Tag: Ann Todd

Things to Come (1936)

Things to Come (1936)

HG Wells ultra-serious view of the future is stilted but also visionary

Director: William Cameron Menzies

Cast: Raymond Massey (John Cabal/Oswald Cabal), Edward Chapman (‘Pippa’ Passworthy/Raymond Passworthy), Ralph Richardson (The Boss), Margaretta Scott (Roxana Black), Cedric Hardwicke (Theotocopulos), Maurice Braddell (Dr Edward Harding), Sophie Stewart (Mrs Cabal), Derrick De Marney (Richard Gordon), Ann Todd (Mary Gordon), John Clements (Enemy pilot)

Alexander Korda was thrilled. He’d secured the rights to the legendary HG Well’s new novel. Even better the Great Man would work, hand-in-glove, with Korda’s team to bring The Shape of Things to Come to the screen. It would be a grand science-fiction hit, that would echo the success of American films based on Wells’ work (films, to be fair, Wells pretty much hated apart from The Invisible Man). It became a continual struggle before the final flawed-but-fascinating film arrived in cinemas.

Things to Come opens in the (then) near future in 1940 as war tears “Everytown” on Christmas Day and flies 100 years into the future. Bombing destroys the city and hurtles the world into over twenty years of never-ending war that leaves civilisation wrecked by carnage, advanced weapons and poisonous gases. A legacy of the war, “the wandering sickness” devastates the survivors, killing half the remaining population. In the ruins of Everytown in the 1960s, the Boss (Ralph Richardson) rises to take power, one of many warlords across the world being challenged by the “World Communications” alliance of engineers and scientists in Basra, Iraq. When they reshape the world, decades of progress lead to a new civilisation in 2036 aiming at the stars.

HG Wells saw Things to Come as a polemic, an ambitious and optimistic look at how mankind should progress, leaving behind war and politics to embrace rational thought and the quest for knowledge. Written at a time when tensions were high in Europe, it would show the world torn apart, devastated and reborn greater than it ever was before. Never-the-less at every point, the unambitious, myopic and power-hungry gather to hold back progress. What he didn’t really see it as was a conventional “drama” or those involved as “characters” more devices, ciphers and mouthpieces for his viewpoints.

Which helps explain the curious project that made it to the screen. Wells was guaranteed approval over the dialogue, which remains flat and heavy handed. Actors felt constrained within the sonorous phasing and over-written prose. It wasn’t helped by director William Cameron Menzies’ discomfort with dialogue scenes. Whenever two people stand around (which sums up the blocking) and chat, the film is frequently a little dull, settling for a semi-disguised lecture on humanity, science and progress. Korda correctly identified the dialogue problems and cut as much of it as possible.

In doing so, he snipped away much of the narrative framework of the film. In a film that flies forward through time and world-changing events, we frequently get confused about the exact details of who goes why and where and what makes characters do the things they do. Characters disappear and reappear, fly across the world in seconds, form and break alliances and argue and drop cases all on a sixpence. Raymond Massey later talked about how hard he found his character (a man and his grandson, bridging all timelines) to bring to life with dialogue largely devoid of emotion. Much of Things to Come can be dry-as-a-bone.

But yet… Away from the weaknesses of the script, much of Things to Come is quite awe-inspiring. While the characters might be a little flat, the energy of the film’s first two acts (in 1936 and 1966) offers a host of striking scenes and images. Things to Come remains powerful and horrifying when it looks at the darkness and damage of war. The 1936 bombing attack on Everytown still shocks with its superbly assembled shots of buildings exploding, crowds panicking, dead bodies slumped in cars, terrified faces and dead children in the rubble. Imagine watching this with the Blitz just a few years away. Menzies may not direct acting or dialogue with much inspiration, but his skill with visuals and editing is clear. The montage carrying the world over the next thirty years is a masterful mix of fake news-footage and technological innovation as ever more advanced tanks and airplanes roll past the screen. The film’s use of design and visuals is frequently haunting and impressive.

It carries across to the bombed-out design of Everytown in the 1960s. A shell of a city, where wrecks of cars are pulled by horses. Those suffering from “the Wandering Sickness” move like zombies through the city. Homes and buildings are gutted remains. Newspaper headlines – of newspapers that become ever more basic in printing and more expensive in price – had previously helped communicate the passage of events. Now the news is chalked up onto a board outside the home of the Mussolini-like Boss (the film’s finest performance of charismatic swagger and delusional power-mad greed by Ralph Richardson). Clothing is basic and functional, pulled together from scraps leftover from the war, in a world largely devoid of all technology.

This wasteland makes the futuristic designs even more striking. The “Wings Over the World” organisation – growing from the cradle of civilisation in Iraq – is sleek, metallic and efficient in its construction. When John Cabal (Raymond Massey) lands back in the 60s ruin of Everytown, he looks like a spaceman. He might as well be. His fleet of unimaginably vast airplanes have inspired visions of futuristic flight right up to the mighty airbases the Avengers operate in the MCU.

While you can snigger a little at the utopiaish version of the future – very Star Trek in its flowing robes and shoulder pads – it’s vision of subterranean cities full of everything from wrist communicators to widescreen TVs feels quite prescient. Everything is clear, polished and perfect – much of it doesn’t look a million miles away from an Apple store. While the villains of the future (a band of luddites led by Cedric Hardwicke) may be little more than paper tigers, given only the vaguest motivations, the grand engineering accomplishments of the future and their glances at the stars feel inspired in their detail and ambition.

It’s where Things to Come triumphs. It might not often have much to listen to, but every single scene carries a slice of design or visual interest. Its frequently assembled into effective – and even terrifying – montages. And its design of the future – based on Wells vision and bought to life by Menzies and his technical team – is a perfect mix of striking and prescient. Things to Come isn’t always the best drama, but as a forward-looking piece of design it’s truly memorable.

The Sound Barrier (1952)

Sound barrier header
Ann Todd and Nigel Patrick on a dangerous mission to break The Sound Barrier

Director: David Lean

Cast: Ralph Richardson (John Ridgefield), Ann Todd (Susan Garthwaite), Nigel Patrick (Tony Garthwaite), John Justin (Philip Peel), Dinah Sheridan (Jess Peel), Joseph Tomelty (Will Sparks), Denholm Elliott (Christopher Ridgefield), Jack Allen (‘Windy’ Williams), Ralph Michael (Fletcher)

David Lean’s film career can be divided into two eras: his early films are British-based literary adaptations and family dramas, many of them front-and-centring the experiences and tribulations of women. The later era are the jaw-dropping epics he became best known for. The Sound Barrier is towards the end of the first era – and it’s almost a bridge between the two, an impressively filmed story of man’s triumph over nature, that sneaks under the wire an emotional family-in-crisis storyline, with a daughter suffering the damaging impact of her father’s obsession.

That father is John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson), a famous aeronautical engineer and airline entrepreneur who, with the end of the war, returns to his fixation: discovering a way to make a plane fly so fast it breaks the sound barrier. It’s a vision that has dominated his life, but which his daughter Susan (Ann Todd) finds hard to understand. John is a domineering, demanding father, whose son Christopher (Denholm Elliott) gets himself killed trying to qualify as a pilot to win his father’s respect. In his place, Susan’s husband Tony (Nigel Patrick), a test pilot, is claimed by John as a surrogate son and equally pushed to risk all to try and fly faster than sound.

Lean’s film is a wonderful mix of post-war military-based exploits and stiff-upper lip exploration of family dynamics, where resentments and passions go unspoken but shape everything. With a superb script by Terence Rattigan, whose work is filled with monomaniacs like Ridgefield and sympathetic and emotionally intelligent women like Susan, The Sound Barrier might seem like a celebration of British pluck (it hardly matters that we Brits didn’t actually break the sound barrier first – no mention of Chuck Yaeger here…), with some stunning aerial photography. But it’s a lot more than that.

What’s fascinating about The Sound Barrier – and what makes it such a rewarding watch – is how much it questions the value of these sort of quests. The film’s focus is less on the engineering struggles and the bravery of the pilots (compare and contrast this film with the more straightforwardly triumphant The Dam Busters), and more on the human cost of obsession and this sort of adrenalin-fuelled airborne machismo.

The Ridgefield family has been damaged almost beyond repair – under their wealth and comfort – by their father’s demanding perfectionism. Ralph Richardson is superb as this bluntly-spoken man who sees no reason to sugar coat anything or hide any disappointment. The character has more than a hint of a Gradgrind of engineering – and just like Hard Times patriarch, his well-intentioned but misguided parenting has distorted both his children.

His hero-worshipping son Christopher (a wonderfully fragile and charming Denholm Elliott) pushes himself through chronic air-sickness to lay down his life trying to follow in his father’s footsteps (John greets his death with a sad criticism of his flying skills and goes back to work with his jet-plane models straight after the funeral). Susan has a cold relationship with her father (strikingly she calls him Father while everyone else – even her husband Tony – calls him Dad), and can’t understand why all this goal is worth sacrificing lives and any chance of simple domestic happiness. Her father’s coldness and distance from his children – not to mention his obvious and continual disappointment that she was born a girl – has led her to treat him with respect but not love.

It’s a dynamic completely missed by her husband Tony, played here with a bluff simplicity by Nigel Patrick. But then it’s pretty clear that this risk-taking pilot is quite simply not that bright. His lack of independent thinking is even identified by engineer Will Sparks (a ‘sparkling’ performance of avuncular surrogate fatherdom by Joseph Tomelty) as his major weakness as a test pilot. Tony has no idea of his wife’s concerns or emotional problems with her father, and instead quickly gets sucked into filling the role of “son I never had” for John. But then Tony has everything John wants – the flying skills Christopher never had without the questioning independence of Susan. He’s exactly the sort of weak-willed would-be-hero who can be quickly sucked into taking huge risks.

The film’s sympathies though are with Susan, played with a real warmth tinged with a sad expectation for disaster by Ann Todd, whose presence slowly grows to dominate the film. She can’t understand why it is necessary to risk all for this nebulous goal: it’s a refrain she repeats throughout the film “I wish I knew, I really wish I knew”. We’ve just gone through a second calamitous war – why are we throwing our lives away for a concept? Why should her husband put himself at huge risk like this for a brief mention in the history books and nothing else? Why not be content with a happy family life and living to see his son? Not to mention that the film proves her right – the nice-but-dim Tony isn’t good test pilot material and Susan’s new family is destroyed just like her old one.

At first it might seem that Todd’s character is the stay-at-home “don’t go Darling” type, but the film increasingly shows the validity of her doubts. There is a slightly toxic “carry on” Englishness about Tony and her father. Obsession is shown to drive out all over considerations – and Richardson has a late scene that carefully but brilliantly demonstrates how it has left him isolated and alone. It’s telling the barrier is finally broken by devoted husband and father Philip (a very decent John Justin), who is aware of the danger and has the most settled family life of the lot (and who greets his triumph with tears of relief rather than cheers).

The Sound Barrier could have easily been a “Britain triumphs in the skies!” with soaring music and heroic filming. Instead, it demonstrates the danger of obsession and the damaging impact it can have on people and their families. It concentrates not on the men in the sky, but increasingly the potential widows on the ground, forced to acknowledge that life with the family is less important than the chance of glory. It’s a rich and emotionally intelligent film, very well directed by Lean with warmth and humanity and with three terrific actors leading from the front.