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.