In many ways it is hard to think of William Cameron Menzies and H.G. Wells' 1936 film, "Things to Come" as a science fiction movie, due to the fact that so many of it's elements are now 'science fact'.
Indeed many of the items that can be clearly seen in the movie, now can be seen in just about every house in the the UK and United States. For you see, Menzies and Wells had enough clairvoyance to see into the future and know that one day people would own personal computers, televisions (big screen and widescreen), travel in helicopters, shop in multi-story indoor complexes and travel to the moon.
Most importantly, they were able to predict the coming of the second world war. All feats that would have made Nostradamus proud.
Granted, they didn't get everything right. The second world war lasted roughly eight years, not thirty, and when man decided to go to the moon, it was by rocket, and not via a giant space canon.
Hey you can't get them all right.
Oddly, I have often wondered about the idea of shooting a space capsule to the moon with a giant gun. How did they intend for the passengers to survive their impact on the lunar surface? And if they did survive, did they believe that there was already a giant canon on the moon to shoot them back?
Anyway, I have gotten off track.
"Things to Come" is the brainchild of renowned author H. G. Wells who pieced together the films screenplay from his two novels, The Shape of Things to Come and The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind. One being a fantasy story, and the other a work of non-fiction.
Though the director Menzies, and producer Alexander Korda, were ultimately responsible for the production, Wells was ever present during filming, making changes, and voicing opinions on just about everything.
In other words, Wells was a big pain in the backside for both Menzies and Korda.
For decades the films flaws have always been blamed on Wells input, noting that he was a brilliant author, but an awful film maker.
In actuality, however, just about all of Wells' changes ended up on the cutting room floor.
"Things to Come" could be considered the third great special effects driven film in the history of sci fi cinema, "Just Imagine (1930)" and "Metropolis (1927)" being the first two.
Like those prior efforts, the film would feature superb miniature sets and models combined with brilliantly constructed futuristic sets.
That being said, it should be noted that compared to other films of the day, like RKO's "King Kong" or Universals early horror films, the film is step below, production value wise.
Ultimately the film is very 'dated', moves at a snails pace, and in many parts, is very difficult to follow. Also, most existing prints or in very bad shape, making viewing even more difficult.
Without a doubt, however, "Things to Come" deserves it's rightful place among the most notable sci fi films ever created due to it's prophetic story and effects work.
Things to Come sets out a future history from 1936 to 2036. It is set in the fictional British city of 'Everytown' (based on London; a facsimile of St Paul's Cathedral is in the background).
Successful businessman John Cabal (Raymond Massey) cannot get into the festive spirit of Christmas Day, 1940, what with the ominous news of possible war. His guest Harding (Maurice Braddell) shares his worries, but overly-optimistic friend Passworthy (Edward Chapman) believes it will not come to pass, or even if it does, it will do good by accelerating technological progress. A sneak bombing raid on the city that night results in general mobilization and global war.
Some time later, Cabal, now piloting a biplane fighter, shoots down a small, one-man enemy bomber. He then lands and pulls the badly injured enemy (John Clements) from the wreckage. As they dwell on the madness of war, they hurry to put on their gas masks, as the poison gas the pilot dropped drifts in their direction. When a little girl runs towards them, the wounded man insists she take his mask, saying he is done for anyway. Cabal takes the girl to his aeroplane, pausing to leave the doomed man a gun. The man dwells on the irony that he may have gassed the child's family and yet he has saved her. He then commits suicide.
The war continues for decades, long enough for the wretched survivors to have forgotten who the enemy was or the reasons for it in the first place. Humanity falls into a new Dark Age. The city is in ruins and there is little technology left, other than the small arms used to wage war. In 1966, a plague called the "wandering sickness" is spread by the unnamed enemy using its last few remaining aircraft. Dr. Harding and his daughter Mary struggle to find a cure, but with little equipment, it is hopeless.
By 1970, a local warlord called the "Boss" or the "Chief" (Ralph Richardson) has eradicated the sickness by ruthlessly having those infected shot. He dreams of conquering the "hill people" by getting his reluctant mechanic Richard Gordon (Derrick De Marney) to repair the few remaining biplanes so they can fly again.
On May Day 1970, a futuristic aeroplane lands outside the town. The pilot and sole occupant, John Cabal, emerges and proclaims that the last surviving band of "engineers and mechanics" have formed an organization known as "Wings Over the World". They are building a civilization, based in Basra, Iraq, that has renounced war and outlawed independent nation-states. The Chief takes the pilot prisoner, ignoring the shrewd advice of his mistress Roxana (Margaretta Scott), and forces him to work for Gordon. Together, they manage to fix a biplane. When Gordon takes it up for a test flight, he flees and alerts Cabal's friends.
Wings Over the World attacks Everytown, filling the skies with gigantic aeroplanes and bombing the town with a sleeping gas. The Chief orders his biplanes to repel them, but they are shot down. The people of Everytown awaken shortly thereafter, to find it occupied by the Airmen, and the Chief dead, an unexpected victim of the gas.
A montage sequence follows, showing decades of technological progress and human achievement, beginning with Cabal explaining his plans for global consolidation by Wings Over the World. By 2036, mankind lives in pristine, modern underground cities, of which the new Everytown is one.
However, all is not well. The sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) incites the populace to demand a "rest" from the headlong rush of progress, symbolized by the impending first manned flight around the Moon. The modern-day Luddites are opposed by Oswald Cabal (Massey again), the head of the governing council and great grandson of John Cabal. Cabal's daughter Catherine (Pearl Argyle) and her boyfriend Horrie Passworthy insist on flying the spaceship, despite the misgivings of Horrie's father (Chapman again). When maddened crowds rush to destroy the space gun that is to propel the spacecraft, Cabal launches the ship ahead of schedule.
Cabal then delivers a speech to the idea of Progress and humanity's quest for knowledge, asking, "And if we’re no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness, and live, and suffer, and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. It is this, or that. All the universe or nothing. Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?"
I have always found the films underlying message, that technology and scientific advancements are to be viewed as folly, and discouraged as much as possible to be most interesting, especially since it came from the pen of Wells.
His vision of the future was, for it's time, very much like looking into a crystal ball that showed mankind's next one hundred years of existence.
In 1934, when Wells sat down to write his screenplay, war was looming just a mere four years away. The fact that he was able to predict the Nazi air raids on London, the obvious real-life local for his 'Everytown' with such precision is a bit eerie when viewed in hindsight.
The author was also keen enough to realize that the airplane would play a major part in the upcoming war, and the future development of the industrialised world.
True, he didn't foresee the development of the jet engine or the rocket. Maybe his crystal ball had a smudge on it or a crack.
I should also note that "Things to Come" is really actor Raymond Massey's movie. His portrayal of John Cabal (circa 1936) and his decedents over the next hundred years, is the primary focus of the films story and his acting in those multiple roles really stands out.
I encourage all fans of sci fi and fantasy films to seek out "Things to Come". It is a film that should be viewed at least once to gain a perspective on modern sci fi cinema.
It may be very hard to sit through for someone in the modern world, but I guarantee if you do, you will feel a little more enlightened afterword.
If you can manage to put yourself in the place of someone in the 1930s, it will not be hard to imagine that Wells' view of the upcoming hundred years, could be possible, if not inevitable.
Of course, in hindsight, we all know that it didn't play out like that, but if you open your mind to "what if?" scenarios.........well, maybe in an alternate universe, it could have.
Here are more photos from "Things to Come" (note the big screen television, computer monitor, and video telephone):