Tag: John Clements

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 Four Feathers (1939)

John Clements jacks in the soldier’s life, then has to prove he’s not a coward in The Four Feathers

Director: Zoltan Korda

Cast: John Clements (Harry Faversham), Ralph Richardson (Captain John Durrance), C. Aubrey Smith (General Burroughs), June Duprez (Ethne Burroughs), Allan Jeayes (Geveral Faversham), Jack Allen (Lt Thomas Willoughby), Donald Gray (Peter Burroughs), Frederick Culley (Dr Sutton), John Laurie (Khalifa)

Who doesn’t love a sweeping boys own adventure? The Four Feathers is a prime example of a classic late Victorian adventure story by AEW Mason, where stiff-upper lipped British men do what must be done for honour, Queen and country in the face of hordes of dangerous ruthless natives. Okay, you can see typing that why some of these attitudes can be seen as “troubling today” – and the film’s occasional non-PC stumbles (John Laurie blacks up – as does every other actor playing a speaking African – as radical leader Khalifa, while his army is referred to by an on-screen caption as “fuzzy-wuzzies”). But it’s a product of its time, and its attitudes are really less racist, than the sort of patronising parental colonialism, where the Khalifa has to be stopped as much because he is a danger to his fellow natives as he is the British rulers.

Anyway, putting it’s “of its time” attitudes to one side, The Four Feathers is an endearing, enjoyable and wonderfully made adventure story. After the death of General Gordon (see Charlton Heston’s epic Khartoum) in 1885, war is declared on the Khalifa in the Sudan. However young Harry Faversham (John Clements) resigns his commission on the day of the announcement that his regiment will be shipped out, feeling his obligation to join the army has ended with his father’s death and worried that he will prove a coward. His friends Durrance (Ralph Richardson), Willoughby (Jack Allen), Burroughs (Donald Gray) and fiancée Ethne Burroughs (June Duprez) are singularly unimpressed and all send him white feathers of cowardice. Realising he has led down everyone, Faversham disguises himself as mute, Sangali native (including facial brand – ouch!) and heads out to the Sudan to help his friends and regain his honour: and do they need it, as Durrance is blinded and Willoughby and Burroughs captured by the Khalifa.

The Four Feathers was shot on a huge budget at the time, with extensive on-set location shooting, and it barrels along with an old-fashioned sense of adventure that is hard not to get a little bit swept in. Of course, it’s also easy to question some of the film’s colonialist, white-man’s burden attitudes and also its opinions on what constitutes bravery and nobility (leaving the army because you never wanted to be in it in the first place is seen as yellow-bellied nonsense, which I suppose makes sense for a film made just before World War Two). 

But take it as a product of its own time, and the film works extremely well – easily the best version of the many that have been made of AEW Mason’s book. While epic, it gives us a low-key, dignified lead character who it’s easy to admire and relate to. John Clements plays the role with an expected upper-class stiffness in places, but he’s also a man bursting with desires to be something more than a soldier, then plagued with guilt and self-loathing when he believes he has betrayed all those he is closest to. Clements’ performance anchors the film extremely well, and makes Faversham into an admirable, very human protagonist, pushing himself to insane levels of deprivation and suffering to redeem himself in his own eyes, as much as in his friends.

Those friends are also not painted as arrogant buffoons or cruel, knee-jerk bullies. Ralph Richardson mines a great deal of sympathy from Durrance, a man determined to do his best but (its implied ) living under a deep sense of inadequacy and fear himself, who knows he is second best in most things, especially in love, and who accepts the ill fortunes that befall him with an eventual stoic good-nature. The film’s most successful sequence, features a wordless disguised Faversham, guiding the blind Durrance not only back to the British troops, but also helping him to find some will to carry on living. Its sterling work from Richardson, and his physical intelligence – his initial blindness is almost comically blundering, before the character trains himself to move and act almost as if he still had his sight – makes for further emotional connection.

All this is set in a sweeping, marvellously entertaining, grand-scale by Zoltan Korda. No expense was clearly spared, and the large scale sequences of battles and attacks – as well as the shots of armies moving across the desert wasteland – carry a great deal of scale and impact. The film barrels along with an impressive force, throwing events and actions at us throughout, all while juggling the personal stories of its lead characters. The technicolour shooting of the film has a classic gorgeousness about it, and the film has more than its fair share of decent lines. The film highlights a number of rather stirring battle set pieces, as red coated Englishman fight against overwhelming odds, the sort of thing that we are meant to frown at today but actually remains rather gripping.

The Four Feathers may be dated in places, but as a piece of classic entertainment from its era it’s hard to beat. The action adventure is full of bangs, shots and stiff-upper lipped Brits overcoming trials and tribulations. Faversham is a grounded and relatable character, and his doubts and fears make him admirable, not least because of the great lengths he goes to in order to overcome them. The Four Feathers still entertains today because it feels like exactly the sort of classic Sunday afternoon adventure story that appeals to boys of all ages.

Rembrandt (1936)


Charles Laughton excels as the great artist Rembrandt

Director: Alexander Korda

Cast: Charles Laughton (Rembrandt van Rijn), Gertrude Lawrence (Geertje Dircx), Elsa Lanchester (Hendrickje Stoffels), Edward Chapman (Carel Fabritius), Walter Hudd (Frans Banning Cocq), Roger Livesey (Beggar Saul), John Bryning (Titus van Rijn), Sam Livesey (Auctioneer), Allan Jeayes (Dr Tulip), John Clements (Govaert Flinck), Raymond Hartley (Ludwick), Abraham Sofaer (Dr Menasseh)

There are many artists I really love, but right near the top is Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt is remembered as being misunderstood in his own lifetime – which is sort of true. In fact, Rembrandt’s style fell out of favour and he basically went on a rags-to-riches-back-to-rags story not helped by constantly living outside of his means. Rembrandt actually follows the great man’s life pretty faithfully – and it even dances effectively around Rembrandt’s unusual domestic set-up.

The film begins with the death of the artist’s wife Saskia, and the rejection of The Night Watch by the Amsterdam militia. These events start a slow downward spiral for Rembrandt (Charles Laughton) towards a lack of fashion and an increased poverty. The film covers his consecutive relationships with Geertje Dircx (Gertrude Lawrence) and Hendrickje Stoffels (Elsa Lanchester), before ending shortly before the artist’s death.

The film is dominated by Laughton’s magnificent performance in the lead role. Laughton can effortlessly bring to life the impression of genius. His Rembrandt is an observant, quick-witted and sharply intelligent man, whose eyes observe everything and records it for future use. Of course, for the look of Rembrandt, Laughton had a hell of a lot to go on – few artists did as many self-portraits as Rembrandt. But what Laughton manages here is to capture the essence of the artist – that sense of wry amusement and a slightly bumptious insolence you get from a Rembrandt self-portrait. 

Laughton also gives a warm humanity as well. In a wonderfully naturalistic performance, his Rembrandt is by turns gentle, amused, slightly naughty, wise – but always feels human. Korda’s film focuses on a part of his life, rather than the whole, which allows us to focus on the painter finding a more unique style and some domestic happiness – but only doing so after losing his wife and professional respect. He’s compelling to watch here, like the painter come to life: you can totally believe him, from when he’s berating the Guild for not understanding The Night Watch, to his befuddled hopelessness with money.

Korda’s film focuses on the personal rather than exploration of art – probably a good thing, since the style and grandeur of the original paintings is nearly impossible to capture in black-and-white academy ratio. This however works a charm, as we get two very contrasting lovers for Rembrandt, demonstrating different sides of his personality. Gertrude Lawrence excels as a shrewish, domineering Geertje Dircx, a woman who seems to take control of Rembrandt and his family after his wife’s Saskia’s death as if she is entitled to the role (interestingly Saskia doesn’t even appear in the film). A few weeks after Saskia’s death, Lawrence’s Geertje settles into the embrace of Rembrandt (who drifts into the relationship) with all the entitlement of an heiress.

By contrast Elsa Lanchaster portrays an earthier, gentler Hendrickje Stoffels, younger and more naïve than either Rembrandt or Geertje. If the first relationship saw Rembrandt as a man having his life organised for him, this second sees him sharing the role of parent. Having said that, while he obviously looks on Hendrickje with a loving fondness – and delights in making her happy and contented – it’s Hendrickje who effectively works out a dodge for the broke Rembrandt to keep trading art, and it’s she who takes runs the business for him. It’s a perfect marriage of personalities.

Although of course marriage is the one thing it can never be. Rembrandt was forbidden from re-marriage due to a complex arrangement in Saskia’s will: and a jilted Geertje quickly moves to have Hendrickje branded a whore. Considering it was filmed in the middle of the Hays Decency code, the film takes quite a modern stance on Rembrandt’s two long standing affairs: it’s clear that we are not meant to sympathise with the hypocritical burgomasters who denounce his love life (“It’s not fair. Why should he get away with it?” one of them moans). 

The narrative parallels this pair of romances with the world of art and commerce. Noticeably Rembrandt often seems more comfortable with those of a similar class to himself: he chats amiably with a beggar he hires as a model (a perfect little cameo from Roger Livesey), and similarly flirts with a woman from his home town at a bar with a confidence he never seems to manage with either of his other love interests. The film pivots around this return to Rembrandt’s family home, with the film suggesting the artist used this time to reassess his life and aims – before returning refreshed to shake up both his art and home life. Korda’s film argues that Rembrandt’s own rejections and losses gave him a far greater understanding and appreciation for his craft – and its power – than he otherwise would have had.

Korda films all this with a lushness, with the sets, costumes and visuals constantly reminiscent of the styles of Rembrandt’s own work. Just as Laughton plays Rembrandt as a very grounded, humane character, so the film avoids sweeping melodrama to portray a very low-key and gentle story, that feels sweetly lacking in high-blown artistic intensity. It’s perhaps best summed up by the closing scene, where an ageing Rembrandt – taken for an old nobody by some young bucks in an inn – smiles serenely, enjoying the company and quoting Scripture at them with gentle satisfaction. He’s the contented, humane master – the man who seemed to capture the age and changed painting for ever. And then he borrows money off a friend (who asks him to please spend it on food) and heads straight to the paint shop. A slave to an obsession, but a man who still inspired love and affection – what could be more human than that?