Director: William Cameron Menzies
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Last night, Turner Classic Movies dedicated their programming to the work of the Korda clan—Alexander, Vincent, and Zoltán—the founders of London Films. The evening started with one of my favorites, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), with Alexander’s future wife Merle Oberon looking more lovely than in any film of hers I’ve seen. I fully intended to watch one of the hubby’s new acquisitions afterward, but then I saw that the next film up was an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come with Ralph Richardson. Scifi films of the 1930s are generally cheesy affairs, but we both love the genre, so that’s what we watched.
The film, which spans 100 years, begins Christmas 1940. The residents of Everytown (which resembles London) exhibit all the holiday excitement one would expect—children gazing covetously at toys in shop windows, adults making their way home, cars moving through the city center. All around are blaring signs and screaming headlines about the possibility of war, cut as a semi-montage of jingoistic propaganda.
Gathering for Christmas dinner are engineer John Cabal (Raymond Massey), his wife (Sophie Stewart), and his friends Harding (Maurice Braddell), and “Pippa” Passworthy (Edward Chapman). Cabal rails against the foolishness of the human race, young Harding worries about what war will do to his science studies, Passworthy remains upbeat that war is unlikely and that even if it does come, it will bring innovation with it. Mrs. Cabal thinks she hears something, and the assembled go out of the Cabal mansion and view searchlights in the city center. “They wouldn’t attack on Christmas,” Mrs. Cabal questions incredulously, but that’s exactly what the unnamed enemy does. An emergency radio broadcast informs the horrified friends that the nation is mobilizing for war.
The scene shifts to soldiers climbing onto transport trucks and riding through the city center on motorcycles. Passworthy talks to his young son about doing his part in the civil defense, as the admiring lad imitates the soldiers in their pith helmets. Soon, residents are warned to go home, go down into subway tunnels, collect gas masks from the supply trucks entering the square. Anti-aircraft cannons are brought to the ready. Finally, Menzies gives us a scene of great violence that foreshadows what London will experience during the Blitz—crumbled walls, dazed victims, dead bodies, all ending with a tragic shot of Passworthy’s child half-buried in the rubble, the former glory of the city now a broken skyline. For all its low-tech cheapness, it’s a sobering scene very well shot.
The immediate world plunges into a modern version of the 100 Years War, with Everytown reduced to medieval squalor, as destruction of industry has meant a complete breakdown of modern civilization. No more petrol, no more electricity, and residents largely wear skins instead of cloth. Their warlord, The Boss (Ralph Richardson), is a hothead who thinks only of getting his broken and fuelless air armada of 10 planes off the ground to crush the hill dwellers. Harding, now an old man, is bullied to serve The Boss and his queen, played brilliantly as a restless exotic by Margaretta Scott. But The Boss is no match for a visitor from the air—a very space-age-looking Cabal, who has returned to Everytown to “clean things up” on behalf of a group of scientists who call themselves Wings Over the World (WOW!). They bombard Everytown with the “gas of peace,” which puts the populace to sleep (and I suppose washes their brains of any hostile impulses), but kills the untameable Boss.
The last act of the film takes place in 2036. The world has been engulfed by progress—multilevel, automated cities enclosed from the sun, residents dressed like Greek gods, and a splinter group led by Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) who say “enough” to progress once a “villainous” plan to send humans into outer space nears fruition. Menzies stages a thrilling attack on the space cannon as the new boss, Cabal’s grandson, also played by Massey, rushes to shoot his daughter Catherine (Pearl Argyle) and Maurice Passworthy (Kenneth Villiers), great-grandson of Pippa, off to orbit the moon.
The production values of this film are strictly bargain basement, and the sound quality is terrible. Nonetheless, director Menzies, cinematographer Georges Perinal, and film editors Charles Crichton and Francis Lyon spin a lot of gold out of straw. The camera angles are ingenious and well lit, creating some beautiful visuals that had me rather breathless at times. The models mainly look odd and flimsy, and the modern Everytown looks amazingly like a Hyatt Hotel, but the strange airplanes sent by Wings Over the World to rescue Cabal are pleasingly reminiscent of pterosaurs.
As one would expect, the film is at its best in both look and coherence during the first act. The bombed-back-to-the-Stone-Age second act is the most enjoyable part of the film, as Ralph Richardson tears the screen to pieces as the blustering Boss. He is clearly having a gas playing this part, rising through the ranks as a tough who shoots on sight Everytowners afflicted with the deadly, highly contagious “wandering sickness,” which appears to be a silly-looking form of zombie-ism.
If someone can explain to me the career of Raymond Massey, I’m all ears. He has all the subtlety of a drag queen, and in the third act, he gets to dress like one, too. At least in this film, it makes a bit of sense for everyone to dress in short skirts, seeing as the entire environment is climate-controlled. What a nuisance sunshine and fresh air are! I’m with the Luddites in this film, as the idea of sending people into space has no logic behind it except that Man must keep pushing the envelope if it kills Him. And this muddles the philosophy of the film for me: Do Wells, who wrote the screenplay, and the filmmakers think that unfettered progress is good? Was killing all the protesters who got too close to the space cannon (“Watch out for the concussion!”) at firing all right? Frankly, the fascistic images, from a gigantic, Art Nouveau sculpture to a gigantic, heroically lit close-up of Massey’s skeletal head spouting platitudes give me the willies. I was also highly encouraged that this was a dystopia by the fact that the huge council of the Brave New World of Things to Come was composed entirely of white men.
Give me Margaretta Scott and her gypsy attire any day!