Things to Come (1936) **½
Science fiction didn’t really come into its own as a cinematic genre until the 1950’s, when the general public began to reap the benefits— and therefore to understand the transformative power— of the vast technological strides spurred by the demands of the Second World War. This is not to say, however, that there were no significant sci-fi movies made prior to 1950, even if we discount all those films in which fantastic science was used primarily as a delivery system for horror: Island of Lost Souls, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the like. Hollywood flirted a bit with Jules Verne during the silent era. Germany had Metropolis and By Rocket to the Moon. The Soviet Union— an entire society predicated on the promise of futurism— began producing lavish space-travel epics at least as early as 1924, when Aelita, Queen of Mars exported socialist revolution to the Red Planet. Great Britain got into the act in a big way during the 1930’s, with some of the most serious sci-fi films of the pre-modern era. F.P. 1 Doesn’t Answer (made in cooperation between Gaumont British and Germany’s UFA studio, in tandem with German- and French-language versions mounted by UFA alone) posited a crisis aboard a huge floating aerodrome meant to facilitate traffic between Europe and North America. Transatlantic Tunnel (another Gaumont production with German roots, and an early example of the “why import a foreign movie when you can just remake it?” thinking so prevalent in Hollywood today) envisioned an even more ambitious (if also considerably less practical) means of linking the Old World to the New. The grandest and best-remembered of the bunch, though, was Things to Come, which used a hundred years in the life of an imaginary English city as a prism through which to view the destruction of Western civilization in a globe-encompassing total war, followed by its resurrection from the ashes under the benevolent dictatorship of an oligarchy of scientists and engineers.
The original screen treatment was written by H. G. Wells as an adaptation of his 1933 “future history,” The Shape of Things to Come. Wells was long past his prime as a writer by the 1930’s, but he was just hitting his stride as a cranky, disapproving old man. The Shape of Things to Come was essentially a wish-fulfillment fantasy about the demise of a culture which he was coming increasingly to see as inherently fucked, and its replacement by a civilization more to his liking— one without war or capitalism or religion, in which reason would reign supreme over all of human affairs. In other words, it was going to be sort of a difficult story to tell in a medium that was beholden to powerful and often religiously motivated censorship authorities, and dependent for its very existence upon the organizational capacities of adept capitalists. Things to Come is thus understandably reticent about most of its author’s philosophical hobby-horses, although Wells’s militant pacifism (oxymoron very much intended) comes through loud and clear.
The year is 1940, and in Everytown, England, John Cabal (Raymond Massey, from The Face at the Window and The Old Dark House) is having his friend, Passworthy (Edward Chapman, of X: The Unknown and The Man Who Haunted Himself), over to celebrate Christmas Eve with their combined families. There’s a pall over the holidays this year, however, for war is brewing between Britain and some unnamed nation in Continental Europe. Passworthy thinks Cabal is being unnecessarily negative about the situation. First off, he’s convinced that all the war talk is just politicians grandstanding, and even if it isn’t, would war really be such a bad thing? The economy could maybe use a little stimulation, and that last big war brought something out in the national character, don’t you think? Let’s just say that isn’t how Cabal sees it. It’s probably also not quite the perspective of the officers and men of the Royal Navy, whose ships are bombed at their moorings in a surprise aerial attack by the country’s unidentified enemies. (Considering the actual course of events, having a then-fictional second world war start in 1940 with a sneak air-raid on a navy base is almost eerie. Counteracting that prescience is a newspaper headline referring to trouble in the Turkish straits— a longtime geopolitical tripwire that figured in practically every major modern European conflict except for World War II.) Then a second wave of bombers hits the city proper, causing mass panic and destruction. That proves to be only the beginning of a sustained airborne offensive against the British Isles, which (presumably among other things) reduces most of Everytown to rubble over the next several years. There’s fighting on land as well, but neither side appears to be making any headway against the other. They’re just killing a whole lot of people and destroying a whole lot of stuff.
The war still hasn’t ended come 1945. Or 1955. Or 1960, either, for that matter. Only in 1966 do Britain’s foes show signs of final exhaustion, and Britain is pretty finally exhausted by that time, too. There’s also an even bigger problem than a 26-year war, for now a pestilence is loose upon the ravaged world. It’s called the Wandering Sickness, and it appears to be a degenerative brain disease that causes its victims to lapse into a zombie-like state and then roam around aimlessly until they finally drop dead of overexertion and starvation. What’s more, there’s some indication that the illness started life as a last-ditch bacteriological weapon developed by the other side. If so, then talk about backfiring! Over the course of some nine months, the Wandering Sickness claims more than half the human population of the world. In Everytown— which we may as well start calling Everyruin at this point— about the only thing that stops the epidemic from destroying the city completely is a man named Rudolph (Ralph Richardson, from Who Slew Auntie Roo? and The Ghoul), who initiates a radical but highly effective program of shooting on sight anyone who appears to be suffering from the disease.
Flash forward another three years to 1970. Rudolph’s containment effort during the height of the Wandering Sickness epidemic made him a popular and respected man, and he has risen since to become the warlord of a penny-ante principality built literally on the ruins of Everytown. It’s a lot like a post-apocalyptic village in a Road Warrior rip-off, except that there hadn’t been a Road Warrior to rip off yet. The trouble with Rudolph— excuse me, Rudolph the Victorious— is that he seems to think the war is still on, and he isn’t terribly particular about who the foe is. The Germans, the Russians, the folks who live up in the hills overlooking Everyruin… It’s all the same to him. Rudy is an ambitious post-apocalyptic chieftain, too. Everytown had an airfield back in the day, and there are still some 40 sort-of-intact-looking fighter planes in the ruins. Sure, they’re 30 years old or more, but one of Rudolph’s townspeople was trained as an aircraft mechanic during the days when there was still enough left of the country’s official military structure to administer such training. If Richard Gordon (Derrick De Marney, from Latin Quarter and The Projected Man) could get even a few of those planes patched up and airworthy, Rudolph would have the most powerful fighting force in all of England. Of course, it isn’t just that the planes don’t work. There happens also to be no stock of spare parts with which to repair them, no tools with which to do the work even if any parts could be found, and no avgas on which to run their engines even if they could be put in working order. Rudolph doesn’t want to hear any of that, though. He wants his air force, and Gordon had just better figure out some way to give it to him.
Matters remain at that impasse until an unknown aircraft astonishingly appears in the sky above Everyruin. At its controls is none other than John Cabal, whom we last saw as a pilot in the Royal Air Force sometime around 1944. Cabal is a fairly old man now, but he still cuts a gallant figure in those tailored black fatigues and matching black-chrome breastplate. Rudy orders the intruder arrested as soon as he lands, but the latter man doesn’t really mind. Cabal wanted to see Rudolph, anyway, and he goes along most cooperatively once he’s had a chance to speak with both Gordon and Harding the village doctor (Maurice Braddell). The old airman tells Rudolph that he represents an organization called Wings Over the World, an international conclave of thinkers and technicians dedicated to restoring “Law and Sanity” to the world. As you might gather from their name, they plan to do this by using air power to subjugate all the postwar world’s rinky-dink strongmen, and as you might gather from their stylish uniforms, their approach to dissent and opposition has more than a little in common with those of certain contemporary real-world outfits devoted to changing the world whether it wanted to be changed or not. Rudolph is not impressed with Cabal beyond the possibility of exploiting his knowledge of aviation technology to kick-start Gordon’s stalled repair efforts, but the chief’s consort, Roxana (Margaretta Scott, later of Crescendo and Percy), has considerably more vision. Roxana is as well educated as any woman alive in Britain these days, and she’s a great deal more knowledgeable than anyone of either sex in Everyruin, save possibly Dr. Harding. And like Dr. Harding, Roxana has only the most limited respect for Rudolph the Victorious. She bows to his power, and she has arranged her life so as to siphon off a bit of it for herself, but she knows perfectly well that her boyfriend is an insecure, bullying twit. If Cabal can bring the outside world within Everytown’s reach again, then she’ll be happy to help him do it, even if it means the end for Rudolph’s reign.
Specifically, Roxana is able to prevail upon the chief to allow Cabal, Gordon, and Harding to work as a team on what Rudolph thinks of as the war effort’s research-and-development aspect. While Rudy launches an offensive against the tribe that controls the nearest coal mine and liquid-fuel processing plant, our friendly neighborhood Science Fascist helps Gordon get an airplane into flying trim. Then Gordon diverges markedly from the official plan for the fighter’s test flight, piloting it all the way to Basra, where Wings Over the World has its headquarters. Before Rudolph the Noticeably Not Victorious On This Particular Occasion knows what hit him, an armada of WOW airships arrives to carpet-bomb Everyruin with anesthetizing “peace gas.”
With the regional warlords subdued, Cabal and his cabal are able to turn their attention to the real objective, rebuilding the blighted world. 66 years go by, their passage announced by a montage of absurdly oversized machines at work hollowing out mountains, fabricating building materials, and assembling other, even more absurdly oversized machines. (In the Future, everything will be wastefully titanic.) Once it’s all over, the date is 2036, and Everytown has moved underground to a vast artificial cavern filled with gleaming futuristic skyscrapers— or surfacescrapers, I suppose, since the new city is underneath what remains of the old. It’s unclear exactly how we got here from the last scene, but Wings Over the World has either disbanded or evolved into something nearly unrecognizable. Gone are the giant airships and the snazzy Science Fascist uniforms, their places taken by dainty little autogyros and cape-and-tunic ensembles that wouldn’t look a bit out of place in an episode of the 60’s incarnation of “Star Trek.” The new society has practically fetishized progress, but not everyone is as keen on the “ever onward, ever upward” agenda as Council President Oswald Cabal (also Raymond Massey), grandson of the late John Cabal. Foremost among the discontented is an artist by the name of Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke, from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Lodger), who resents what he considers the social and cultural sterility of the Cabalist regime. (Incidentally, I’d love to know if this is supposed to be some kind of reference to the 16th-century Greco-Spanish painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos. El Greco seems an odd choice for a villain’s namesake.) Theotocopulos isn’t exactly one for intellectual consistency. On the one hand, he muses longingly about the days “when life was short, merry, and the devil take the hindmost.” On the other, he saves his harshest invective for the one aspect of the modern world that accords with such sentiments, the experimental space gun with which Cabal and his fellow scientist-oligarchs hope to launch astronauts to the moon someday. Rather than applauding the space gun as something that might bring some much-needed sense of risk and adventure to life, Theotocopulos condemns it as an altar of human sacrifice to the Great God Progress. As preparations for the gun’s initial firing near completion, the disgruntled artist reinvents himself as a demagogue, and attempts to mobilize public opinion in favor of a halt to the Cabalists’ constant striving after the next technological frontier.
Meanwhile, Oswald Cabal and his colleague, Raymond Passworthy (Edward Chapman, confirming this character as a descendant of the Passworthy from the 1940’s), are facing an altogether different obstacle to their plans for the space gun. The scientists’ children, Catherine Cabal (Pearl Argyle) and Maurice Passworthy (Kenneth Villiers), want to be the ones to ride in the first projectile shot into short-term lunar orbit, and they’re determined to use their family connections to circumvent the official crew-selection process. The argument whereby the youths hope to win their fathers over actually dovetails nicely with Theotocopulos’s diatribes, for it is their contention that only by risking the lives of their own offspring can the scientist-lords of New Everytown deflect the rabble-rouser’s accusations of callousness toward the inherent hazards of the space-gun project. Old Passworthy hates the idea of his son being shot across the interplanetary void, but Cabal could not be prouder of his daughter’s fearless attitude. Of course, it isn’t going to matter how admirable the kids’ courage is if Theotocopulos succeeds in raising a mob to storm the space gun complex and wreck the big machine’s more delicate workings.
Things to Come was produced by Alexander Korda, the same man who initiated the Anglo-American version of The Thief of Bagdad four years later. Korda’s brother, Vincent, served as art director for both films. And while William Cameron Menzies hadn’t much directing experience, he had a respectable resumé as a production designer and art director in Hollywood. (In an interesting coincidence, he had been Vincent Korda’s counterpart on the silent Thief of Bagdad.) With that pedigree, it should come as no surprise that Things to Come is, if nothing else, a feast for the eyes. Overall, its aesthetic owes a lot to Metropolis (which is rather ironic, since Wells was once quoted calling that movie “the silliest of films”), but not enough to court dismissal as a mere rip-off; once you get past the city of the future, Things to Come has a look that is very much its own. It’s especially apparent in the designs for the majestic Wings Over the World airships, which although often described as flying wings are actually something even more exotic. Their combination of swept wings (a decade before the earliest such aircraft entered service), tailless construction (which wouldn’t become really practical until the 1990’s), and twin catamaran fuselages (a design concept that has hardly ever been used in the real world) is like something out of Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind, and the models representing them are curiously much more convincing than those used for the comparatively conventional 1940’s fighter planes. And speaking of Nausicaa, a similar hint of possible influence on subsequent Japanese filmmakers can be seen in the giant digging machines that hollow out the cavern for the construction of New Everytown. Eiji Tsubaraya could easily have built them for an episode of “Ultraman” or a sequel to The Mysterians. Not everything in Things to Come is quite so impressive, however. The full-scale sets for New Everytown suggest nothing so much as the Houston shopping mall that stood in for the enclosed city in Logan’s Run, and the pseudo-neoclassical styling of this movie’s 21st-century attire, while certainly influential, is no less silly here than its imitators would be in the 60’s and 70’s. The futuristic tanks that show up occasionally during the war montage are pretty sorry, too.
In terms of the story, Things to Come’s biggest handicap is that it’s rather too sweeping for its own good. The events of which it tells are too vast to be comfortably addressed without one central viewpoint character who is in a position to observe all of them, and there is no such figure here. John Cabal is the closest we get, and he is completely absent from long stretches of the film. Only during the section set between 1967 and 1970 do we get to zoom in and focus on how specific people are dealing with the calamitous events of their era, and it is no coincidence that the movie’s proto-Road Warrior phase is much more satisfying than anything that comes either before or after it. There may be mitigating circumstances, however, for the director’s original cut ran over 130 minutes, whereas currently available prints are all much shorter. The cutting began before Things to Come was even released, for the British theatrical running time in 1936 was variously reported between 108 and 113 minutes. Things to Come was trimmed down further to just under 93 minutes for reissues and American release, and it is that edit that has seen the longest and widest circulation. The print I saw was a partial restoration, in which the short version was supplemented by about four minutes of footage culled from an alternate edit distributed on 16mm film in the 40’s by the Chicago-based Walter Gutlohn. In any case, there’s a lot missing (enough so that one character listed in the opening credits never actually appears in the movie!), and it may be that Menzies and Wells originally did a somewhat better job of integrating events on the global scale with those on the human one. Sadly, it looks like we’ll never know for sure.
Things to Come is on firmer footing on the acting front. The best performance is easily that of Ralph Richardson, who would walk away with the whole film if only he were in more of it. Rudolph the Victorious is an extremely rich character, and Richardson takes advantage of every opportunity he presents. The key point, and the one that Richardson brings out most brilliantly, is that Rudolph is really a man of small prospects who has been thrust into proportionally great power by circumstances essentially beyond his control. He made one decision, purely out of the desire for self-preservation, and serendipitously saved his entire community in doing so. His bluster and belligerence now that he’s in charge of everything stem from his own certain knowledge that he’s in over his head, and from his fear that he’ll have to go back to being just another schmuck if he ever lets on that some things are simply beyond his abilities. Margaretta Scott makes an excellent foil for Richardson as Roxana, too. In fact, the two performances mesh so perfectly that either one would be seriously compromised without the other. As the last major villain, Cedric Hardwicke has the right idea, but he doesn’t have as much to work with. Theotocopulos is a less coherent character than either Rudolph or Roxana, and Hardwicke is saddled with some very clumsy dialogue. Fortunately, Theo’s role as a demagogue naturally lends itself to excessive acting in a junk-Shakespearean vein, and that’s exactly how Hardwicke approaches the part.
Even Theotocopulos is less problematic a part than the dual role of John and Oswald Cabal, though. It is through the Cabals that Things to Come most reveals itself as a product of its time, and the mid-1930’s were a decidedly alarming era, ideologically speaking. John Cabal, and Oswald after him, are supposed to be the heroes of the piece, but between the smug certitude and the ready recourse to armed messianism, it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for either of them. Frankly, John Cabal is a lot scarier than either Rudolph the Victorious or Theotocopulos, and all the cacophonous cheerleading the movie does on his behalf only makes things worse. Within only a year of Things to Come’s release, the world would begin having it brought forcefully to its attention exactly what men like Cabal are capable of; in 1936, it might still have been possible for well-meaning people to proclaim “Science Fascism will save us all!” with a straight face, but the remainder of the 20th century would expose the notion of benevolent totalitarianism for the murderous lie that it always was. That being the case, even the less prickly Oswald Cabal can’t help raising some hackles when Things to Come is viewed today. For a modern audience, familiar with totalitarian regimes’ unrivaled skill at putting forward a deceptively benign image for public consumption, there’s no escaping the question of what we aren’t seeing about the society of New Everytown. Demagogues don’t emerge from a vacuum, and one has to wonder what unmet needs motivate the thousands of people who eventually take to the streets with Theotocopulos at their head. Are they really just small-minded reactionaries shrinking from the challenge of perpetual human striving, or might there be something fundamentally oppressive about spending one’s whole life in an artificially lit, climate-controlled cavern hundreds of feet below the Earth’s surface, and never venturing into the natural environment above for fear of contracting infections or suffering physical injury? Mightn’t the Scientific New Order mean a deadening, aimless existence for those without the technical training to be deemed worthy of having a voice in the Cabalists’ perfect society? Could it be that Wells’s utopian fantasy is really a dystopia in disguise? Much like the author’s earlier novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Things to Come occasionally leaves the impression that Wells maybe wasn’t quite so sure himself.