#49: Things to Come
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Cast: Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Cedrick Hardwicke, Pearl Argyle, Margaretta Scott
My rating: Class A (3/7, hot white star). Based on a novel (The Shape of Things to Come) by H.G. Wells, the film is important for a number of reasons (cinematic history and theme both come to mind), but it’s also a little boring. It’s visually stimulating—especially taking the film’s year of origin into account—and it’s got big important ideas from a thoughtful author who may have exercised an unusually high amount of control over the film. And while I have some problems with the film’s central theme, that theme is well-developed and well presented. All in all, it’s a film worth watching and it definitely belongs on the Top Fifty Films list.
What follows is the title sequence, and you can run from this right on to view the entire film on YouTube for free. Thanks to oddities in United States copyright law, the film is in the public domain in the United States (though not in Great Britain and the Eurpean Union). While I find the legal maneuvering fascinating, I am aware that most people don’t care; the important point is that from the title sequence below, you can actually watch the entire film on YouTube for free.
The film opens in the year 1940 in Everytown, Great Britain, and covers a future history which runs to 2036. The film opens with preparations for the Christmas celebration, complete with happy crowds, decorations, convivial gatherings of family and friends—and the rumor of a threatened war. The film follows the life of John Cabal and his descendants in three key periods: the war and its immediate aftermath, in which civilization, at the very least, falters and perhaps even falls; an intermediate dark age in which the survivors struggle to rebuild civilization; and a triumphant golden age in which peace reigns but is nevertheless threatened.
Things to Come is an unusual film with an unusual plot structure and a striking theme. On the plus side, it gives us strong performances from the actors; intriguing ideas about the future of mankind; thoughtful discourse on the competing ideals of scientific and technological progress and order versus barbarism and chaos; and strong visuals which are astonishing for the time period.
On the negative side, the film is hardly action-packed, whether you employ the standards of modern, Elizabethan, or medieval theater. The story is a little slow; in places the film’s vision actually overpowers the narrative; the ideas in the film are thought-provoking but not generally appealing to a wide audience; and the visuals, while striking, may not seem like much to someone who wants to see explosions.
Plot (Contains spoilers, you’ve been warned)
Short summary: John Cabal joins with friends and family to celebrate Christmas, but war breaks out. Cabal becomes a fighter pilot and serves in the war, which drags on so long that everyone forgets why they’re fighting. In one sequence, Cabal, piloting a biplane, shoots down an enemy bomber, but not before the bomber releases poison gas. Cabal, wearing a gas mask, rescues the wounded and gas masked enemy pilot when they spot a little girl who survived the attack. The enemy pilot gives up his gas mask to save the little girl. However, this is the fall of civilization, and the city of Everywhere is smashed into rubble.
After the war is over—primarily because no one has the means to continue it—the fatal wandering sickness emerges, complicating life for the survivors. Though a heroic doctor and his daughter attempt to cure the plague, they are unsuccessful Rudolf, or “the Boss,” eradicates the plague near the ruins of Everywhere by the simple expedient of shooting everyone who contracts it. He dreams of conquest against his neighbors and wants to expand his sphere of influence, but lacks the resources to do so. Along comes John Cabal in a souped-up plane, the representative of Wings Over the World, “the last surviving group of engineers and mechanics.” The Boss promptly imprisons Cabal and forces him to work on the Boss’ planes so that he can use them in his planned war. Once the first plane is fixed, the Boss’ pilot (seduced by Cabal’s vision of a peaceful, productive world without nations) flees to Wings Over the World, and the group uses its superior technology—and their sleeping gas bombs—to rescue John Cabal, subdue the Boss’ proto-nation and eliminate the Boss himself.
In a montage sequence, Wings Over the World consolidates its hold and the now united mankind builds extraordinary subterranean cities and begins the march of progress once again. However, conflict once again develops over a planned space ship launch. A sculptor opposes progress, demanding a rest, and incites a mob. He is opposed by John Cabal’s great grandson Oswald, leader of the world council, whose own daughter is one of the pilots of the planned spaceship. In spite of the mob attack, the ship launches and Cabal delivers a speech in which he declares that mankind must seek knowledge and progress or he is no more than an animal, and ends by asking: “All the Universe, or nothing. Which shall it be? Which shall it be?”
This is a really good movie if you enjoy explorations of thought and mankind’s destiny and the tools we need to rise above our animal origins. If you don’t, it’s probably a really preachy, really boring film.
The narrative structure of the film—probably intended to reinforce the theme by repeating the central ideological conflict in three different settings—is the weakest part of the film. The wholly different sections of the film—perhaps the most sharply delineated narrative three act structure I’ve ever seen—tend to rob the film of some momentum. Each act must begin building the story, introducing the characters, and developing the setting anew. The device of using one man and his descendant, both named Cabal and both played by Raymond Massey, ameliorates this to some extent but the film still suffers from the start-stop action. Each act, however, shows the opposing forces of barbarism and chaos in conflict with scientific progress and order in different times and settings. In fact, the central theme of Things to Come is right there in that conflict, and the repetition of the conflict hammers home the point.
Though Massey is not the only actor who does double duty through course of the film, the performances are sufficiently distinctive that you may not even realize when an actor reappears in a different role. I rate that as a triumph of the actor’s craft. Two actors, in particular, stand out: Ralph Richardson as “the Boss” and (I think) Margueretta Scott as his paramour. The former gives an astounding performance of a tin-pot, often drunken, dictator presiding over the ruins of civilization, while the latter as his mistress revels in the power she holds thanks to the Boss (though she is tempted by the vision of the future offered by Cabal, and engages in interesting discussion with him). Massey’s features are so distinctively craggy that you won’t mistake him for anyone else, but he also does a nice job of playing a character devoted to a vision but not so much so that he’s a caricature.
Visually, the film offers what can only be described as a coherent vision of the future, and the settings tend to dominate the screen. In the first era, visions of a London-that-never-was compete with rubble, the smashed ruins of civilization. The dark age era offers starkly barbaric and primitive structures alongside the remnants of the fall, and contrasts them with smooth, technologically sophisticated sets inside massive aircraft. But it is the third era, the golden age and its rebuilt, subterranean Everywhere—a balanced architechtural wonder, with light and trees and airy thoroughfares—which really packs the most visual punch, and comes close to making the film worth watching by itself (the themes and performances complete the job). In a few places, though, the visual feast simply becomes overwhelming, in particular the montage in which Cabal narrates Wings Over the World’s consolidation of its power, which flows into the rebuilding of Golden Age Everywhere.
The film’s striking imagery is not limited to the future sequences. One of the most powerful images in the film appears early on, with a little boy playing with a ball in his yard as his father goes off to war. The boy’s play changes to imitate his father’s expected course of action, and it’s a chilling note about the kinds of things we learn and when we learn them. Things to Come takes full advantage of the visual nature of the medium, and contrasts like the little boy’s peace and wartime play can be seen throughout the narrative.
The film does a very good job of exploring its central theme. The first act, the war, is barbarism and chaos made chillingly real. Acts of decency and humanity are far and few between. But even here, in the absolute madness of a destructive conflict, one pilot (Cabal) can attempt to save the life of his enemy, who himself gives up his gas mask to save the life of a little girl from the poison gas that he dropped in his bombing run before being shot down! And in the second act, we see violence and barbarism as tools in the hands of the Boss, who is attempting to restore a kind of civilization (though in the service of selfish motives). The scientists and engineers have a better way, though, and use non-lethal weapons in service of their goals. Finally, in the golden age, art and leisure oppose scientific progress—fortunately, the film tells us, unsuccessfully.
You may not agree with the theme; I certainly do not. First of all, the film ignores the negative aspects of technology and scientific progress. Second, the film offers a sort of tautological explanation for government by scientists. And third, the film seems to reject important aspects and values of a balanced society.
Nowhere does Things to Come acknowledge that scientific progress may create new problems, such as pollution, nor does it address the terrific destructive potential that scientific progress has placed in the hands of mankind. In fact, while Progress with a capital P is responsible for the reinvigoration of civilization, it also gave men the tools to tear it down in the first place. Thanks, Scientists!
I may be reading too much into the film in terms of rulership by Scientists. And yet…the concept is there. It is the engineers and mechanics who rebuild a world-wide society without nation-states—by knocking down the nation-states that rear their ugly heads. It is a space scientist who heads up the ruling body in the golden age and delivers the film’s final message. Apparently since scientific progress is what separates us from the animals, and that progress is the gift and function of scientists, it is best if scientists lead us. I won’t even get into the fact that governance and science draw on different skill sets, and that people who are good at one are not necessarily good at the other. The argument reminds me of the philosopher-kings of Plato’s Republic, a vision which I found incredibly seductive when I was seventeen, but now reject as impractical and undesirable (and based on the wholly repugnant society of the Spartans with some slight tweaks in values).
Finally, as Things to Come displays Science Ascendant in the Golden Age, the film puts a sculptor in the role of villain. That’s right, an artist exemplifies the forces of barbarism and chaos in the third segment. I feel certain that Things to Come did not intend to reject art and leisure as important elements of any balanced society, but that really is the way that the plot plays out. At least in the third act the artist isn’t demanding a halt to progress; he’s asking for a rest. It’s as if Science and Progress are so important that we can’t take time out for anything else. I get the sense that the productive, scientifically ordered society of Wells’ vision would be a remarkably sterile place without art, literature, sports, or anything else that gets in the way of Progress.
It is still a stirring vision of the future, and the ringing final question made me feel fantastic about where our species can go if it only chooses correctly. I found the ending of the film inspiring. It was only upon reflection that my dissatisfaction with the central theme began to grow.
All in all, Things to Come is a fun and deep outing from one of literature’s most prolific purveyors of Utopia, H.G. Wells. His touch can be seen throughout the film, which closely parallels Wells’ novel. It’s very different from the other Top Fifty outing by Wells (The War of the Worlds); it does not show us life as it is in the Victorian era or play out his ideas about Social Darwinism, and for a (at least in part) war film, the action is surprisingly bloodless. The message is a bit preachy, but it’s also thrilling, at least on first hearing, and it’s well worth thinking about Wells’ vision of the future.