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Sci-Fi London

Things to Come
William Cameron Menzies

John Dennen
posted 9 May 2007

This 1936 science-fiction epic has the notable accolade of having been banned by both Hitler and Mussolini. Its message is resolutely anti-war and it presses this home on a huge scale. HG Wells’ script predicts the outbreak of the Second World War, placing it on Christmas 1940. We see nothing of the enemy across the sea. Instead we see the aerial bombardment of Everytown, essentially London. This scene is striking and not just because it is an uncanny prediction of methods of warfare that would be used on both sides. Unlike a war movie, this scene features no derring-do. Its focus is on the civilian casualties. Gas now is no longer the domain of a First World War battlefield but is employed directly on the population.

The war continues without end for decades. Mankind is reduced to a state of savagery, living out of the ruins of Everytown, clothed in rags. Technology regresses. There is no petrol, ancient cars are used as horse-drawn carts. Still the war continues but it continues in a smaller and smaller world. By the 1970s the denizens of Everytown are still fighting the neighbouring tribe, keen to get their oil in an interesting intimation of resource wars.

The film is heavy on ideas and obviously didactic. I feel it gets away with it, mainly because its ideas are interesting. They are clearly the issues that concerned Wells and the novel on which the film is based was his means of dramatising them. In an opening scene during the build up to war, the children play with Christmas presents of toy soldiers. Meanwhile the adults debate: one says it all blow over, another says war is coming and another says words to the effect of ‘Good Lord, this is going to retard my medical research.’ It’s not subtle but it gets the job done.

By the time war has reduced mankind to a new Dark Age, a plague, known as the Wandering Sickness, ravages the land. It’s not clear if this is the result of a biological weapon or the squalor they live in. But, without science, man has no means of resisting the disease, outside of culling the infected. Out of this social breakdown a leader called the Boss emerges, a tin-pot warlord who is both pompous and violent. Ralph Richardson’s performance attracted the ire of Mussolini, who believed the character was based on himself.

But technology has not completely died out. Out of the blue an airman, followed by an air force arrive. They come from an organisation called ‘Wings over the World,’ which is a group of scientists and aviators who wish to establish a single world state ruled by rationality and thus bring about world peace. To re-civilise Britain they fly in from their base in, of all places, Basra, and drop the ‘gas of peace,’ a sleeping gas rather than a biological weapon. The positive message is laid on thick, that the advance of science is the route to prosperity and peace.

At first I wasn’t sure what to make of this. The gas of peace sounds similar to the ‘victorious peace,’ that the Boss uses as a synonym for war. Wings over the World rebuild civilisation in a mining and industry montage scored to military music, with gases being released and workers having to wear masks reminiscent of the gas masks we’ve seen previously in the movie. But it becomes clear that the message of this film is very different from that, say, of Metropolis. In Fritz Lang’s film, technology is a means of enslaving the masses. Here science is meant to sublimate man’s aggressive instincts and produce progress and prosperity. The benevolent leader at the end of the film talks about space exploration and scientific discovery in these same terms of conquest.

The idea being pressed home is that man ought to turn his technology outward to advancement, rather than inwards, directed destructively against one another. It is interesting that it is through aviators that world peace is eventually brought about. Their transport means that for them the world can be interconnected, in contrast to the Britons, who in their savage state, become increasingly insular and backward, merely perpetuating their brigandage against the neighbouring tribe.

So we see a gleaming utopia built out of the ruins. By 2036 Everytown is now underground, no one appears to have to work too hard and they wander around in tunics and cloaks. The design aesthetic of this segment of the film has been much lauded, praised for anticipating mobile phones, Apple-style computers and flat screen televisions amongst other things. It would be interesting to know more about the politics at work in this future. Previously we have had a brief glimpse of Wings over the World in session. It appeared to have an informal council and, being reasonable people, presumably they managed to reach agreement on their course of action. By the time we have reached Wells’ utopia there appears to be a scientist-king who is a descendant of the leader of Wings over the World. Perhaps this is a worrying indication of a dynastic rule. Or maybe they just wanted to reuse the same actor to make it clear who the good guy is. Perhaps because he’s always right then he’s allowed to be a benevolent dictator. He appears to have the power to stop a demagogue from speaking to the people but decides to allow it. The mob is duly whipped up into an anti-progress frenzy and dashes off to destroy a giant space gun, which is due to fire a rocket to the moon.

This gun, which, as well as being hugely phallic, looks just like the anti-aircraft canons we saw at the start of the film, is intended to be the good kind of gun. Space exploration is depicted as the next stage in human advancement. The anti-progress argument provided goes along the lines of: human beings are only small creatures, we need a rest from this relentless progress, we’re scared, we should be trying to be happy instead of struggling forward. These thoughts get smacked down by the stern patrician. He waxes lyrical on the virtues of discovery and the need to strive together for a common purpose, rather than to struggle against each other. Finally he declares, ‘The universe or nothing. You decide. The universe or nothing.’ Like I said, it’s not subtle but it gets the job done.

Things to Come is fascinating to watch, especially considering its historical period. Its themes touch on all the issues that concerned Wells; the drumbeat to war and the devastating consequences of world war. Other films of the time, like Frankenstein, perpetuated the image of the mad scientist who is a threat to society. Here the scientist is the hero and their science is the answer to the world’s ills. It is hugely optimistic. In the film the more rational are the more moral. It hopes that as we advance we will become better at living with each other, rather than developing more sophisticated ways of killing each other. Perhaps it is significant that the film was made before the invention and use of the atomic bomb. It is also huge in scale, containing as it does the apocalypse, the post-apocalyptic dystopia and followed by the utopia. It’s not perfect but its ambition makes it hugely enjoyable to watch.


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