Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Stubs – Things to Come

Things to Come (1936) Starring: Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke, Pearl Argyle and Margaretta Scott. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Screenplay by H.G. Wells, Based on the novel, The Shape of Things to Come by H.G. Wells. Produced by Alexander Korda.  Run Time: 109 minutes. U.K.  Black and White. Science Fiction, Christmas

Drive-by Christmas continues with a look at Things to Come (1936), a visionary look at future events written by H.G. Wells and directed by William Cameron Menzies. Wells was a well-known science fiction writer of his time after such novels as The Time Machine (1985), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of the Worlds (1898). Wells wrote the novel, The Shape of Things to Come in 1933, in which he speculated about future events going out to the year 2106. Welles claims that the book is his edited notes from a fictitious diplomat, Dr. Philip Raven, and presents a "future history" which diverts from reality in late 1933/early 1934.

The war starts on Christmas Day, 1940. Qualifying Things to Come as a drive-by Christmas movie.
The film, title shortened to Things to Come, is set in the then future world of 1940. On Christmas Day, the talk is not about gifts and family, but about the ominous news of possible war. Set in the fictional British city of Everytown, which strongly resembles London, successful businessman John Cabal (Raymond Massey) and his guest, Dr. Edward Harding (Maurice Braddell), share worries, but their over-optimistic friend Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman) believes war will not come to pass. A bombing raid from an unspecified country, but one they know who it is, on the city results in general mobilization and global war.

Most of the action takes place in and around Everytown, UK (the equivalent to Anytown, U.S.A.)
Cabal, now piloting a biplane, later shoots down a one-man enemy bomber. He lands and pulls the badly injured enemy (John Clements) from the wreckage. As the two of them discuss the madness of war, they have to put on their gas masks, as the enemy’s poison gas drifts in their direction. When a little girl runs towards them, the wounded man insists she takes his mask, saying he is done for anyway. Cabal takes the girl to his plane, leaving a revolver for the wounded man. Before shooting himself, the man dwells on the irony that he may have killed the child's family and yet he has saved her.

John Cabal (Raymond Massey) attends to an injured enemy pilot (John Clements).
Unlike World War II, which this movie predicted, this new war continues for decades, long enough for the survivors to have forgotten why they are fighting in the first place. With the world in ruins and with little technological advancement, as everything was put into the war effort, humanity has entered a new Dark Age. The film picks up briefly, telling us that in 1966, the enemy had spread a plague called the "wandering sickness" using its last few remaining aircraft. Dr. Harding and his daughter, Mary (Ann Todd), struggle to find a cure, but with little equipment, all seems hopeless.

Dr. Edward Harding (Maurice Braddell) works with his daughter Mary (Ann Todd)
trying to find a cure for the "wandering sickness" plague the enemy has spread. 
By 1970, a local warlord called the "Chief" or the "Boss" (Ralph Richardson) has risen to power and has eradicated the sickness, in Everytown, by shooting the infected. He dreams of conquering the "hill people" to obtain coal and shale to render into oil so his biplanes can fly again. The Boss has tasked his master mechanic, Richard Gordon (Derrick De Marney) with piecing together a fleet of airplanes, which without tools, parts and petrol seems an impossible task.

Local Warlord (Ralph Richardson) runs Everytown post WWII.
On May Day 1970, a futuristic airplane lands outside the town. The sole pilot, John Cabal, emerges and proclaims that the last surviving band of "engineers and mechanics" have formed a civilization called "Wings Over the World" (wasn’t that the name of a Paul McCartney tour?), based in Basra, Iraq (of all places). The WOTW have renounced war and outlawed independent nations, which doesn’t sit well with The Boss, who takes the pilot prisoner. He forces Cabal and Harding to work for Gordon. Together, they manage to get a plane fixed. When Gordon takes it up for a test flight, he flees to alert Cabal's friends.

John Cabal (Raymond Massey) arrives. What the future looked like in 1936.
Wings Over the World attacks Everytown with gigantic planes and drops sleeping peace gas bombs on the town. The Boss orders his biplanes to attack but they are outgunned and shot down. The people of Everytown are put to sleep, but The Boss chokes to death on what he thinks is poisonous gas. When the citizens of Everytown awaken, the Airmen of Wings Over the World are in charge.

Wings Over the World flies gigantic airplanes that bomb Everytown into submission.
A montage follows, showing decades of technological progress, beginning with Cabal explaining plans for global consolidation by Wings Over the World. The montage reminds me of a comment in Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Movie, about a time when science didn’t need to have a purpose. By 2036, mankind lives in modern underground cities, including the new 'Everytown,' which is now free from disease and war.

However, all is not well. A sculptor, Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke), incites the populace to demand a "rest" from the rush of progress, symbolized by the first manned flight around the Moon. (Okay they were off on this one by about 70 years.) The modern-day Luddites are opposed by Oswald Cabal (Raymond Massey), the head of the governing council and grandson of John Cabal from the first part of the movie. Oswald Cabal's daughter Catherine (Pearl Argyle) and her boyfriend Horrie Passworthy (Pickle Livingston) insist on riding on the spaceship, which is really more like a bullet than what we think of as a rocket. With the mob rushing to destroy the space gun (film technology hasn’t advanced since Georges Melies’ 1902 film A Trip to the Moon), Cabal orders the ship’s launch ahead of schedule.

Futuristic Everytown with the rocket that will take man to the moon.
The film ends, with, what else, a preachy speech delivered by Oswald Cabal to Raymond Passworthy (Edward Chapman), Horrie’s father, who is rightly concerned by their children’s fate. Rather than being concerned about their wellbeing, Oswald rambles on about progress and humanity's quest for knowledge. ". . . for man no rest and no ending. He must go on—conquest beyond conquest.” Later in the same speech, Oswald points to the stars and concludes (thankfully) “It is that—or this? All the universe—or nothingness. . . . Which shall it be?"

Thankfully, this film got so much wrong about man’s future in 1936. While World War II was probably inevitable, it didn’t carry on without purpose for decades. It’s no surprise that the fear of poisonous gas, which was so devastating in World War I (not to mention its recent use in Syria), that it would play such a part in the new war. I guess we can be happy that was wrong, too.

While predicting the future is a tough call, unless of course you’re Nostradamus, and while the technological advancements seem to be for the sake of technological advancement, the filmmakers do seem to have predicted the Segway of all things, which is seen as a device that carries a standing single passenger from place to place rather than walking. (I wonder if the Wells estate gets royalties.)

The visuals for the film, especially futuristic Everytown, are well done. Some of the inventions, like the Wings Over the World's huge airplanes, show a great deal of creativity, though Everytown isn’t rendered as completely as Metropolis in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film. In Things to Come, the models are sometimes painfully obvious, but you can tell the filmmakers were going for a look.

I found the Art Direction to be reminiscent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
And all of that would be forgivable, budgets being what they are, if the writing had been better. The dialogue involving Raymond Massey’s characters all seem to be lofty and preachy (and boring). The acting is really stiff for the most part. Even Ralph Richardson, who has a potentially juicy crazy character to portray, The Boss, seems like he’s being constrained from giving it his all. While this is not the fault of the film, my strong association of Massey with his portrayal of President Lincoln, in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), makes me feel like I’m seeing Lincoln time traveler, rather than either of the Cabal men he plays in this film.

Abe Lincoln time traveller. Raymond Massey is the main character in Things to Come.
The director, William Cameron Menzies, began his career in Hollywood, working for Famous Players-Lasky in special effects and design. He became known for his sets, especially the elaborate sets he made for Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Baghdad (1924). So impressed with this work was David O. Selznick that he hired Menzies to work on Gone With the Wind (1939), making him the final word on the overall look of the production.

Menzies also directed. In addition to this film, he directed the sci-fi classic Invaders From Mars (1953), amongst others. However, he is best remembered for his work as an art director and production designer, which garnered his inclusion into the Art Director’s Hall of Fame in 2005.

While visually interesting in places, the film is weighed down by its grim tone and preachy manner. Since this was a drive-by Christmas review, let’s say that this is a present you wouldn’t want to open.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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