Cast & Crew
William Cameron Menzies
On Christmas in 1940, as news of world war spreads across Everytown, scientist John Cabal prophesizes: "If we don't end war, war will end us." The war continues until 1966, when, in the wake of social breakdown, a contagious disease called the "wandering sickness" has spread throughout the world. The disease places its victims in a feverish catatonic state that causes them to walk aimlessly through towns, spreading the disease. While Dr. Harding works to find a cure, a war lord who calls himself "the Boss," orders the sick who wander into the streets to be shot. By May Day of 1970, the pestilence has ended due to the Boss's brutal efforts, and Everytown has been reduced to a primitive society that lives under his tyranny. The Boss has ordered his master mechanic, Richard Gordon, to build airplanes in order to fight the town's exiles, who live in the hills.
Gordon insists that "civilization is dead," however, and that "flying is finished." Cabal then arrives in an airplane and informs Harding and Gordon of his Brotherhood of Efficiency, which is made up of old engineers and mechanics who are the "last trustees of civilization." Envoys of Cabal's World Communications, whose business is order and trade, want to replace war lords with a government ruled by law and sanity. The Boss imprisons Cabal, however, and continues his fight for "victorious peace," while World Communications spreads its influence over the Mediterranean. Gordon then secretly repairs Cabal's plane and escapes to Basra, a territory controlled by Cabal's united airmen, and a fleet of colossal planes descends on Everytown, releasing a sleeping "peace gas." The Boss then chokes on what he thinks is poison gas and dies.
An orgy of technology continues until 2036, when Everytown has been transformed into a highly technical and efficient underground world city free from disease and war. Dissension still exists, however, and finds its leader in Theotocopulos, who believes the people are slaves to scientific progress. Hoping to prevent Oswald Cabal, John Cabal's great grandson, from sending his daughter Catherine and Horrie Passworthy to the moon in a space gun, Theotocopulos announces to the world his desire to end the scientific age, saying "progress is not living." The citizens cheer and then move en masse to destroy the space gun, which they say is a symbol of Oswald's scientific tyranny. Oswald is forced to launch the space gun early, and as it disappears into the atmosphere, Raymond Passworthy, Horrie's father, tells Oswald humanity yearns for an age of rest and happiness. Oswald, however, insists man must conquer "all the universe or nothing," and asks, "which shall it be?"
William Cameron Menzies
Derrick De Marney
David B. Cunynghame
Marchioness Of Queensberry
A. W. Watkins
H. G. Wells
Things to Come
Things to Come (1936), easily the most expensive British production of its day, is a free adaptation by H. G. Wells of his own book, The Shape of Things to Come (1933). The original book is framed as a posthumously published, unfinished work by a certain Dr. Philip Raven, a member of the League of Nations Secretariat, who supposedly based it on a series of dream visions. Written as a historical chronicle, the book lacks a conventional narrative and characters, though it does incorporate a notebook by the fictional artist Ariston Theotocopulos, who also appears as a character in the film version. For the film script, Wells invented additional characters and placed them within conventional dramatic scenes, while retaining the overall "historical" outline of the book.
Today H. G. Wells (1866-1946) is best known for the books he published during the period between 1895 and 1909, among them: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), and the much underrated, semi-autobiographical Tono-Bungay (1909). Most critics regard Wells' pre-World War I output as superior to his later writings, in no small part because his political program increasingly came to dominate his creative output. This shift in his work most likely originated from his brief (1903-1908), turbulent membership in the Fabian Society, a socialist group that promoted change gradually, and through reforms rather than violent revolution. Wells retained his outspoken political views, which included the notion of a "World State," or Modern State as it is described in the book, a centralized planned economy led by a meritocracy of scientists and intellectuals. Not surprisingly, the finished film of Things to Come glosses over the overt critiques of capitalism and religion found in the book.
While many leading British critics admired the film, it proved a disaster at the box office. This was especially true in the U.S. market; Daily Variety noted long lines at the film's New York opening, but it failed to sustain long-term interest. According to Michael Korda, one American distributor said, "Nobody is going to believe that the world is going to be saved by a bunch of people with British accents." In an article for the New York Times Frank S. Nugent characterized the film as running afoul of a broad range of political groups. Amusingly, Nugent noted: "The Daily Worker has berated Mr. Wells for his failure to include the class struggle in his new outline of history and promises that, when the revolution comes--on that, at least, they are agreed--it will be brought by the workers, not by the scientists and technicians." The film was also criticized, not unreasonably, on scientific grounds. In a 1937 issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, an anonymous reviewer complained about the infeasibility of the "space gun" used to launch the first human travelers into space, noting that the required force would be unbearably high for humans to sustain.
From today's standpoint, the most enduring aspect of Things to Come is undeniably its visual design. The director, William Cameron Menzies, clearly drew much of his inspiration from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), particularly in the montage sequence depicting the construction of the new Everytown. This was not the first time Menzies evoked Lang in his work; his stunning production design for The Thief of Bagdad (1924) also recalled the Arabian episode of Destiny (1921). H. G. Wells, on the other hand, actively disliked Metropolis due to its sentimentalized reconciliation of Capital and Labor. Also worthy of note are the futuristic costumes, whose prominent shoulders are inspired by the kata-ginu (shoulder cloth) of Japanese samurai, and the much admired musical score by British composer Arthur Bliss. The film's dialogue and acting have fared less well, though they have admittedly contributed to its subsequent camp following. It's difficult not to smile when an adorable little girl of the future declares to her grandfather, "They keep on inventing things and making life lovelier and lovelier," or when Cedric Hardwicke performs the role of Theotocopulos with the arched eyebrows and florid diction of a stock company Iago. Ralph Richardson is more effective as the warlord nicknamed "the Boss," whom the actor deliberately modeled after Benito Mussolini.
Producer: Alexander Korda
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Screenplay: H. G. Wells, based on his novel The Shape of Things to Come (1933)
Photography: Georges Perinal
Trick Photography: Harry Zech
Special Effects Photography: Edward Cohen
Art Direction: Frank Wells
Set Decoration: Vincent Korda
Film Editors: Charles Crichton and Francis Lyon
Music: Arthur Bliss, directed by Muir Mathieson
Costumes: John Armstrong, Rene Hubert, Marchioness of Queensberry
Cast: Raymond Massey (John Cabal/Oswald Cabal), Edward Chapman (Pippa Passworthy/Raymond Passworthy), Ralph Richardson (The Boss), Margaretta Scott (Roxana/Rowena), Cedric Hardwicke (Theotocopulos), Maurice Braddell (Dr. Harding), Sophie Stewart (Mrs. Cabal), Derrick De Marney (Richard Gordon), Ann Todd (Mary Gordon), Pearl Argyle (Catherine Cabal), Kenneth Villiers (Maurice Passworthy), Ivan Brandt (Morden Mitani), Anne McLaren (The Child).
by James Steffen
Things to Come
Things to Come on Blu-ray
Wells' vision is a sprawling epic. In 1936 (the film's year of release) peaceful Everytown (read: London) is bracing for a renewed conflict, which comes in the form of massed air raids in 1940. A decades-long world war ensues, bringing an end to civilization. By 1970 the rubble of Everytown has barely survived a terrible plague called The Walking Sickness. Its feudal ruler Rudolph, The Boss (Ralph Richardson) wages primitive war on neighboring fiefdoms to secure the raw materials to revive more sophisticated weaponry. Into this Dark Age lands a futuristic airplane. Its pilot John Cabal (Raymond Massey) was once a citizen of Everytown, and a pacifist. Now he's an aerial envoy for a Basra-based technical guild called Wings over the World. This league of engineers is using superior technology to defeat the warlords and make a new start for mankind. The Boss holds Cabal hostage but it isn't long before giant bombing planes from Basra arrive, armed with the 'Gas of Peace'.
Decades of scientific advancements follow, re-engineering the planet into a peaceful technocracy of industry and underground living. By the year 2036 a giant Space Gun has been built to shoot humans around the moon. But a group of dissident artists led by master sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) is unhappy with the political aims of the world leader Oswald Cabal, John's grandson. The sculptor raises a vast mob, and directs it to destroy the Space Gun.
The circumstances of the making of Things to Come may be unique in film history. H.G. Wells had complete artistic control over the production; his goal was an exciting film but also to disseminate his ideas about mankind's future. A utopian idealist, Wells made a couple of notable predictions (a London air raid in 1940 is the main one) but was blinded by his faith in his own intellectual infallibility. He believed wars would bring an end to technical progress, when the opposite was true. He was convinced that the nations of the world would be destroyed by an interminable WW1-like conflict. Relief would come in a universal revolution run by a technological elite. As Criterion's extras point out, Wells actually tried to lecture Joseph Stalin to "improve" the Soviet revolution; one can't fault the author for not standing behind his words. Although Wells despised Fritz Lang's giddy, scientific fairy tale Metropolis, our 'present future' resembles Lang's classed society more than it does the societal nirvana depicted in Wells' epic. Moreover, Wells' antiseptic future now feels like a Fascist state... an idealized, sanitized version of what Germany's Albert Speer might have cooked up, had he worked in glass and super-plastic instead of concrete.
As emphasized by scholars David Kalat and Christopher Frayling, Things to Come employed a surfeit of fine designers. The director William Cameron Menzies was best known as a production designer, not directing actors. Wells expected viewers to be fascinated by his illustrated super-lecture and receptive to his grand ideas. Critics instead lambasted the film for neglecting to engage the audience: Variety's review commented sourly that, "It will be viewed as an experiment successful in every respect except emotionality. For heart interest Mr. Wells hands you an electric switch." Actor Raymond Massey complained that all his effort was expended to sell what was basically a futuristic position speech. It's interesting that a decade later Massey would be at it again, mouthing reams of Ayn Rand's political and philosophical rhetoric for The Fountainhead. Rand had also been given contractual control; both movies are expensive pulpits for their authors' windy oratory.
Those considerations cannot diminish Things to Come's near-astounding achievement as filmed science fiction. Arthur Bliss composed his symphonic score in concert with Wells' writing process, using the music as the foundation for major non-verbal scenes. The ominous tone of the opening invasion fear montage is achieved via editing theories borrowed from Russian masterpieces. The war threat is shouted in graphic text on placards and newspaper headlines, like signposts in a Jean-Luc Godard film. The special effects that dominate the film are remarkably well designed. State of the art opticals, miniatures, rear-projection and giant sets for a Piccadilly Circus-like city square show the evolution of Everytown across the decades, through total aerial destruction and years of post-apocalyptic rot. We finally witness its total re-invention as a massive underground wonder city.
The Earth's surface is restored as a verdant garden, even as giant mining machines extract minerals in vast subterranean caverns. This music-driven sequence assumes that Mother Earth's natural resources are unlimited. We of course aren't told how the population is controlled, or where all the non-Anglo people might be. The 2036 vision of "Utopia Achieved" is capped with a space program dedicated to the hubristic proposition that mankind's destiny is to conquer the universe. Wells proposes that we will seek God-hood in the same way that his Doctor Moreau dared to 'evolve' animals into men. Does Cabal want us to become a floating ghostly intelligence, like the Star Child of 2001: A Space Odyssey?
The Space Gun conflict of 2036 is a cheat: Wells raises a debate but arranges for the opposing viewpoint to have little or no credibility. The rebellious artist Theotocopulous irrationally demands an end to progress. He proclaims a lot of stuffy, selfish hogwash while the superior Cabal verbalizes Wells' philosophical quest for the stars. The progressive Cabal is willing to sacrifice his own child and other young people on risky space missions into the cosmos. His unhappy associate Passworthy (Edward Chapman) is caught in the middle, meekly begging for a little peace and quiet. The inspirational final shot of Cabal's noble profile against the stars seems borrowed from the conclusion of Wells' novel The Food of the Gods, which describes a colossal 'new man' as he proclaims his right to conquer without end. The imagery is also uncomfortably close to depictions of racial glory in Nazi art: unyielding Nordic faces seeking perfection in the stars.
Things to Come is a feast for the eyes and ears and the brain, too. Many scenes have retained an undiminished iconic power. The massed formations of bombing airships would soon become reality, as would huge buildings seemingly designed to make individual humans seem insignificant. Ralph Richardson's Boss rants and raves about 'sovereignty' in 1970, becoming the very image of stubborn brigandage in the modern age.
Criterion's Blu-ray of H.G. Wells' Things to Come is the best video iteration yet of this eccentric classic, using source materials held by the BFI. We only wish that even more perfect and complete film elements were available. The flat B&W image has very good resolution and is free of the rough contrast flutter of earlier copies. Further digital intervention by Criterion has taken out spots and imperfections, and eliminated jitter and jumps at splices.
I have yet to hear a really clear soundtrack for this picture. Criterion's notes say that multiple elements were referenced and that a 35mm optical track was the primary source. The end result is still a little tubby. All dialogue is exceptionally clear, however. The BBFC measured Things to Come at 117 minutes when it gave its censor approval in 1936. Its London premiere reported a 110-minute duration. The standard American cut on older discs clocks in just under 93 minutes. Criterion's disc is the longest version available, at 97 minutes. It reinstates three sequences for American audiences. In the first, Passworthy exits Cabal's house before the first air raid. He praises the war spirit as a merciless program of vermin extermination. The second reinstated scene is the Boss's drunken victory banquet, where we learn that Rudolph has other female favorites besides his official consort Roxana (Margueretta Scott). Unfortunately, this addition does nothing to mend the erratic continuity gaps in the following scene, when Roxana talks with Cabal in his improvised cell. The third bit is a portion of dialogue restored to the old man's history lesson to his granddaughter in 2036.
The discs' new extras are truly eye opening. Sir Christopher Frayling's interview-essay on the film's designers discusses Vincent Korda and William Cameron Menzies along with other big names from England and the Bauhaus, most of whose ideas were rejected. With all the creativity diverted to the film's design, nobody took responsibility for guiding the performances. Fine actors like Raymond Massey are basically left to direct themselves.
A related video piece presents a few concept trials by designer László Moholy-Nagy. He experiments with perspective, shadows, and industrial shapes. A vision of little white squares flipping and moving as if on a loom or an abacus was incorporated into the film's 'Industrial Reconstruction' montage. A later experimental film using Moholy-Nagy's footage looks like a psychedelic widescreen light show.
Bruce Eder's visual essay goes over the unique relationship between the film's images and its Arthur Bliss music score. Another extra is an audio narration outtake for a scripted episode during the plague years of The Wandering Sickness. It is accompanied by one photo, proving that an accompanying scene had been filmed.
David Kalat's audio commentary contains the most imaginative, thorough analysis I've heard or read on Things to Come. The persuasive Kalat takes on the complex subject of Wells -- his works, his personality, and his personal relationships. Everything relates directly to the film, even the author's real-life romance with a suspected Soviet agent. Best of all, Kalat reaches beyond the technical talk and production personality stories to evaluate Things to Come's philosophy -- how it relates to other political realities and futuristic predictions. I wish that more filmed science fiction were afforded scholarly attention of this caliber.
Things to Come is a fascinating vision of a future that never was. The sad truth is that working with H.G. Wells so frustrated Alexander Korda that he regretted making the film, an attitude that cued sixty-odd years of cinematic neglect. Criterion producer Susan Arosteguy's extras are a big step forward in the rescue of Things to Come's reputation.
By Glenn Erickson
Things to Come on Blu-ray
Oh, God, is there ever to be any age of happiness? Is there never to be any rest?- Raymond Passworthy
Rest enough for the individual man -- too much, and too soon -- and we call it death. But for Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and ways, and then 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.- Oswald Cabal
But... we're such little creatures. Poor humanity's so fragile, so weak. Little... little animals.- Raymond Passworthy
Little animals. If we're no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. Is it this? Or that? All the universe? Or nothingness? Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?- Oswald Cabal
I don't suppose any man has ever understood any woman since the beginning of things. You don't understand our imaginations.- Roxana
Produced three years prior to Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939, the movie predicts the start of WWII in 1940, only a year later than real life. It also predicts the Second World War would be fought on land, sea and air. It also predicts the use of London's Underground as a giant air raid shelter.
Shows a helicopter several years before Sikorsky developed the first real-life model.
The part of Theotocopulos was originally filmed with Ernest Thesiger in the role. The scenes were re-shot with Sir Cedric Hardwicke because the producers wanted a better-known actor with more "marquee value".
The title card for the viewed print read: "H. G. Wells' Things to Come." The running time of the London premiere of this film was 110 minutes. Approximately sixteen minutes of the film was cut for the New York opening. According to Hollywood Reporter, approximately 3,000 feet of the film were cut by Hungarian censors. According to a April 29, 1936 ad in Daily Variety, at New York's Rivoli Theatre, crowds formed continuous lines from 9:30 a.m. on the day of the opening through the time the ad went to press on the fourth day. A special screening of this film, which took place in Washington, D.C. for an audience of government officials, featured a transatlantic telephone address by H. G. Wells. According to Variety, this was England's first million-dollar picture. Modern critics consider this film to be one of the first, and most important, major science fiction films. Modern sources credit John Clements as the German fighter pilot.
Released in United States 1936
Released in United States March 1975
Released in United States 1936
Released in United States March 1975 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Science Fiction Movie Marathon) March 13-26, 1975.)