“A global war begins in 1940. This war drags out over many decades until most of the people still alive (mostly those born after the war started) do not even know who started it or why. Nothing is being manufactured at all any more and society has broken down into primitive localized communities. In 1966 a great plague wipes out most of what people are left but small numbers still survive. One day a strange aircraft lands at one of these communities and its pilot tells of an organization which is rebuilding civilization and slowly moving across the world re-civilizing these groups of survivors. Great reconstruction takes place over the next few decades and society is once again great and strong. The world’s population is now living in underground cities. In the year 2035, on the eve of man’s first flight to the moon, a popular uprising against progress (which some people claim has caused the wars of the past) gains support and becomes violent.” (courtesy IMDB)
Standing apart from all the science fiction films of the thirties was Things To Come (1936). It was unique for so many reasons – its scope, its ambition, its sheer pretentiousness – but mainly because it was written by my old friend H.G. Wells himself. He had become involved in the film industry through the efforts of Hungarian filmmaker Alexander Korda who was based in England during the thirties and had persuaded the world-famous author to adapt his own book The Shape Of Things To Come for the screen. H.G. had always been dissatisfied with Hollywood’s versions of his work, so the opportunity to adapt his own material was especially attractive. But more importantly, it would provide him with another medium to spread his message to the world. Unfortunately, by that time, messages were about the only thing he was producing. Nearing seventy years of age, the writer who had once presented his ideas in stories that were innovating, exciting, daring and, most of all, entertaining, had been replaced by an elder statesman who had discarded fiction altogether, considering his early output to be nothing but frivolous fantasies, and who was now giving his ideas direct to the world. In other words, the message had overcome the medium. Not only was he engaged in pointing out the many dangers faced by mankind but, by the thirties, he was now also supplying the answers – a dangerous course for any artist, since answers have an embarrassing habit of looking silly in a very short time, while the original questions retain their relevance. Not surprisingly, it is his earlier work that is still immensely popular, while his later polemical output is largely ignored.
Most of H.G.’s answers to the problems of the world seemed, in the thirties, to reside in touching faith with technology, a technology in the hands of the ‘right people’ of course. A group of enlightened, beneficent technocrats who would enable mankind, through the use of rationality, to overcome the grubby, emotional and aggressive beast that dwells within. This is the message he promoted in his screenplay for Korda, a screenplay that was to undergo many transformations before it reached the screen. Korda must have known he was asking for trouble in letting H.G. write the screenplay, who had no previous experience writing for the cinema, but it was obviously the price he was prepared to pay to induce the famous author to lend the project his valuable name. When H.G. finally delivered the first draft, Korda found it more-or-less unusable and asked H.G. to try again. To assist him, Korda brought in a writer named Lajos Biro, a fellow Hungarian who had worked in Hollywood and on previous Korda productions.
In his notes accompanying the published script, H.G. wrote: “This was my first film treatment written by the Author for actual production, and he found much more difficulty in making it than he did any of its successors. What is before the reader here is the last of several drafts. An earlier treatment was made, discussed, worked upon for a little and discarded. It was a ‘prentice effort and the Author owes much to the friendly generosity of Alexander Korda, Lajos Biro and Cameron Menzies, who put all their experience at his disposal during the revision. They were greatly excited by the general conception, but they found the draft quite impractical for production. A second treatment was then written. This, with various modifications, was made into a scenario of the old type. This scenario again was set aside for a second version, and this again was revised and put back into the form of the present treatment. Korda and the Author had agreed upon an innovation in film technique, to discard the elaborately detailed technical scenario altogether, and to produce directly from the descriptive treatment here given. We have found this worked very well in practice – given a competent director. But this time however, the Author, now almost through the toils of his apprenticeship, was in a state of fatigue towards the altered, revised and reconstructed text and, though he had done his best to get it into tolerable film prose, he has an uneasy sense that many oddities and awkwardnesses of expression that crept in during the scenario have become now familiar to him that he has become blind to them and unable to get rid of them.”
The film begins in the city square which looks suspiciously like Oxford Circus but is labeled ‘Everytown’ – actually it was all a vast studio-contained set complete with cars, buses and other traffic. It is the future year of 1940 and war is imminent as we enter the home of the film’s central figure, John Cabal (Raymond Massey), who is warning his unheeding friends that, “If we don’t end war, war will end us!” Soon the threat becomes a reality as enemy bombers are reported approaching the city. The crowds flee as anti-aircraft guns are aimed at the sky. Then the bombs fall, the buildings explode and, by the time the raid is over, the centre of Everytown is a complete ruin. The following scenes consist of a long montage showing the progress of a world war that lasts for decades. By the sixties the film slows down again and we are back in Everytown, now little more than a pile of rubble with only a few buildings left standing and ruled over by a feudal warlord called The Chief (Ralph Richardson), who is H.G.’s symbol of all that is wrong with mankind. Despite the almost-total destruction around him, The Chief is still pursuing a war of his own with the nearby Hill People, and is oblivious to the suffering around him. Most of Europe is in the grip of a plague called the Wandering Sickness which causes its victims to wander aimlessly like zombies.
Then a strange black aircraft arrives and lands in the town. It is piloted by John Cabal wearing a helmet at least a metre tall – which actually becomes part of the aircraft when seated – that might have seemed fine on the designer’s drawing board, but looks rather odd on the actor. He tells The Chief that he is a representative of a society of scientists who call themselves Airmen and are going to reform the world. The Airmen are really H.G.’s cavalry who arrive in the nick of time to save the world. He doesn’t give us any information about them: How did they come into being? How did they develop an efficient stable society in the midst of worldwide chaos? Along what lines is their society run? Cabal merely states that he represents “Law and sanity,” but whose law, whose sanity? The Chief is not impressed by Cabal or his message and has him thrown into prison while he prepares his latest attack on the Hill People, but Cabal succeeds in getting a message through to his colleagues and the sky is soon filled with giant unwieldy-looking aircraft. They spray the area with a knock-out gas and then land without resistance, bringing the rule of The Chief to an end. The Chief, incidentally, has mysteriously died from the effects of the harmless gas, the suggestion being that one whiff of ‘sanity’ was too much of a shock for his corrupt soul.
We are then treated to another long montage with the rebuilding of Everytown as the Airmen make good their promise to transform the world. We see vast machines at work cutting deep into the rock and huge buildings being constructed. Then, in the year of 2036, we see the completed new version of Everytown – a gleaming white underground complex that has all the plastic appeal of a modern shopping centre. In charge of it all is Oswald Cabal (Raymond Massey again), the grandson of John Cabal, but he is opposed by a sculptor named Theotocopulous (Cedric Hardwicke) who represents the city’s artists and maintains that all this scientific progress is getting out-of-hand, and that there should be a return to a time when life was “Short and hot and merry,” whenever that was. Theo and his followers are particularly against a planned expedition to the moon which will be achieved by firing a manned projectile from a huge cannon. Despite all the opposition from the artists, Cabal goes ahead with the launch. The spacecraft is loaded into the gun and, even though a horde of Theo’s followers invade the area and begin to clamber up the sides of the vast mechanism, Cabal orders the gun to be fired. The film ends with Cabal and his friend Passworthy watching the projectile’s journey towards the moon on a large screen.
Seen today, Things To Come has dated badly. H.G.’s dialogue is both ponderous and pompous, and most of the characters are lifeless symbols rather than believable people. But the flaws in the screenplay aside, the film is also disappointing in the technical sense, despite Korda’s hiring of a number of Hollywood’s top experts. One of the main problems lay in Korda’s choice of William Cameron Menzies as director. Menzies was a former production designer, who had designed the sets for The Thief Of Bagdad (1923), two D.W. Griffith’s films and, in 1928, won the very first Academy Award to given for Best Art Direction (it was called Interior Decoration back then). He had never directed an entire feature film before, although he had co-directed Chandu The Magician (1932) with Ray Taylor. This lack of direction shows, not only in the uninteresting treatment of the actors, but also in the lack of continuity between various camera set-ups, thus making an already episodic film seem even more disjointed. Menzies was chosen to design the lavish sets seen in Gone With The Wind (1939) on the strength of his work in Things To Come. Out of the twelve films Menzies directed, only this and Invaders From Mars (1953) have any real merit, mostly due to their design and photography.
Even the much-lauded special effects in Things To Come are a tad disappointing despite the effort and expertise that went into them. In charge of the effects was Ned Mann, a Hollywood colleague of Menzies who had also worked on The Thief Of Bagdad and who had created impressive effects for such films as Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan (1930) in a sequence involving a giant airship that breaks loose from its mooring above New York during a storm, and Deluge (1934). Mann brought several top American effects men with him, including Harry Zech (rear projection), Jack Thomas (optical effects), Ross Jacklin (model effects), Paul Morrell (traveling mattes), Eddie Cohen (effects camera) and Lawrence Butler (mechanical effects). Yet much of the model work is rather unconvincing, particularly during the montage sequence involving futuristic tank battles, and the climactic scenes showing the vast crowd swarming the space gun, are obviously hundreds of model figures being pulled jerkily along tracks. Perhaps the budget, which was only 350,000 pounds, placed too many limitations upon the effects team.
Things To Come, being both pro-science and pro-space, was a rarity among films in the thirties in that it reflected ideas, themes and attitudes being propounded by the science fiction writers and magazines of the era. People who thought of space travel as a possibility were definitely in a minority then, even in scientific circles, and most of the enthusiasts for the idea were to be found within the science fiction readership. Space travel was, however, taken for granted in one area of the cinema – the serials. While mad scientists were still proving that there were ‘Things Man Was Not Meant To Know’ in feature films, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were blithely zooming from planet to planet in cardboard rockets supported by almost non-existent budgets. But that’s another story for another time. Right now I’d like to acknowledge Two Film Stories: Things To Come & The Man Who Could Work Miracles by H.G. Wells (Crescent Press 1940) for assisting my research for this article, and look forward to seeing you next week when I have the opportunity to burst your blood vessels with another terror-filled excursion to the back side of Hollywood for…Horror News! Toodles!