• Things to Come: Whither Mankind?

    By Geoffrey O’Brien

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    No one who sees it ever forgets it. Things to Come (1936) was an unprecedented event in British filmmaking, an extraordinarily ambitious and expensive production in which the full resources of cinema—an enormous cast, large-scale sets, and sophisticated visual design—were invested in realizing an epic of humanity’s future, as conceived by one of the world’s most famous living authors. Yet few have expressed unqualified enthusiasm for the work, not even those responsible for it. Producer Alexander Korda apparently lost some of his faith in the project during production, cutting back on H. G. Wells’s initial conceptions and considerably shortening the film before its release, just as the originally released version would be further abridged over the years. Raymond Massey complained about the “heavy-handed speeches” he was called on to deliver. As for Wells, he published a version of his screenplay even before the film came out, as if to disassociate himself from any discrepancy between his original vision and the results on the screen.

    Reviewers of the time were duly impressed by the film’s overpowering scale and dazzling visual flourishes. There had “never been anything like Things to Come,” wrote C. A. Lejeune of the Observer. “No film, not even Metropolis, has even slightly resembled it.” But there was also a good deal of negative comment—aimed not so much at any inadequacies of Korda’s production values or William Cameron Menzies’s direction as at the preachiness of Wells’s script and the iciness of his future utopia—and box-office receipts came nowhere near earning back the film’s tremendous costs. Nonetheless, the film has outlived its detractors. A singular and haunting object, it persists in memory and in history by the sheer prophetic scope of its aspirations, a scope that no filmmaker until Kubrick would again attempt. Such are the trains of speculation it sets in motion that even its gaps and contradictions have suggestive power.

    The film’s memorable quality stems most obviously from a visual design that remains mesmerizing and, at times, overwhelming. Menzies had served as art director on many Hollywood films, being responsible most notably for the art-deco orientalist splendors of Douglas Fairbanks’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924). He would go on to be a central creative contributor to Gone with the Wind (1939) and Duel in the Sun (1946), and to direct—with very mixed results, but always with a distinct compositional flair—such features as Address Unknown (1944) and Invaders from Mars (1953). His colleagues on Things to Come included set designer Vincent Korda (whose design genius would be further displayed in his brother Alexander’s 1940 remake of The Thief of Bagdad), cinematographer Georges Périnal, and, although only a few impressive seconds of his work remain in the final cut, artist László Moholy-Nagy, who was brought in to work on the lengthy montage sequence marking the transition from the wreckage of the old world, destroyed by war and pestilence, to the gleaming, streamlined new world of science and technology triumphant. The visual power would carry it even if the dialogue track was turned off; the film almost implies this by its use of superimposed titles to convey some of the most important plot points.

    Drawing freely, as needed, on the stylistic devices of Soviet and German filmmaking, and using every sort of trickery, from models to photographic enlargements to deftly interpolated stock footage, Menzies and his colleagues created a series of indelible scenes: urban mobilization followed by panic and mass death; postwar tribalism springing up among the ruins of the city; the unforgettable landing of a helmeted Massey incarnating the Man from the Future; the fleet of futuristic airplanes breaking through the clouds; the long, nearly abstract interlude of industrial reconstruction; and, finally, the gleaming subterranean pathways, soaring bridges, and gigantic television screens of the achieved World State. The effect of all these scenes is amplified immeasurably by the imposing sonorities of Arthur Bliss’s score.

    But there is no denying that, despite any quibbles about omitted scenes or unapproved design changes, in its essence, Things to Come remains H. G. Wells’s movie, an almost unique instance in which a literary figure devoted to visionary and polemical ideas was provided with all the technical support of commercial cinema to get his message directly to the public. To the extent that the film fails to fully convey Wells’s vision, it is a judgment on that vision itself. Similarly, if Menzies can be faulted for the rather wooden pacing of some of the dialogue, it is only because he could not find a way to breathe life into language that is often flatly declamatory. By the same token, it is impossible to separate the film’s expressive visual and musical power from the intensity of what Wells intended to accomplish. He was a writer who, for all his espousal of scientific rationality, identified profoundly with the Hebrew prophets. He aspired to divination rather than amusing speculation.

    *****

    Wells was nearly seventy when Things to Come opened in February 1936, an age at which he continued to be as astonishingly productive as he had been since the appearance of his first novel, The Time Machine, in 1895; by the time of his death in 1946, he had published well over a hundred books. It is difficult now even to imagine the national and global prominence he enjoyed, not only as a popular novelist but as a historian, a political commentator, and the most eminent of futurologists. His earliest and most inspired novels—The Time Machine had been followed quickly by The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, and The First Men in the Moon, among others—had established him as the prophet of the possibilities and dangers of science, and given him the aura of someone who really knew what he was about when he peered into the future.

    Moving far beyond the role of entertaining fantasist, Wells took it upon himself to map out where things were going and where they ought to be going. In the best-selling The Outline of History (1920) and A Short History of the World (1922), he painted a picture of slow and embattled human progress away from the ignorant childishness of primitive ages and toward a desirable maturity founded on reason, tolerance, and the scientific spirit. The catastrophe of World War I made him an even more impassioned spokesman for the World State that he saw as the inevitable goal toward which humans had always unconsciously been striving.

    The Shape of Things to Come (1933) was to be the most elaborately formulated of Wells’s exercises in prophecy. Couched as a novel—it purports to be the transcription of an actual historical work of the early twenty-second century, transmitted through a series of mysterious dreams—it is, in style, a direct continuation of Wells’s historical works, pushing ahead methodically from the known into the immediate future, as it chronicles a disastrous decades-long war (predicted to begin in 1940, in a dispute between Germany and Poland) that leads to a gradual reversion to near barbarism. Such a catastrophe, aggravated by a devastating global epidemic (“the Wandering Sickness”), is necessary to bring about, at long last, the world­wide rule of sensibly minded technocrats, who proceed to build a new civilization that owes little to the traditions of the past.

    The book’s style is precisely that of a history textbook: there are no characters to speak of, and hardly a trace persists of the poetic quality of Wells’s early novels. What is most striking about it is the unease inseparable from its date of publication: “The year 1933,” the historian of the future writes, “closed in a phase of dismayed apprehension.” The Shape of Things to Come becomes eerie when it foresees, however inadequately, the horrors that were in fact impending—horrors that Wells is eager to understand as merely a prelude to the grand World State that is surely coming. In this utopian era of the twenty-second century, all forms of religion will have been suppressed; “usury” and “monetary speculation” abolished, along with every other trace of capitalism; rational sexual happiness achieved after “ruthlessly eliminating sexual incitation from the lives of the immature”; hatred itself mitigated through treatment as “a controllable mental disease.” Self-interest will have given way to collective discipline: “We have learnt how to catch and domesticate the ego at an early stage and train it for purposes greater than itself.” The governance of the world will be in the hands of “a self-appointed, self-disciplined elite,” an elite consisting of scientists, social psychologists, and sensible men much like Wells himself.

    It seems unlikely that Alexander Korda thought there was much of a movie in the book as it stood, and Wells acknowledged in the introduction to his published screenplay that “a new story has been invented” to exemplify the book’s intellectual arguments, or at least the most elementary of them. It would be easy to mock the rudimentary dramatization to which Wells resorted. Every character is a spokesperson for one idea or another, from John Cabal’s “If we do not end war, war will end us” to his grandson Oswald’s final florid statement that “when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.” (In Massey, who plays both roles, Korda had certainly found an actor for whom—whether he liked the script or not—this kind of oratory seemed to come naturally.) Nothing occurs that is not designed to convey a precise point in the overall argument—the film is set, after all, in Everytown—and there is scarcely an attempt to sketch any emotional relationships of any depth. Even the scenes in the published screenplay in which Wells attempts, in however strained a fashion, to address future relations between men and women and between parents and children are not to be found in the finished film. Small wonder if, by the last reel, audiences felt they had drifted into some peculiar sort of illustrated lecture.

    *****

    It is indeed just that, an illustrated lecture. As such, it was very much of a piece with an emerging era of state-sponsored film­making, the age of Triumph of the Will (1935) and Alexander Nevsky (1938) and, in a more benign mode, the New Deal documentaries of Pare Lorentz, soon to be followed by the age of all-out wartime propaganda. Things to Come channels that atmosphere—its scenes of aerial bombing and ruined cities have the disturbing effect of achieved clairvoyance, a 1940s newsreel made in the ’30s—but it stands apart from any state except the World State cherished in the imagination of H. G. Wells.

    And so, despite the elimination of many of the most radical elements of Wells’s program (the assaults on religion, capitalism, and individualism), the film still carries a charge of real indigna­tion at the order of things. The original and understandably rejected title, Whither Mankind?, underscores the extent to which Wells envisaged a work of prophetic exhortation, a call for fundamental change in the face of impending collapse. The film’s opening sequences, in which cheery scenes of an English Christmastide are juxtaposed with menacing headlines about war, could hardly be more heavily accentuated; even more so the shock image of a dead child amid bombed-out ruins. It helps to remember that these scenes were being shown to an audience in active denial, many of them, of the possibility of such things coming to pass in the near future.

    The film comes closest to dramatic life in the middle, with the scene of the enemy aviator dying from his own poison gas, followed by the extended episode in which Everytown under­goes the horrors of the Wandering Sickness (underscored by the expressionistic death journey of Patricia Hilliard walking somnambulistically out of her ruined home to be shot down in the street) and falls under the sway of Ralph Richardson’s fur-draped warlord. Richardson draws all the Shakespearean energy he can out of the role, and Margaretta Scott, as his dis­con­tented mistress, matches him as best she can, given that much of her role was ultimately cut. It is the disparity between Richardson’s and Scott’s despicable but entirely human devi­ousness and the glacial decorum of the airmen who will establish the coming civilization that marks the point where Wells’s concept falters as drama.

    Perhaps the future should have remained in the realm of pure abstraction. The prolonged montage of the building of the new world is a paradise of whirling bobbins and conveyor belts, mag­nified screws and bolts, bubbling vats and showers of sparks—an industrial short elevated to a lyric poem. This level of abstraction is sustained in the trappings of the scenes that follow—with the wide-open spaces of the high-ceilinged conference rooms, the immense heights from which the governing elite look down at the masses below, the perpetual gliding and sliding of screens and surfaces—even if Wells was disappointed that Korda’s cost-cutting meant that many of the particulars he envisioned were never filmed. But if these scenes fall short, it is not because of any technical insufficiency—Menzies and the Kordas succeeded in creating glimpses of vast, cavernous interiors worthy of the legendary stage designs of Edward Gordon Craig—but because Wells gave the inhabitants of his new world, in their curious peak-shouldered tunics, very little of interest to do. We find ourselves in the air-conditioned halls and plazas of what seems like the world’s largest shopping mall, filled with antlike crowds streaming facelessly along. (The hygienic airlessness of the World State was sarcastically compared by New Republic critic Otis Ferguson to that of “a pure-food restaurant.”) The only sour note in this streamlined, anodyne place is the rebel sculptor played by Cedric Hardwicke, a reactionary bohemian—probably Wells’s revenge on the modernist aesthetes who gave him insufficient respect—who wants to halt technological progress in order to savor life the old-fashioned way. His call to action, delivered over a giant television screen that dwarfs those watching it, is quite impressive, but it is just at this point, as Hardwicke’s character mobilizes the angry masses, that the audience’s sympathies tend to go astray. Unfortunately, the future utopia and the scientists who rule over it alike are so unappealing that we may be inclined to root for the Luddites.

    As Jorge Luis Borges remarked in a review of Things to Come, “The heaven of Wells and Alexander Korda, like that of so many other eschatologists and set designers, is not much different than their hell, though even less charming.” Borges went on to pinpoint the major flaw in Wells’s schema, the notion that science and technology would be the rallying force against tyranny: “In 1936, the power of almost all tyrants arises from their control of technology.” A few years later, after the war broke out, George Orwell would similarly note: “Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the airplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age.”

    There is no way any audience, in the 1930s or now, would be likely to accept Raymond Massey’s Oswald Cabal as an empa­thetic spokesperson for the human race. He is essentially the chairman of the board of a quasi-fascist ruling elite—and not so very far from the idea that Wells, at best ambivalent about democracy, in fact had in mind. Yet the very resistance one feels toward the swelling rhetoric of the conclusion—the vision of an endless human adventure along lines laid out by science, in contrast to the complacent pursuit of mere pleasure or mere beauty—is a measure of the film’s force. Things to Come may finally be a more reliable prediction than we would like to think. It is not hard to imagine a future world utterly regulated and constrained by technology; we are, in fact, nearly there in many respects, even if without the utopian side effects that Wells liked to anticipate. From first to last, the film expresses strongly held convictions in a tone that is almost indifferent to the audience’s reaction. It hardly seeks to persuade: it displays and declares. Perhaps that is what comes of letting a writer have his way to this extent in the making of a film, and perhaps that is also why it happens so rarely; but we can, in any event, be grateful for the lingering visionary force of Things to Come, a trial shot into the future that speaks to us now from a rapidly receding past.

    Geoffrey O’Brien’s books include Sonata for Jukebox, Castaways of the Image Planet, The Browser’s Ecstasy, The Phantom Empire, The Fall of the House of Walworth, and, most recently, Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writing on Film, 2002–2012. He is editor in chief of the Library of America.

1 comment

  • By Craig J. Clark
    June 20, 2013
    06:33 PM

    I've always found it curious that Wells had so little regard for the films that were adapted from his novels. Island of Lost Souls and James Whale's The Invisible Man are both extraordinary.
    Reply