Things to Come (1936)

Director: William Cameron Menzies

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Come%202.jpgIf 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!

  • Greg F. spoke:
    27th/03/2009 to 12:53 pm

    Okay, now you know I have to plug myself here as I did a piece on this in August of last year which can be found here. The old haloscan comments are linked at the bottom of the post. I notice you didn’t comment on that so maybe you never saw it. It mainly concerned Wells’ disturbingly wacky ideas of Liberal Fascism and essentially I agree with you on everything, especially Richardson, who is fantastic. I also link a video, but it’s one I made which goes through the whole movie, visually, eliminating most of the wacky stuff going on philosophically in this grand mess of a movie.
    As for Massey I can certainly explain his appeal in roles like Arsenic and Old Lace or the humorless overlord in Hurricane but as a romantic or heroic lead as he is here? I’m stumped.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/03/2009 to 2:07 pm

    I never did see that post, Greg. I surely would have remembered it. Isn’t it interesting that this film and Gabriel Over the White House are so similar in tone? What were all those rich and famous men drinking or smoking back then?

  • Daniel spoke:
    27th/03/2009 to 2:22 pm

    Sounds like one not to miss!
    I love the idea of people in 2036 being dressed as Greek gods and goddesses. What a world that will be.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/03/2009 to 2:34 pm

    I shudder to think.

  • Greg F spoke:
    27th/03/2009 to 3:59 pm

    Yes, Gabriel Over the White House reminded of Wells’ notions of Liberal Fascism when I was watching it. Another instance where the authoritarian elite will magically and effortlessly give up power once everyone is safe. It is amazing to me that Wells (and apparently Hearst) supported such a harebrained notion.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/03/2009 to 4:01 pm

    I’m sure they believed in nobless oblige in theory, but never dealt with it in practice.

  • Philip Holcombe spoke:
    27th/03/2009 to 7:49 pm

    I personally found the film, “Thing’s To Come”‘ to be very entertaining. The first comment I’d like to aver,would be be in regard to the perception of the world of 2036 to be dystopian. Perhaps so, but not entirely. I did not see the killing of the protesters due to a canine distraction. (But why not explore space? We can’t stay locked up on Earth forever). Wouldn’t the same thing happen to those same people, today, threatening the space shuttle? They were uncontrollable, and so was their misguided leader.
    However, I do not recall any plan being mentioned for bringing the young astronauts back to Earth.
    The first part of the movie was very, how you say, logical. The early years of the war were shown as being fought with modern weaponry until the late 1950’s. Then, it was depicted as a tooth and nail fight with soldiers back on horses, and wearing animal skins.
    I believe that without the use of nuclear weapons, such a war would ensue in that same manner.
    It would begin with the best weapons and end with mankind killing each other with swords, arrows and spears.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/03/2009 to 8:59 am

    Philip – I’m not saying it wasn’t enjoyable. I recommend this film without reservation. I just think the last act was politically scary. I don’t think a horde that big should just be sacrificed in the name of progress. The film makes little attempt to explore the morality of what Cabal’s grandson has in mind, including sending two people into space in what the horde viewed as a suicide mission. Indeed, as you rightly point out, there was no plan to bring them home, just a “they’ll come back!” I think this might have been a subtle way of suggesting that they would end up settling offworld and starting a new colony of human beings (the reason a man and woman were sent, in my estimation).

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    31st/03/2009 to 1:04 am

    If you think you can stand something really scary . . . Raymond Massey and Ruth Gordon as a couple in Action in the North Atlantic.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/04/2009 to 9:19 pm

    No, no! Say it ain’t so, Peter!

  • hokahey spoke:
    4th/04/2009 to 12:50 pm

    Things to Come is one weird movie but I love the weirdness of H.G. Wells’s imagination, and Ralph Richardson is memorable in his role as the Boss. It is one of many movies I discovered watching old movies on television back in the 60s.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/04/2009 to 12:57 pm

    I only just discovered it, Hokahey, but it’s definitely one I’m glad I saw.

  • Scot spoke:
    27th/01/2010 to 1:50 am

    “Do Wells, who wrote the screenplay, and the filmmakers think that unfettered progress is good?”
    Well, yes. Progress is good by definition, isn’t it?
    “Was killing all the protesters who got too close to the space cannon (“Watch out for the concussion!”) at firing all right?”
    Where was it ever mentioned that the mob led by Theotocopulos was killed? Maybe they were just knocked down by the concussion, or had a real bitch of a headache.
    “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.”
    I assume either you’re being facetious or you’re guilty of extreme “presentism.” Obviously, in a British movie made in 1936, any group with authority was going to be composed of white men. They were white and male simply by default.
    “Marilyn” wrote: “The film makes little attempt to explore the morality of what Cabal’s grandson has in mind, including sending two people into space in what the horde viewed as a suicide mission.”
    Well, they volunteered, didn’t they? I believe that issue was addressed when Oswald Cabal said, “We have the right to do as we like with our lives, with our sort of lives.” And in his impassioned speech to Passworthy: “There’s nothing wrong with suffering if you suffer for a purpose. Our revolution didn’t abolish danger or death; it simply made danger and death worthwhile.”
    Earth may be the cradle of humanity, but you can’t stay in the cradle forever. The Luddites were wrong.
    Oh, and for those who can’t understand Raymond Massey’s appeal as a heroic lead, I suggest you watch him in “The Fountainhead.”

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/01/2010 to 9:26 am

    Scot – Progress is good by definition, isn’t it?
    No it is not. That is a judgment, not a definition. Who is to say that space travel is an unfettered good? I’m not arguing one way or the other, simply pointing out that judgment calls cannot be taken as cold, hard facts. Only those who believe them think they are; it would do them well to check with the rest of the world as well.

  • Donna spoke:
    14th/05/2015 to 11:20 am

    Oh Man! Massey is so marvelous as Chauvelin in The Scarlet Pimpernel! He was no romantic lead, I fail to understand Antoinette de Mauban’s fidelity to him (Mary Astor) in the lovely The Prisoner of Zenda. He was wickedly malevolent in that film and faded into the background the instant Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was on screen as Rupert. I loved him in Fire Over England as Phillip and as John Brown in Santa Fe Trail. I think my favorite of his performances was not in vintage films, but on an episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery Clean Kills and Other Trophies. I think he looks great in a toga-ette in the 3rd act of Things to Come. First time I saw it was on the big screen at my local revival theater, the print was good and the design of the film knocked my socks off.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    15th/05/2015 to 12:47 pm

    “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.”

    Well, I am 100% in accord here Marilyn. Like the films of Val Lewton, so much is done with minimally applied sets/decor, and the vision is made more persuasive because of the subtle manner it is applied with. This is one of the more famous science-fiction films ever made, and fabulous blu-rays are out there from Criterion and Masters of Cinema. Your re-telling of the film’s arc is the most riveting and impressive I have ever read for this film, and you avoid overpraise or hyperbole in accessing its unique qualities. The film’s opening act is indeed the most impressive. Wonderful choice to re-visit for this blogathon!

  • Joe Thompson spoke:
    18th/05/2015 to 9:51 pm

    I first saw this movie when a new UHF station in San Francisco launched with the cheapest available movie package, which included scratchy prints of Arthur Wontner and Tod Slaughter movies, and Things to Come. The movie left me cold, but I was impressed by the way William Cameron Menzies did so much with so little. Raymond Massey is an acquired taste that I have never acquired. He was good as Junius Brutus Booth, father of Edwin and John Wilkes, in Prince of Players.

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