), and the much underrated, semi-autobiographical Tono-Bungay (1909). Most critics regard Wells' pre-World War I output as superior to his later writings, in no small part because his political program increasingly came to dominate his creative output. This shift in his work most likely originated from his brief (1903-1908), turbulent membership in the Fabian Society, a socialist group that promoted change gradually, and through reforms rather than violent revolution. Wells retained his outspoken political views, which included the notion of a "World State," or Modern State as it is described in the book, a centralized planned economy led by a meritocracy of scientists and intellectuals. Not surprisingly, the finished film of Things to Come glosses over the overt critiques of capitalism and religion found in the book.
While many leading British critics admired the film, it proved a disaster at the box office. This was especially true in the U.S. market; Daily Variety noted long lines at the film's New York opening, but it failed to sustain long-term interest. According to Michael Korda, one American distributor said, "Nobody is going to believe that the world is going to be saved by a bunch of people with British accents." In an article for the New York Times Frank S. Nugent characterized the film as running afoul of a broad range of political groups. Amusingly, Nugent noted: "The Daily Worker has berated Mr. Wells for his failure to include the class struggle in his new outline of history and promises that, when the revolution comes--on that, at least, they are agreed--it will be brought by the workers, not by the scientists and technicians." The film was also criticized, not unreasonably, on scientific grounds. In a 1937 issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, an anonymous reviewer complained about the infeasibility of the "space gun" used to launch the first human travelers into space, noting that the required force would be unbearably high for humans to sustain.
From today's standpoint, the most enduring aspect of Things to Come is undeniably its visual design. The director, William Cameron Menzies, clearly drew much of his inspiration from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), particularly in the montage sequence depicting the construction of the new Everytown. This was not the first time Menzies evoked Lang in his work; his stunning production design for The Thief of Bagdad (1924) also recalled the Arabian episode of Destiny (1921). H. G. Wells, on the other hand, actively disliked Metropolis due to its sentimentalized reconciliation of Capital and Labor. Also worthy of note are the futuristic costumes, whose prominent shoulders are inspired by the kata-ginu (shoulder cloth) of Japanese samurai, and the much admired musical score by British composer Arthur Bliss. The film's dialogue and acting have fared less well, though they have admittedly contributed to its subsequent camp following. It's difficult not to smile when an adorable little girl of the future declares to her grandfather, "They keep on inventing things and making life lovelier and lovelier," or when Cedric Hardwicke performs the role of Theotocopulos with the arched eyebrows and florid diction of a stock company Iago. Ralph Richardson is more effective as the warlord nicknamed "the Boss," whom the actor deliberately modeled after Benito Mussolini.
Producer: Alexander Korda
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Screenplay: H. G. Wells, based on his novel The Shape of Things to Come (1933)
Photography: Georges Perinal
Trick Photography: Harry Zech
Special Effects Photography: Edward Cohen
Art Direction: Frank Wells
Set Decoration: Vincent Korda
Film Editors: Charles Crichton and Francis Lyon
Music: Arthur Bliss, directed by Muir Mathieson
Costumes: John Armstrong, Rene Hubert, Marchioness of Queensberry
Cast: Raymond Massey (John Cabal/Oswald Cabal), Edward Chapman (Pippa Passworthy/Raymond Passworthy), Ralph Richardson (The Boss), Margaretta Scott (Roxana/Rowena), Cedric Hardwicke (Theotocopulos), Maurice Braddell (Dr. Harding), Sophie Stewart (Mrs. Cabal), Derrick De Marney (Richard Gordon), Ann Todd (Mary Gordon), Pearl Argyle (Catherine Cabal), Kenneth Villiers (Maurice Passworthy), Ivan Brandt (Morden Mitani), Anne McLaren (The Child).
by James Steffen