H. G. Wells is best known for being one of the founding fathers of science fiction, along with his French counterpart Jules Verne. While he was a wordsmith by trade, he had a strong influence on the medium of film almost from the beginning.
The first-ever “blockbuster movie” is generally considered to be the 1902 Georges Méliès film A Trip to the Moon, whose plot was a combination of Verne’s novels From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, mixed with H. G. Wells’ novel The First Men on the Moon. The First Men on the Moon was adapted again for a now lost British silent in 1919.
There were two noteworthy Wells adaptations released during the pre-code era of Hollywood which are now considered to be landmarks in the sci-fi/horror genre. The first was 1932’s The Island of Lost Souls, an adaptation of Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. While The Island of Lost Souls is now considered a classic, at the time of its release, Wells’ story of a mad scientist “playing God” by manipulating evolution to create human/animal hybrid abominations was wildly controversial. It was banned in 14 US states, as well as in Britain, Demark, and Sweden. Then there was 1933’s The Invisible Man. Based on Wells’ novel of the same name, The Invisible Man was one the most innovative horror films released up to that time and popular enough to inspire five sequels.
In the last years of his life H. G. Wells tried his own hand at screenwriting, and wrote two screenplays which were made into movies by the British studio London Film Productions. The lesser of the two (but still highly enjoyable) is the 1937 film The Man Who Could Work Miracles starring Roland Young (best known to American audiences as the star of the Topper film series). The Man Who Could Work Miracles is about an unremarkable Londoner who suddenly finds himself in possession of God-like powers. It’s a fun and breezy little movie and plays out like a longer version of one of The Twilight Zone’s more lighthearted episodes. There are some political themes in it, but you’re not supposed to take them very seriously.
Wells’ other screenplay, the film of which we are discussing today, is Things to Come, which is dead-serious, enormously ambitious, and epic in scope.
It is hard to watch Things to Come without comparing it to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. They both present us with very different visions of the future. In the case of Metropolis, it is a capitalist dystopia where everything is in art deco. In Things to Come, it is a socialist utopia where everything is in art deco. Both movies smashed budget records in their respective countries. When Metropolis was first released in 1927, it was the most expensive German film ever made, and likewise, in 1936 Things to Come was the most expensive British film ever released at the time.
Personally, I’ve always seen Metropolis as more of an aesthetic masterpiece than a great story. The striking visuals are what are what you remember, while the plot is at times quite silly, the acting overdone, and its messaging heavy-handed. If we’re talking only about aesthetics, Metropolis wins, but in terms of story, Things to Come is a much more interesting film.
Another difference between the two is that Metropolis starts you off right in the middle of dystopia. Things to Come starts off in the present day and shows you how mankind arrives at utopia. It’s a long journey, and mankind has to go through Hell before it gets to Heaven.
You can watch here. There is also a “virtual extended version” that you can watch here. Nearly 40 minutes of footage was cut (and is now lost) when Things to Come was released in theaters. The “virtual extended version” attempts to piece together what was lost through production still and intertitles based on Wells’ original script. The extended version does not add much in terms of story, but there is a lot of interesting philosophical musing and lively debate wherein Wells addresses counterarguments and plays devil’s advocate against himself.
The movie begins in Everytown, United Kingdom. It’s Christmas Day in the year 1940, and the world is on the verge of war. We are introduced to John Cabal (played by Raymond Massey) and his friend Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman). Things to Come covers one hundred years of history, and the same actors play these characters’ descendants in the future.
Cabal, Passworthy, their spouses, and their children are at a Christmas party, but Cabal can’t really get into the spirit of things because war looms and could break out at any moment. Cabal is fearful that if war comes, it will be disastrous. Passworthy is less worried and believes that if war comes, it might not be so bad.
But war does come — that very night. We see Everytown bombed by aircraft, and its citizens running in terrors as buildings explode all around them.
It’s worth noting that the air raid scene depicts something that had not actually happened yet at the time the film came out. There had been some small-scale aerial bombings and zeppelin raids in the First World War, but in 1936, the world had not yet seen mass bombing on the scale depicted here. The bombing of Guernica happened a year after the release of Things to Come. Thus, at the time, this scene was speculative fiction.
The movie deliberately leaves unanswered the question of which countries are at war or who started it. When the radio warns of the approaching air raid, the announcer says, “We do not yet know the nationality of these aircraft, though of course there can be little doubt of their place of origin.”
This is not the case in The Shape of Things to Come, the Wells novel that Things to Come is based on. The Shape of Things to Come gives a very detailed explanation of how the next great war begins and progresses. In the original story, war breaks out between Germany and Poland in January 1940 over the port city of Danzig. War then also breaks out between the United States and Japan. Not bad for prophesy.
However, in Wells’ vision of the Second World War, both the European and Pacific theaters become stalemates that drag on for decades. Wells seemed to believe that the Second World War would be like the First, only more so. Since the last war had dragged on in the stalemate of trench warfare, the next war would become a super-stalemate.
Wells also predicted that poison gas would be used extensively in the next war, which did not happen. Hitler’s refusal to use gas weaponry has always flummoxed historians, who have struggled to explain why the ultimate embodiment of evil would take such a principled – indeed, humanitarian — stance on the use of poison gas. Things to Come includes a scene showing enemy planes gassing English cities.
Things to Come then fast-forwards to Everytown in 1966. There are no miniskirts or pudding-bowl haircuts, and no rockers and mods duking it out in the streets. Everytown is not swinging at all. Rather, it is a wasteland of rubble and bombed-out buildings, stuck in a semi-Medieval condition and led by a petty warlord named Rudolph. The hapless Everytownians couldn’t even get a warlord with a cool-sounding name.
Worse still, there is a plague happening. Since he believed that the next war was going to be like the previous war, only more so, Wells predicted that there would be another Spanish Flu, only worse. In the movie, the plague is “wandering sickness,” a highly contagious disease which causes those afflicted to wander around mindlessly like zombies. People found to be under the spell of “wandering sickness” have to be shot on sight.
The world is still at war, and Lord Rudolph is obsessed with getting his fleet of ten broken-down airplanes working again so that he can bomb the Hill People and annex their coal mines. However, the town mechanic lacks the tools necessary to make the repairs, and even if he did have the tools, there is no fuel for them.
One day, an airplane appears over Everytown. The citizens of Everytown are shocked, because they hadn’t seen an operational plane in a long time, and the one flying overhead looks new and futuristic.
The plane lands and out comes out John Cabal, now with grey hair and wearing an absurd-looking flight suit. It turns out that a group of engineers and scientists hid themselves away in Iraq during the war and formed their own secret community, Wings Over the World, which Cabal describes as “the brotherhood of efficiency, the freemasonry of science. We are the last trustees of civilization when everything else has failed.”
While the nations of the world were blasting each other back into the Stone Age, this commune of engineers spent their time developing advanced technology. Now that all the armies of the world have been obliterated, Wings Over the World has decided to emerge and rebuild civilization — but this time, civilization will be led by the engineers and based on reason and science. The people of the world are in no position to resist, as their puny weapons are no match for these men who have the most advanced technology.
Rudolph resists regardless and has Cabal arrested. When he learns of the engineers’ plan to “restore order,” he tells Cabal that he wants none of it:
RUDOLPH: We’ve got order here, the old order, and we don’t want anybody else restoring it, thank you. This is an independent, sovereign state.
CABAL: We’ve got to talk about that.
RUDOLPH: We won’t discuss it.
CABAL: We don’t approve of these independent sovereign states.
RUDOLPH: You don’t approve!
CABAL: We mean to stop them.
RUDOLPH: That’s — war.
CABAL: As you will. My people know I’m prospecting. When they find I don’t come back, they’ll send a force to look for me.
By Jove, he’s talking about a one-world government! To Wells, the existence of nation-states inevitably leads to competition, which inevitably leads to war, so to get to his socialist utopia, nation-states have to go. In The Shape of Things to Come, Wings Over the World also abolishes religion, although that element is left out of the movie. However, in the extended version, there is a scene in the future where someone references the fact that religion no longer exists.
It’s Communism, but it’s not the Communism of Marx. Wells’ socialist utopia is not a dictatorship of the proletariat, but a dictatorship of the STEM majors. If you absolutely have to have Communism, that’s probably a smarter way to go about it, but Wells’ vision still contains much of Communism’s soul-destroying aspects: the hostility to tribal bonds and the eradication of spiritual life.
Rudolph has a wife, or a girlfriend, or a gun moll. I’m not sure what her official status is. She describes herself as “sort of Queen around here.” Her name is Roxana, and she’s something of a scheming vixen. She is a relatively minor character in the theatrical version, but is much more prominent in the extended one. I don’t know why they cut out so much of her, because she is actually the most interesting character in the movie.
Whereas John Cabal represents cold, hard reason, Roxana represents the romanticism of the human spirit and mankind’s animal passions. She makes the argument that there is something inhuman about John Cabal’s utopia of reason.
In the extended version, there is a scene where Roxana is speaking to her friend Mary about Cabal’s plans for a new society. Mary is quite keen on the prospect, but Roxana thinks Cabal’s vision of utopia is, well, utopian. She says of it:
They won’t bother to bring it about. You are asking them to want unnatural things. What do we want, we women? Knowledge, civilization, the good of mankind? Nonsense, nonsense. We want glorification. We want satisfaction. We want glory. The glory of being loved and the glory of being wanted, desired. Splendidly desired and the glory of feeling and looking splendid. Do you want anything different? Of course you don’t. But you haven’t learned to look things in the face yet. I know men. Every man wants the same thing: glory. Glory in some form. The glory of being loved, don’t I know it! The glory they love most of all. The glory of bossing things here. The glory of war and victory. This brave new world of yours will never come. This wonderful world of reason, and it wouldn’t be worth having if it does come. It would be dull and safe, and oh, dreary. No lovers, no warriors, no danger, no adventure.
Wings Over the World finally shows up in Everytown in their futuristic-looking, art deco airplanes, and drop sleeping gas on the town. Everyone falls asleep — except for Rudolph, who dies for some reason — and the engineers are able to conquer Everytown bloodlessly.
In the extended version, there is an additional scene where John Cabal walks over to the still-sleeping Roxana and starts talking to her:
Mary and Mademoiselle Roxana. Queer contrast. A pretty thing and a very pretty thing, and what’s to be done with this very pretty thing? The eternal adventuress! You’ve pluck and charm and brains for infinite mischief! Where power is, you’ll follow. You’ll play your eyes at men till the end of your time. Now that the bosses have gone the way of the money-grubbers, I suppose it will be our turn. Wherever power is, she will follow. And let me confess to you, young woman, now that you can’t hear me or take any advantage of me, that considering my high responsibilities and my dignified years, I find you a lot more interesting and disturbing than I ought to do. Men are men, you said, to the end of their days. You get at us. I wish we could keep you under gas always. There is much to be said for the harem idea. Must you still be up to your tricks in our new world? A new world, with the old stuff. Our job is only beginning.
Here, H. G. Wells is conceding that there is some truth to the romanticist argument. He can strive for a world of reason, but there will always be people like Roxana around sowing discord by manipulating people’s base animal instincts. There are some parts of the human spirit that they will never be able to socially-engineer away. Even John Cabal, the avatar of reason, finds part of himself irrationally drawn, against all logic, to the snaky Roxana. Not even he is immune.
After a montage of scenes showing the rebuilding and transformation of Everytown, we are dropped off in the twenty-first century. Everytown is now a futuristic technological wonderland. All disease has been eradicated and people’s material needs are more than satisfied. John Cabal is gone and the new protagonist is his grandson, Oswald Cabal, who is played by the same actor. Oswald’s wife is a woman named Rowena, who is played by the same woman who played Roxana. As predicted, despite all the reason and progress, the beautiful, scheming adventuresses of the world are still drawn to powerful men, and powerful men are still falling for beautiful scheming adventuresses.
Discontent is growing among the people of Everytown, however, as Oswald Cabal is planning to send people into space using a giant space cannon. The theatrical version does not make very clear what the people’s objections to this are, but in the extended version, it is more fleshed out.
After centuries of struggle and hardship, mankind has finally created paradise on Earth, where there is no suffering. Oswald Cabal wants to move on to the next step: the conquest of space. However, this will be dangerous and difficult work, and mankind will once again know hardship and struggle. People will die. A faction of the people doesn’t understand why Cabal cannot simply be satisfied with paradise. Why keep going if everyone is happy? They don’t see why Cabal wants to fix something that is not broken.
The leader of the revolt against Cabal is an artist named Theotocopulos. The symbolism is quite obvious. An artist is, of course, the opposite of an engineer. The engineer creates through reason and science, and the artist creates through passion and romanticism. At heart, the coming revolt is another conflict of mind versus spirit.
Theotocopulos makes a televised speech urging the people of Everytown to halt the march of progress because, while the engineers may only be asking for volunteer astronauts, eventually they will not be asking anymore. He continues:
A time will come when they will want more cannon fodder for their Space Guns — when you in your turn will be forced away to take your chance upon strange planets and in dreary and abominable places beyond the friendly stars. I tell you we must stop this insensate straining towards strange and inhuman experiences — and we must stop it now. I say, an end to this Progress. Make an end to Progress now. We are content with the simple sensuous, limited, lovable life of man, and we want no other. Between the dark past of history and the incalculable future, let us snatch today — and live. What is the future to us? Give the Earth peace, and leave our human lives alone.
Then there is an uprising, and the people of Everytown march to destroy the space cannon. Cabal is forced to launch the astronauts into space ahead of time.
The final scene takes place in Everytown’s space observatory as abal and Passworthy are looking for the rocket that they had just shot into space through a telescope. It is crewed with volunteer astronauts: Cabal’s daughter and Passworthy’s son. Cabal then spots the rocket, and the two have an exchange in which Cabal addresses Theotocopulos’s arguments:
CABAL: There! There they go! That faint gleam of light.
PASSWORTHY: I feel — what we have done is — monstrous.
CABAL: What they have done is magnificent.
PASSWORTHY: Will they return?
CABAL: Yes. And go again. And again — until the landing can be made and the Moon is conquered. This is only a beginning.
PASSWORTHY: “And if they don’t return — my son, and your daughter? What of that, Cabal?
CABAL: Then presently, others will go.
PASSWORTHY: My God! Is there never to be an age of happiness? Is there never to be rest?
CABAL: Rest enough for the individual man. Too much of it and too soon, and we call it death. But for man, no rest and no ending. He must go on — conquest beyond conquest. This little planet and its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time – still, he will be beginning.
PASSWORTHY: But we are such little creatures. Poor humanity. So fragile, so weak. Little animals.
CABAL: Little animals, eh? If we are no more than animals, we must snatch at our little scraps of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. [He points to the stars.] It is that — or this? All the universe, or nothingness . . . Which shall it be? Which shall it be?
H. G. Wells’ short-term predictions were quite accurate. He correctly predicted the beginning of the Second World War to within a year of its actual starting date, and guessed the participants fairly well. His medium-term predictions of a 1960s stone age were far too pessimistic. His long-term predictions for the twenty-first century were wildly optimistic. It would be nice if the great question of our age was, “Should we conquer the universe, or remain in a perpetual state of utopia?” Neither of those two options appear to be on the table at the moment.
Still, Things to Come is a fascinating movie and a nifty time capsule of the interwar period, when the future appeared dark and uncertain and yet still full of bright and limitless possibilities. It also a reminder of an age when there were still minds such as H. G. Wells’ asking great questions about the ultimate destiny of mankind — rather than contemplating whether breakfast cereal is racist.
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