Things to Come

HG Wells on set in Things to Come, with Margaretta Scott and Raymond Massey

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

20 July

 

László Moholy-Nagy, 1895

On this day in 1895, the painter, photographer and member of the Bauhaus school Moholy-Nagy was born in Bácsborsód, Hungary. Born László Weisz, he changed his Jewish surname to a more Hungarian one after his Jewish father left the family, and took Nagy (pronounced Nodge), later adding Moholy after the town of Mohol, where he grew up. He studied law in Budapest before fighting in the First World War, during which time he became involved with progressive artists and the “Activists”. He studied art for a while after the war, in 1919, before heading to Berlin in 1920. By 1923 he was teaching at the Bauhaus, where he expanded his interests (and teaching) into the fields of photography, typography, sculpture, printmaking and industrial design – most of them not prestige fields. He resigned from the Bauhaus and became a freelance designer, working in theatre, book design, advertising and film. He moved to London when the Nazis came to power and lived with Walter Gropius for a while, became a photographer of contemporary architecture for Architectural Review (commissioned by future poet laureate John Betjeman) and also worked on producer and fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda’s film Things to Come as a special effects designer. He then moved to the USA, where he became the director of the New Bauhaus in Chicago. This closed after a year, but Moholy-Nagy went on to become the head of the Institute of Design, later part of the Illinois Institute of Technology. He died in 1946 of leukaemia, leaving behind a wealth of photographs, kinetic sculptures and a lively interest in constructivist-flavoured functional design that influences people to this day.

 

 

 

Things to Come (1936, dir: William Cameron Menzies)

Things to Come takes us right back, not just to 1936 when it was made, but almost to the dawn of modern sci-fi. Written by HG Wells (The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds) – who was often on set during shooting– it is also one of the most fully realised modernist films that we still have. None of the work László Moholy-Nagy did on the sets was ever used, but the influence of fellow modernists is obvious – this is a hymn to progress, albeit with a very 1930s flavour: it’s keener on authoritarian central control than any futurist film made these days would be. Plotwise there isn’t very much to speak of. We start off in the present, in 1936, where life is more or less peaceable. Then we jump on twice. First a few decades where war is total and civilisation has broken down entirely, leading to a brutish dictator taking control. And then again to 2036 and the beautiful, designed environment of calm and order, whiteness everywhere, light, air. It all looks a bit like Albert Speer’s visions of the future dreamt up for Hitler, but no one working on Things to Come could have known anything about that then. Looking at it now, some things seem shocking in a way they wouldn’t have been then. It is British, for starters. Unabashed straightforward non-ironic sci-fi could only be American (or Soviet) in future decades. But in the 1930s, still possessing the largest empire the world had seen, Brits felt confident enough to predict that the world a hundred years hence would be shaped in their image. Hence Everytown, the futurist paradise, a place full of people speaking with the sort of clipped accents that now belong in an audio museum. Then there’s the acting, done as if each speaker is standing on a stage and shouting to the gods. A lot of those present – Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Edward Chapman – were theatre actors originally, but even so their performances reek of the artificial. But then maybe that’s only to be expected, given the tone of the thing. Portent was the dominant tone of sci-fi, right up until the 1970s. Think of The Day the Earth Stood Still, or Star Trek or 2001, all earnest as hell. No, the thing to take away from Things to Come, apart from the fact that it predicted the horrors of the Second World War, is its amazing high modernist look – huge plazas, cities roofed in, monorails, geometric grids, flying walkways, the design trademarks of architects such as Norman Bel Geddes, Le Corbusier, John Portman, Mendelsohn & Chermayeff, in materials such as glass, steel and new plastics, a mix of European Modernism and the American International Style that hasn’t been matched. Things to Come predicts the world of the shopping mall and the international airport terminal, with a progressive, cheery vision of the future where people just conform. It all now looks deeply suspect. And if that doesn’t make something worth watching…

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The future – in 1936
  • As close as we can get to HG Wells on film
  • The modernist sets
  • A cast of thousands

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Things to Come – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Things to Come”

  1. There are some film classics that we have almost lost. I don’t mean the might-have-beens, like the von Stroheims or Laughton’s "I Claudius," but films that were released and quite successful and are now in grave need of rescue. The hallmark of such films is the terrible quality of the available prints, perhaps because a title went into public domain and was abandoned by the studio or because the original "lavender" has disintegrated. "My Man Godfrey" and "Nothing Sacred" come to mind. And, of course, "Things to Come".

    If the abstractions of the art deco aesthetic could be reified into a story, "Things to Come" might be the result. If the Chrysler Building really were a rocket ship and could fly past the the moon and stars and comets of art deco friezes…if we could look into those naive mindsets, whose visions of man’s destiny were being energized by the discoveries of relativity, atomic energy and deep space…we might indeed embrace the images of "Things to Come".

    Some of the scenes may strike us a corny – as might those of Fritz Lang’s "Metropolis" – but they are no cornier in their context than those in "2001, a Space Odyssey" or, for that matter, "Starship Troopers". Here is an honest attempt to project the world into the future, not some silly cowboys-in-space flick.

    "Things to Come" makes only a couple of demands: first, that we ditch our smug sophistication and presentist prejudices; second, that we have the discipline to see past the print quality. It may take repeated viewings, as it did with me, but in the end you will be rewarded by a unique odyssey, not into our future but into the future of history.

  2. This early sci-fi masterwork by Herbert George Wells with music by Arthur Bliss is a powerful piece of film-making. Adapted from Wells’ somewhat different work by the author, it presents a look at the human future with the subject of periods of war as versus periods of ‘peace’. The structure is that after a contrasted-pair of episodes of normalcy and gathering clouds of war, the script allows the war to happen. Two families, the Cabells and the Passworthys disagree about what may happen; Passworthy takes a hopeful view of civilization’s "automatic" progress; Cabell is the thinker, the doubter. Their city Everytown–obviously London– becomes wrecked by a war featuring tanks, a magnificent war march by Bliss, and the end of civilization. The second portion finds people living in the wreckage of what had been the city under a "Boss", played with bravura by Ralph Richardson, whose woman, lovely Margaretta Scott, is as fascinating a dreamer as he is a concrete-bound dictator type. He is trying to rebuild old WWI airplanes so he can attack a nearby hill tribe to complete his petty kingdom; a young scientist complains about having his work continually interrupted demands for planes–etc.–everlastingly; this is Wells’ comment on war versus progress. The survivors are subject to a plague called "The Wandering Sickness" also. Enter a modern flying machine piloted by the Cabell of the first section of the film, now part of Wings Over the World, an International Scientists’ Coalition, who are planning to end warfare forever. This flight-suited modernist has fascinating conversations with the Boss and his woman, their attraction being evident; then Boss sends up his aircraft against them, the Scientists come with huge numbers of planes and drop the "Gas of Peace" onto the ruins of Everytown. Only the Boss dies, fighting too hard against the pacifying. The film then shows ore being mined and by slow steps being made into the girders of a magnificent new futuristic city of towers. In section three, a future Cabell argues with a future Passworthy over the morality of human science. Passworthy wonders if they have a right to send men to the Moon; Cabell champions man’s right to advancement and the need to expand his horizons. The son of Passworthy and Cabell’s daughter, are the astronauts being sent. Theotocopulos, a religious-minded Luddite, makes a fiery speech on a huge screen in the city’s Forum and leads an attack on the ‘space gun’ that is to fire the new rocket free of Earth’s gravity. The climax of the plot is the firing of the space gun successfully; the denouement and ending is a speech by Cabell praising worth and science that is universally considered to be the most profound defense of the mind ever penned. "It is all the universe–or nothing!" Cabell tells Passworthy. "Which shall it be?" As Cabell, Raymond Massey gives perhaps his greatest screen performance; he is thoughtful, compassionate, and reasonable, a true scientist. As the rabble-rouser who wants to end the Age of Science, Cedric Hardwicke is perfect and powerful. Edward Chapman playing Passworthy does admirably impersonating the voice of convention and fear. The storyline is logical, frequently beautiful and always interesting. Given the near-extinction of mankind, the idea of a civilization run by rebuilder scientists is rendered plausible and credible to the viewer. This is a triumph for the director, William Cameron Menzies, for Bliss and for all concerned. Listen to the dialogue with someone you love; within its constructed limits, this is a thinking man’s drama debating two possible human futures–progress or its reactionary opposite.

  3. Powerful, yet creaky science fiction film from the 30’s by the Korda clan. H. G. Wells’s work is brought to the screen as a vision of what warfare will bring mankind in the century to follow. The film shows the destructive nature of war and how is will catapult us back to a state of barbarism, warlords, and another Black Death-like plague called the "wandering Sickness." However, because man clings to science, man will rise above all this and create a new, modern society free of warfare. The film has a lot of historical inaccuracies to its discredit NOW, yet much of what is preaches is plausible sometime, and much of it has some truth to it in some form. The theme that man can prevail and keep discovering/conquering new vistas is a laudable one. The film shows that progress and science are the things which advance us as a people. I thought of Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged as I heard one of the characters say something to the effect that the scientists/inventors had formed their own civilization, free of corruption and violence. The pace of the film is somewhat tortoise-like at times, yet many scenes are very compelling. The set designs are outstanding in the futuristic world of 2036(where they valiantly try to put a rocket in space to make a preliminary orbit around the moon). Acting is good with Raymond Massey and Cedric Hardwicke giving good performances, but it is Ralph Richardson as a "Boss" who deserves the most praise for giving a powerful performance of a man with inherent human traits that stymie progress. A though-provoking film indeed!

  4. Things to Come is a look into the future from the perspective of the people of 1936. By today’s standards and with hindsight, it seems a little corny but to the people of that time, the movie showed what could have been a real possibility. This sci-fi movie shows the horrors of war and the price of progress predicted by a film made in 1936 by eyes that were looking at a world on the brink of World War II. It’s a movie that shows what they thought the world would be like if a major war broke out. One good reason for viewing this film is because it shows this perspective, and because it was one of the early serious attempts of a science fiction film that takes a look into the future. For those interested in the history of early sci-fi in the cinema, Things To Come is a must see.

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