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Saturday, 28 March 2009

Things to Come (1936)

Director: William Cameron Menzies
Star: Raymond Massey

A London film from the Korda brothers, Alexander produced and Victor designed the sets, as always. It's more surprising that the film was directed by famed cinematographer William Cameron Menzies, who would stamp his authority onto the history of film three years later when he photographed Gone with the Wind. Ned Mann is the man behind the special effects, always a fascinating field so early as this. Charles Crichton is an editor, eight full years before he became a director himself.

The big name though is H G Wells, not merely the author of the source novel of the same name but an active consultant and the author of the screenplay. Given his unparalleled importance in the science fiction world, this is something not to be ignored. Every science fiction fan worth his salt, who doesn't just watch Star Trek and the Sci-Fi Channel but actually reads classic science fiction, will eventually come to the knowledge that all but the most modern cutting edge science fiction owes its existence to two men: H G Wells and Jules Verne. Their importance cannot be underestimated and Things to Come is a valuable link between this literary giant and the world of cinema.

The film was made in 1936 but we begin four years into the future of the initial audience, in Everytown in 1940, which is at once nowhere and everywhere in England. It's Christmas and everyone is doing what you'd expect: singing carols, buying turkeys or going to pantomimes. The front pages tell another story though: there's a war storm brewing. Some want to ignore it, after all it's all happening over the channel in Europe. Others don't think it can be ignored, and that if we don't end war, war will end us. There's talk about progress, how the toys are so much more complex than in grandpa's day and how war actually stimulates technical advancement rather than hindering it.

And of course war arrives, and it comes quickly and powerfully, with great devastation. It's a human story though, where war is the enemy. That's made very clear through a few passionate outbursts before it begins, but even more obvious soon after the start. Raymond Massey, playing an English pilot called John Cabal, shoots down one of the enemy who has been spreading poison gas. He saves him from the wreckage of the plane, only for him to give his gas mask to a little girl about to succumb. He's aware of the joke: he's probably killed her parents but now he dies to save her. The suggestion of course is that war is the villain, not the people fighting it.

In reality, war started in 1939 and was over by 1945. In Things to Come, it's not so quick a process: it begins in 1940 and continues on and on. By 1966, there's not a lot left. Civilisation has regressed into barbarism and decades of war have brought the world to barbarism. The war continues, though the original reasons are forgotten, and now there's a new enemy: the wandering sickness which turns its victims into what we would now consider zombies. First they're fevered and non-responsive, then they wander around slowly with their arms outstretched. I hadn't realised Wells had pioneered zombies along with everything else. The wandering sickness is everywhere by 1966, and is finally ended only by 1970 when all the wanderers have been shot before they can spread their disease any further.

And without internal disease to fight, the war can continue in earnest. Everytown now has a charismatic chief played by Ralph Richardson, who is fighting the hill people for supremacy in a world much shrunk from the previous one. This world is small and regressed, both socially and technologically, with no education and no real hope. There are doctors and scientists but they lack tools and equipment. There are mechanics who have vehicles in abundance but the lack of petrol means that they can't use them. We're in a precursor of Mad Max: in an effectively agrarian culture, people ride around on horseback or walk on foot, with only a few petrol hoarders able to do more. It's well realised and carefully thought out though the teeth are too good and the accents too cultured.

The fliers despair of ever being able to fly again, but then into Everytown flies John Cabal in a neat little flying machine, far more sophisticated than the biplanes the heathens can't even get into the air any more. He's a much older John Cabal and an even wiser one, with much more control even than his younger self. He's a representative of something called Wings Across the World, an organisation of engineers and mechanics who have pledged to save the world from itself. They abhor independent sovereign states and see them as obsolete concepts to be done away with. They've developed the technology to be able to do it too.

Victory is quickly and peacefully theirs, as you might expect from the utopian portion of this vision, and we watch the building of a new world until we see a whole new Everytown in 2036, a full century into the future of the audience watching on original release. It's a marvel of efficiency, huge in scale and impressive in technology. It's also generally peaceful, even though there is dissent and disagreement and neo-luddites who want an end to progress. In 2036, John Cabal's grandson Oswald runs the place, as forward looking as his grandfather, and these neo-luddites want to destroy the space gun that will fire a couple of daring souls around the moon.

They're not even going to attempt to land, highlighting how much futurism is an imperfect science. Wells got so much right but he envisaged world peace before anyone could leave its surface and think about our nearest neighbour in space. I'm writing in 2009, mere months away from the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's landing on the moon, yet world peace is as much a dream now as it was in 1936. The conquest of the moon is only one thing that Wells got wrong. Even in this future world of 2036 when the roads roll and children don't even know what sneezing is, nobody has invented digital technology.

All this is easy to forgive because it's extrapolation and guesswork, however educated it might be and however accurate it might get. Wells consistently worked out how the future would happen better than almost anybody else, so I ain't gonna bitch. However there are flaws here that aren't ignorable. There's a lot of enthusiastic acting and preachy dialogue that has dated considerably, more so than the modelwork which is primitive compared to modern equivalents but wonderful for the time. The double exposure photography is excellent and stands up today. I'm very quickly annoyed by bad rear projection and filmmakers of the calibre of Alfred Hitchcock are prime offenders. This work, decades earlier is superb.

While most of the film comes directly from Wells, it was obviously influenced by Fritz Lang's Metropolis: the angles, the contrasts, the movements, even the typefaces. Certainly the passage of time, depicted by marching men and their shadows or the shadows of years, rings a lot of bells, as does the scale of the post-war scenes. I've seen Metropolis once, in a TCM broadcast that swapped the footage lost to time for production photographs. Now that much of that missing footage has miraculously resurfaced in Brazil, hopefully we won't have to wait too much longer to see this massively influential film as it was originally meant to be seen, instead of experiencing it second hand through films like this one that constituted its first generation of influences.

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