The Stars, Our Destination: Revisiting Things To Come (1936) by matthew c. hoffman

“Three years to make. A century to live. An eternity to forget.”

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Things To Come is one of the most important films in the development of movie science fiction. There were few pure sci-fi films in the 1930s, but Things To Come was one of the first, and it remains one of the best for its relevancy. Besides being a classic of the genre, it’s also one of the finest examples of screen Modernism. Growing up, I would check out the books on science fiction movies, the ones that came out in the 1980s like Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films. I’d always find photos from this highly-regarded film depicting futuristic set designs. One of the most famous examples is the photo of the modern “Everytown”– an underground city with indoor, terraced apartments and glass elevator tubes. But society didn’t have to wait until 2036; by the 1970s, hotels had lobbies that looked like that! Things To Come is also one of the most challenging films to discuss in Screen Deco because its vision is both disturbing and inspirational. It’s a science fiction film that makes us think, and in our age of special effects, how many can do that?

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The film is based on the H.G. Wells book The Shape of Things to Come, which is more an essay than a novel. The story was brought to the screen because of Alexander Korda, whose London Films put the British film industry on the map. Wells, who was greatly admired by Korda, contributed to the screenplay by writing four drafts of it. (He had assistance from Lajos Biro.) Wells was a forceful presence on the set during production, although not always to the advantage of the film. Things To Come is a classic not because of Wells and the film’s tendency to hit you over the head with its message, but because of its visuals by designer Vincent Korda, Alexander’s brother. In the book Film Architecture: From Metropolis to Blade Runner, author Dietrich Neumann writes:

“Set designer Vincent Korda’s friend and artist Fernand Leger was asked by Wells to supply the special effects and architectural settings for the film. But Leger’s drawings, reminiscent of his own 1924 film Ballet Mechanique, were not approved by Wells, and the architect Le Corbusier was asked to submit designs. He declined. In the end, Vincent Korda designed the settings himself, adopting some of Le Corbusier’s formal ideas from his book Towards a New Architecture, which had been published in English in 1927. In an attempt to recognize recent advances in avant-garde filmmaking in the movie, the former Bauhaus professor and photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was asked by Korda to participate… Moholy-Nagy helped to create the central sequence showing the construction of the new Everytown in 2036. In the editing process, a lot of Moholy’s material was discarded, however. He had not only created abstract sequences of moving geometric patterns to illustrate the profound changes that led to the building of the new city but also designed his own version of a city of the future, consisting of transparent cones and glass-clad skeletal towers.”

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Though these abstract and impractical designs were not used, Korda did have a director with an understanding of set design and a flair for strong visuals, William Cameron Menzies. Though he has the directing credit, Menzies was also one of the great art directors of Hollywood, having worked on such silent films as Robin Hood and The Thief of Bagdad. In the sound era, he made remarkable contributions to fantasy films like Chandu the Magician. By the end of the decade he had earned the title “production designer” for his involvement with David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind. Menzies’ vision—laid out in 3,000 illustrations drawn for the film– was the one constant when all the directors were going through a revolving door.

Menzies also worked on one of the greatest Art Deco films of the 1930s, Reaching For the Moon. As serious drama, this Douglas Fairbanks vehicle is somewhat lacking, but we’re not overly concerned about story construction in Screen Deco. If Reaching For the Moon existed in a decent version on dvd, I would’ve played it in the series. It’s set almost exclusively on an Art Deco ocean liner. And if there is one thing Screen Deco is missing, it’s an Art Deco ocean liner.

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Together, Korda and Menzies designed a memorable, though not always realistic, vision of the city of the future. The set design they devised certainly falls into the category of Streamline Moderne with open, well-lit sets suggesting efficiency. Their creation, which fuses art and technology, is a city of stark whiteness with clear glass featured prominently as furniture. In the book Screen Deco, Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers write that “Wells had not really dreamed up an astonishing technology to characterize the future. Consequently, there is a great deal of Art Moderne in the sets: severely utilitarian furnishings in spacious, inornate rooms, using white plaster, Plexiglas, Lucite, glass, and neon.” The Modernism on display is not confined solely to Everytown. It rolls across the screen in the shape of the streamlined tanks. Anything streamlined is associated with the future, and we see this in the designs of the flying wing aircraft as well as in the machinery that re-builds Everytown.

 “As a general rule you may take it that whatever Lang did in Metropolis is the exact contrary of what we want done here.”  ~ H.G. Wells, 1936

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How the movies depicted yesterday’s tomorrow is a fascinating subject unto itself. Of course, one of the greatest of all futurist excursions is Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece, Metropolis. It’s a personal favorite of mine, but because it’s screened a lot and is over two hours, I decided to show Things To Come instead. Wells actually intended his movie to be a response to the Fritz Lang film, which he did not like. He saw it as a monstrous vision of the future. Wells was in the minority. But others followed the scheme Lang had laid out. There was a British silent movie in 1929 called High Treason, which was set in 1940 and was heavily influenced by Metropolis. In the United States, Fox released Just Imagine in 1930, which was a science fiction musical comedy set in 1980. It’s a fun movie with a wonderful New York skyline done in miniature. That was about it until Things To Come hit theatres.

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The film opens on Christmas, 1940, with life going on in the shadow of war. Raymond Massey stars as John Cabal, a man of reason who gets caught up in the ensuing world conflagration as a pilot. The war rages on over the course of not just years, but decades. The world regresses, and what there is left of society is threatened by a plague known as The Wandering Sickness. By 1970, men like the Boss (Ralph Richardson) are leading the masses by force and swaggering charisma rather than by intellect. He fights on against an enemy now known as the Hill People, and he is resolved to get his fleet of outdated biplanes in the air. Though he challenges the existence of science, he’s not beyond using it for weapons of war. John Cabal returns from out of the sky, much older, and representing law and sanity. He is part of a larger organization of airmen called Wings Over the World, which is determined to “clean up” the mess humanity has made of things.

“We don’t approve of independent sovereign states. We mean to stop them.”
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The film has three main sections or arcs, and it is in the last act of 2036 where we see the new city rising beneath the earth; the above world has been returned to nature. Though there are no warlords in this sterile world, there are reactionaries like Theotocupulos (Cedric Hardwicke), who stir up the masses against progress and the rise of the “Space Gun.” Though he, too, questions the role of technology, Theotocupulos uses it to his own advantage. As with the Boss before him, it becomes a wonderful piece of irony.

“If we don’t end war, war will end us.” ~ John Cabal (Raymond Massey)

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The audience’s point of reference in all this is Raymond Massey’s John Cabal, although by the time we are in the 21st century, Massey is playing Cabal’s great-grandson, Oswald. Massey is terrific throughout, smug towards the likes of Ralph Richardson yet a sympathetic voice of reason. He actually makes us applaud Wings Over the World—even though today they would be labeled black-clad fascists. Cabal is really the emotional center of the film, and his final speech at the observatory is one of the great moments of science fiction cinema.

Massey was born in Canada and served in the Canadian army during the First World War and later as an instructor for United States officers at Yale University. After his military service, he was drawn to the London stage. Ironically, his first movie role—according to one online database–was in the aforementioned High Treason, a British science fiction film. Some of his films include The Old Dark House, The Prisoner of Zenda, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, which he had played on the stage, Arsenic and Old Lace, and A Matter of Life and Death, which starred David Niven. Both he and Niven would die on the same day in 1983.

Playing the Boss (aka the Chief) is Ralph Richardson, later, Sir Ralph Richardson. He was a classically trained English actor best known for his Shakespearian roles on the stage. But beyond his work at the Old Vic Theatre and successes in the West End, he appeared in several classic films such as the British film noir Fallen Idol and William Wyler’s The Heiress. His career spanned into the early 1980s with films like Terry Gilliam’s The Time Bandits and Greystoke, the Legend of Tarzan. Like Massey, he passed away in 1983.

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Sir Cedric Hardwicke portrays Theotocupulos, the sculptor who makes a speech against progress and turns the people against Oswald Cabal. His is the voice that dares to cry out, “Halt!” Hardwicke, like Richardson, was one of the great actors of the London stage. He was well known for his performances in works written by George Bernard Shaw. In fact, Shaw once called Hardwicke his “fifth favorite actor after the four Marx Brothers.” Hardwicke also made many memorable films in Hollywood such as the 1935 version of Les Miserables and 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Horror fans will remember him as one of the Frankenstein sons in Ghost of Frankenstein, and my favorite Hardwicke role has to be that of Death in On Borrowed Time. Hardwicke had a distinctive speaking voice, and it’s his voice that narrates 1953’s The War of the Worlds.

But Hardwicke was not the first choice for the role of Theotocupulos. British actor Ernest Thesiger was cast, and a publicity still survives of him speaking to the masses via world television. However, there are conflicting reports as to why he was removed. According to one version, H.G. Wells was not satisfied with his performance. That would’ve been a shame given Wells’ pedestrian understanding of film drama and the fact that Thesiger was a great character actor. The more likely reason was that Thesiger was already committed to playing Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein and had to leave the set of Things To Come before his scenes could be completed.

Ernest Thesiger, who was replaced with Cedric Hardwicke…
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Things To Come contains some terrific actors, but it’s not an actors film. It’s a film about ideas, and the actors are only symbols of those ideas. Raymond Massey said of the script, “Every trace of wit, humour and emotion, everything which made the novel so enthralling had been cut and replaced by large gobs of socialist theory.”  The film’s detractors reference its politics, which is a variation of Socialism in that the individual is subverted for the sake of collective unity. However, it differs from Communism in that Wells wasn’t putting the good of society strictly in the hands of the workers– the common people– but rather he entrusted it to the intellectual elite—the engineers, scientists, and airmen. Additionally, the individual is not completely suppressed as he would be under a totalitarian regime. It seems that Oswald Cabal allows the artisan class to exist and express themselves. People apparently still have the right of free speech, as in the case of Theotocupulos, who is allowed to speak to the masses. This would never have been tolerated in a completely oppressive regime. There is this dichotomy at work; Things To Come is both uplifting in its ability to unite us in a common cause and upsetting with its anti-individual theme. For further discussion on the film’s politics and what Wells intended in specific scenes, there is a terrific, in-depth analysis by Dennis Fischer in his chapter on William Cameron Menzies in Science Fiction Film Directors, 1895-1998.

Things to Come may be philosophically naïve in our modern age, but what I admire is the confidence the film has in its convictions. It certainly has its own viewpoint in favor of Progress, but it even offers a differing perspective if you observe what Progress has done to the Everytown of the Boss. “Why was this science ever allowed?” he asks. In his narrow-minded world view, Progress– allowed to grow unchecked– is responsible for the end of the old world order. Also, Theotocupulos, Cabel’s ideological opposite, challenges the direction of mankind and yearns for the old ways before the state took over.

Roxana (Margaretta Scott), the Boss’s mistress…
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The costumes of 2036…
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Some viewers feel the film is cold and soulless, and perhaps that is a result of its message which goes against our belief structure. We value democratic principles, sovereign nations, nationalism, God-given rights, and the individual self. Take all that away and what are we? But Things To Come has a heart, nevertheless, and you can feel the pulse of humanity right alongside its message. There’s a great scene that comes after a dogfight in the air in which Cabal shoots down an enemy plane. The anti-war dialogue that the dying pilot speaks is unnecessary. We already know it’s ironic that he would give up his gas mask to a little girl whose family he undoubtedly bombed. The point is hammered in, yet it is still a powerful moment. Things To Come shows us the effects of warfare on individuals and families, from the bedside scene of the Cabals as they reflect on bringing children into the world to where we see the deaths from the Wandering Sickness. A pro-human life story such as this could never be considered soulless.

There is a lot of talk in the film, but it never detracts from its cinematic qualities. Its striking camera set-ups and compositions are never dull or static. Lyle Wheeler, who himself was an art director, once said, “When Menzies worked as a director, I used to tell him, ‘You’re no damn good as a director.’ The first thing he would ask for when he came on the set is, ‘Dig me a hole here,’ and that’s where he would put his camera. He wanted to photograph ceilings and didn’t give a damn what the actors were saying.”

Things To Come also features a great film score by Sir Arthur Bliss which creates a rhythm to the storytelling, a rhythm of music with the image. A great example is the opening in which the Christmas scenes are juxtaposed with reminders of impending war. This is also seen during the montage of the new city as it is being erected. It is an epic score designed for a film intended to be an epic prophesy.

Ned Mann directed the special effects. Here are some outstanding examples of the film’s miniatures…
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Some of the predictions in Things To Come are way off the mark, such as the Space Gun—complete with bullet space capsule– which seems more like something out of a Jules Verne story than Popular Mechanics. And the idea of a world war raging on for decades is improbable, unless you draw a parallel to the Cold War. But in other ways, Wells was quite prescient and closer to historical fact. The most obvious example is the emergence of World War II. Things To Come, which also anticipates the German blitzkrieg on London, has the war starting on Christmas in 1940, whereas it actually erupted in September, 1939; Wells was off by only 15 months. Additionally, Everytown 2036 is a modern world full of voices expressed through the world television. In a way, this anticipates our Internet culture where there is instant access to people around the world.

Beyond these predictions, one of the most interesting things about Things To Come is that it’s a forerunner of George Miller’s Mad Max films. The early archetype is there on the screen. Civilization has regressed and is being run by societal cast-offs like the Boss. There is no longer gasoline in this burnt-out world. One man proudly shows off his Rolls Royce which is pulled like a carriage by horses. The engine still turns over after so many years of war. Everytown is an almost medieval world where only the strong survive. If the sick wander the streets, they are shot dead.

War comes to London (“Everytown”) on Christmas, 1940…
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Things To Come makes us imagine a world faced with decades of decline as a result of generations of warfare. Given such a scenario, why wouldn’t a society embrace Wings Over the World? Good science fiction is the extrapolation of an idea—projecting what something would be like in the future. OK, I don’t see people rising up against NASA any time soon, and maybe we won’t have a Space Gun twenty-four years from now in 2036, but substitute something out of our own timeline and suddenly Things To Come has an even greater relevance. In the 1980s, for example, during the Cold War, the Space Gun of Things To Come could’ve symbolized nuclear armament. Is it so crazy to think that one day, far in the future, men will rebel against whatever modern technologies we will then have?

In the world envisioned by H.G. Wells, a brotherhood of efficiency can solve the ills of society. It’s a bleak, almost frightening world view if taken to the extreme. That might be another of those naïve notions that science can cure all, but it’s an alternative Wells posits—a government of common sense. We are now living in that future, and in a way, it’s just as bleak—only we’re on another spectrum. In our own modern world of 2012, where there is little common sense in society, war and debt and unemployment are the things that hold back progress and drain prosperity. We are trillions of dollars in debt and beholden to foreign countries. Wells’ theories are certainly not the answer to our problems because his ideology is not based on human nature; it’s based on an ideal removed from how the world really works. To take Wells’ views a step further, unemployment would be completely illegal in his  21st century Everytown; the state would provide for all equally.  It’s easy to say all men are equal and all would share in such prosperity, but the reality is that not all perform equally.

And yet, there are pieces of “Wings Over the World” that are attractive, moreso for those who have lost hope in the current system. The most promising idea is that new technology = prosperity. I’d rather trust the engineers and scientists of a third political party in our current system than those who continually represent ignorance and corruption in Washington.

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The power of Things To Come is that it makes us dream of these far-off things– that there is more to life than simply getting by with material comforts and everyday living. Our destiny is in the stars, not muddled in the commonplace. Things To Come is about human accomplishment and endeavor, not the base instincts that hold us back. This is the film’s greatest legacy.

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Note: The preceding was the text of my lecture on Things To Come. We had 90 patrons on May 24th. Before the film I played the first chapter of Flash Gordon (1936), which features the greatest Art Deco rocketship in the galaxy!

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One Response to “The Stars, Our Destination: Revisiting Things To Come (1936) by matthew c. hoffman”

  1. […] Things To Come is one of the most important films in the development of movie science fiction. There were few pure sci-fi films in the 1930s, but Things To Come was one of the first, and it remains one of the best for its relevancy. Besides being a classic of the genre, it’s also one of the finest examples of screen Modernism. Growing up, I would check out the books on science fiction movies, the ones that came out in the 1980s like Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films. I’d always find photos from this highly-regarded film depicting futuristic set designs. One of the most famous examples is the photo of the modern “Everytown”– an underground city with indoor, terraced apartments and glass elevator tubes. But society didn’t have to wait until 2036; by the 1970s, hotels had lobbies that looked like that! Things To Come is also one of the most challenging films to discuss in Screen Deco because its vision is both disturbing and inspirational. It’s a science fiction film that makes us think, and in our age of special effects, how many can do that? – screendeco […]

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