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Things To Come (1936) Wonder

Hey, did you know that H.G. Wells wrote a screenplay?

Things To Come (1936) Wonder
Balthasar, Apr 12, 2018
    • Balthasar
      H.G. Wells (1866-1946) was always one of Hollywood's favorite authors. Every one of his most well known books were made into movies, and so were more than a few of his lesser known works. Titles such as The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau, First Men in the Moon, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are well known to moviegoers, and it seems as though every year at least one new production of one of them is being made.

      But did you know that he also wrote a movie screenplay? He wrote just one, and it was the British London Films Production Things to Come (1936), a science fiction film in the truest sense of the word, in that it postulated a future based on events that were happening and scientific discoveries that were being made at the time it was written. Its sometimes bleak, sometimes hopeful plot predicts World War II, helicopters, carpet-bombing, holography, and in some ways even presages Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, Mad Max and Orwell's 1984. It also gets its heroes into space by the use of a giant gun, the same method, albeit updated, first described by Jules Verne in his novel From the Earth to the Moon, that was used in Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon (1902), arguably the first science fiction movie (turnabout is fair play - Wells was never compensated for his contribution to Méliès film, though it borrowed liberally from Wells' novel First Men in the Moon - Wells doesn't give credit either to Méliès or Verne for the 'space gun' idea in the credits for this film).

      Details aside, the film works as a plausible piece of speculative fiction from the viewpoint of 1936: Wells only gets the start of World War II wrong by a matter of sixteen months, predicting its start on Christmas, 1940, while the actual bombing of London commenced in September 1939. It must have been terrifying for Brits to see this part of the film come so terribly true (elements that thankfully didn't come true include the use of poison gas bombs on cities by the Germans, and the war lasting for 30 years). Later in the film, characters are seen using a remarkably modern-looking helicopter - though Igor Sikorsky wouldn't design and test the first real-life helicopter until 1939.

      The plot covers an entire century, and characters from earlier parts of the film return as their own ancestors in later sequences, the years depicted in the film's segments being 1940, 1966, 1970 and 2036. The story begins on Christmas, 1940. Two old friends, John Cabal (Raymond Massey) and 'Pippa' Passworthy (Edward Chapman) are discussing dire news: war is imminent. Optimistically, Passworthy insists that 'everything will work out', but they are interrupted by air raid sirens - war has already begun. The World War lasts for thirty years and totally decimates the city, which he calls "Everytown" in the movie, though St. Paul's cathedral is clearly visible in background of some shots. The '1966' segment shows a society that has been broken down by decades of war. A plague, "the wandering sickness" has infected portions of the population, and Wells depicts citizens reacting to this development with brutal logic: they shoot all the victims until the plague disappears. By the time of the 1970 segment, Everytown has fallen into a Mad Max-style dystopia, ruled by a warlord, "The Boss", played by Ralph Richardson (who says he modeled the character after Mussolini). This fiefdom is threatened, however, when the city is visited by a man in a space suit who arrives in a futuristic airplane (Massey, again, as Henry Cabal, the son of John Cabal) and informs them that a 'band of engineers and mechanics' have founded a new civilization (as Ayn Rand's characters do in Atlas Shrugged) based in Basra, Iraq, called "Wings over the World", and that it has 'outlawed' independent countries. He is jailed by The Boss for this, of course, but eventually helps a young mechanic to get a plane into the air to alert Cabal's friends, who send a fleet of 'flying wings' to pacify the city with sleeping gas. The Boss dies from exposure to the gas, and Cabal eulogizes, "Dead, and his old world dead with him ... and with a new world beginning".

      A montage follows, depicting the citizens of Everytown rebuilding civilization, which leads to the final segment of the film, set in 2036. By this time, the citizens of Everytown live in a gleaming underground city, and are on the cusp of sending their first citizens into space (coincidentally the great-grandchildren of Cabal and Passworthy). This society's leaders speak to their citizens by means of giant screens in the city center (foreshadowing Orwell). But a reactionary movement against this technological society is brewing, led by a sculptor, Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) who incites the populace to demand a "rest" from all the rush of progress. These modern-day Luddites are opposed by Oswald Cabal, the head of the governing council and grandson of John Cabal. Cabal is concerned for the safety of the mission, but Cabal's daughter Catherine (Pearl Argyle) and fellow astronaut Maurice Passworthy (Kenneth Villiers) insist on manning the capsule anyway. Cabal manages to defeat the mob by launching the capsule ahead of schedule, just as the mob arrives to destroy the space gun. Later, after the projectile is just a tiny light in the immense night sky, Oswald Cabal delivers a stirring philosophical monologue about what is to come for mankind to his troubled and questioning friend, Raymond Passworthy (Chapman), the father of Maurice. He speaks passionately to progress and humanity's unending quest for knowledge and advancement as it journeys out into immensity of space to conquer the stars and beyond, concluding with the rhetorical questions, "All the universe or nothingness? Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be? ..."

      H.G. Wells was passionate about this project, based on his own novel The Shape of Things to Come, and even, by some accounts, directed parts of it. Producer Alexander Korda brought in famed American Art Director William Cameron Menzies to direct the film, installing his brother Vincent Korda as the film's credited Art Director. Menzies was already a Hollywood legend for his art direction, having won two 'Best Art Direction" awards at the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, for Tempest (1928) and The Dove (1927), and was nominated for three more before Things to Come was made. He was also well known for his outstanding set design, most famously on display in the movie The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and in the war scenes for the Best Picture-winning Cavalcade (1933). He'd directed before - he had a half dozen credits at Fox directing low budget films, and had most recently directed the atmospheric Wharf Angel (1934), at Paramount, which launched the tragically short career of Dorothy Dell (whose most well known performance would be in her next film, Little Miss Marker (1934)). He also had a fantasy/science fiction credit for directing Chandu the Magician (1932). Menzies, however, despite being technically proficient (even superb) at getting a scene to look good, eventually developed a reputation for being unable to get decent performances from his actors (a notable exception being the aforementioned Dorothy Dell), and Things to Come is, sadly, one of those, in which the considerable talents of stars Raymond Massey and Ralph Richardson are mostly under-utilized.

      The film, however, is visually stunning. From the war montage early in the film, to the depiction of dystopian London, to the shiny future Everytown, the film's design is striking, and whatever role Vincent Korda (or Wells himself) might have actually played in the production's art design, the hand of master designer Menzies is all over this movie. Things to Come is credited with helping to establish the heavily art-deco influenced style now known as Raygun Retro, and, along with the Flash Gordon series which also premiered in 1936, helped to establish in the popular culture a vision of what 'futuristic' looked like that persisted into the early 1960's. Some reviewers have compared the art-deco styling of the film to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927): H.G. Wells famously hated that movie, and insisted to Menzies that Things to Come should not resemble it in the least. Later in life, however, Menzies admitted that Metropolis had indeed had a huge influence on this film's design, a fact he had kept hidden from Wells.

      Menzies stayed a few more years in England, directing another film, The Green Cockatoo (1937), before heading back to the US and winning another (honorary) Oscar in 1939 "For outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood in the production of Gone with the Wind". His later work in production and art design was equally impressive, having a hand (both credited and uncredited) in Rebecca (1940) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946). He also continued to direct when he could, most notably the 1953 film Invaders from Mars, for which was nominated for a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, but lost to War of the Worlds, the film adaptation of the radio play based on the H.G. Wells story, which featured stylistic elements that were heavily influenced by Things to Come, including the use of a (by then real) Flying Wing bomber in a scene. One hopes that Menzies appreciated the irony in that.

      H.G. Wells had originally suggested that the score for Things to Come be written first, so that the action of the film could be designed around it; this suggestion was (wisely) shelved, but the score that was written for the film by Arthur Bliss and performed by the (uncredited) London Symphony Orchestra became the first official soundtrack in its entirety to be issued on LP records to the public (in mid-April 1937). The orchestral score also found a life of its own in concert hall performances.
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