Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Things to Come (1936) * * *

THINGS TO COME tells the future history of the 20th century after 1936. It is set in the fictional English city of Everytown, based on London with a facsimile of St Paul's Cathedral in the background. Successful businessman John Cabal (Raymond Massey) cannot get into the festive spirit of Christmas Day 1940 because of news of a possible war. His guest Dr. Edward Harding (Maurice Braddell) shares his worries, but his optimistic friend Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman) believes it will not happen, or even if it does, it will do good by accelerating technological progress. An unexpected bombing raid on Everytown that night results in global war.

Dr. Harding: What is all this fuss in the papers to-night, Mr. Cabal?
John Cabal : Wars and rumors of wars again.
Dr. Harding: Crying wolf?
John Cabal : Some day the wolf will come. These fools are capable of anything.
Dr. Harding: What becomes of medical research in that case?
John Cabal : It will have to stop.
Dr. Harding: That will mess me up. It's pretty nearly all I care for. That and Majorie Home, of course.
John Cabal: Mess you up! Of course it will mess you up. Mess up your work. Mess up your marriage. Mess everything up. My God, if war gets loose again....

Some time later, Cabal is piloting a biplane fighter, and shoots down a small, one-man enemy bomber. He then lands and pulls the badly injured enemy (John Clements) from the wreckage. As they dwell on the madness of war, they hurry to put on their gas masks, as the poison gas the pilot dropped drifts in their direction. When a little girl runs towards them, the wounded man insists she take his mask, saying he is done for anyway. Cabal takes the girl to his airplane, pausing to leave the doomed man a gun. The man dwells on the irony that he may have gassed the child's family and yet he has saved her. He then commits suicide.

John Cabal: Is that better? My God--but you are smashed up, my boy. Why should we two be murdering each other? How did we come to this? Go, my friend! This is my gas, and it is a bad gas.
Enemy Airman: Funny if I'm choked by my own poison.
John Cabal: That's all right. Here--put it on her. (gas mask)
Enemy Airman: I've given it to others--why shouldn't I have a whiff myself?"
John Cabal: Come on, kiddy, this is no place for you. You make tracks that way. I'll show you. You may want this. (gives him his gun)
Enemy Airman: Good fellow--but I'll take my dose.

The war continues for decades, so long that the survivors have forgotten the reasons for it in the first place. Humanity falls into a new Dark Age. Everytown is in ruins and there is little technology left, other than the arms used to wage war. Nothing is being manufactured any more and society has broken down into primitive localized communities. In 1966, a great plague called the "wandering sickness" is spread by the unnamed enemy using its last few remaining aircraft. Most people are wiped out, but small numbers survive. Dr. Harding and his daughter Mary struggle to find a cure, but with little equipment the situation is hopeless. By 1970, a local warlord called the "Boss" or the "Chief" (Ralph Richardson) has eradicated the sickness by having those infected shot. He dreams of conquering the "hill people" by getting his mechanic Richard Gordon (Derrick De Marney) to make the few remaining biplanes flyable again.

Dr. Harding: Mary! Iodine, please.
Mary: There is no more, father. There is just one drop.
Dr. Harding: No more iodine?" My God! What is the good of trying to save a mad world from its punishment?
Mary: Oh father, if you could only sleep for a time.
Dr. Harding: How can I sleep? See how they wander out to die. And to think that I brought you into this world.
Mary: Even now I am glad to be alive, father.

On May Day 1970, a futuristic airplane lands outside Anytown. The pilot and sole occupant, John Cabal, emerges and proclaims that the last surviving band of "engineers and mechanics" have formed an organization known as "Wings Over the World". They are rebuilding a civilization, based in Basra, Iraq, that has renounced war and outlawed independent countries. The organization is slowly moving across the world re-civilizing groups of survivors. The Chief takes the pilot prisoner, ignoring the shrewd advice of his mistress Roxana (Margaretta Scott), and forces him to work for Gordon. Together, they manage to fix a biplane. When Gordon takes it up for a test flight, he flees and alerts Cabal's friends.

Roxana: I don't suppose any man has ever understood any woman since the beginning of things. You don't understand our imaginations.
John Cabal: If we don't end war, war will end us.

Wings Over the World attacks Everytown, filling the skies with airplanes and bombing the town with a sleeping gas. The Chief orders his biplanes to repel them, but they are shot down. When the people of Everytown awaken shortly thereafter, they find it occupied by the Airmen, and the Chief is dead, a victim of the gas.

Great reconstruction takes place over the next few decades and society is once again great and strong. A montage sequence shows the decades of technological progress and human achievement, beginning with Cabal explaining his plans for global consolidation by Wings Over the World. By 2036 the world's population is living in pristine, modern underground cities, of which the new Everytown is one. However, all is not well. The sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) incites the populace to demand a "rest" from the headlong rush of progress, symbolized by the impending first manned flight around the Moon. A popular uprising against progress, which some claim caused the wars of the past, gains support and becomes violent. The modern-day Luddites are opposed by Oswald Cabal (Raymond Massey), the head of the governing council and great grandson of John Cabal. Cabal's daughter Catherine (Pearl Argyle) and her boyfriend Horrie Passworthy (Pickles Livingston) insist on flying the spaceship, despite the misgivings of Horrie's father Raymond Passworthy (Edward Chapman). When maddened crowds rush to destroy the space gun that is to propel the spacecraft, Cabal launches the ship ahead of schedule.

Raymond Passworthy: Oh, God, is there ever to be any age of happiness? Is there never to be any rest?
Oswald Cabal: 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.
Raymond Passworthy: But... we're such little creatures. Poor humanity's so fragile, so weak. Little... little animals.

Cabal then delivers a speech about progress and humanity's quest for knowledge, asking, "And 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. It is this, or that. All the universe or nothing. Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?"

One of the most important science fiction films of all time, H.G. Wells' THINGS TO COME is a speculative meditation on the price of progress. This English science fiction epic starts prior to World War II and takes the viewer on a hundred year time trip to 2036 A.D. when a man and a woman are rocketed to the moon. It predicts television, jet planes and evil dictators. Featuring fabulous sets, a rich musical score and sweeping visual grandeur, THINGS TO COME is a truly spectacular film, an ambitious production from Korda's London Films that cemented its reputation for producing intelligent drama on an epic scale.

The movie features enormous sets, particularly in the sequences set in 2036, thousands of extras, and imaginative design and editing. Several of the performances are equally impressive, notably Raymond Massey as the messianic Cabal and Ralph Richardson as the thuggish "Boss", a role he modeled on Mussolini who banned the film outright in Italian cinemas. However, the human story sometimes is overshadowed by the design, with the ending lacking impact. The film's overwhelming seriousness is a problem, although understandable given the immediate fear of war. But it still has moments of real power, including a subtle and moving scene in which an airman offers his gas mask to a young girl whose town he has just attacked, as well as the dazzling montage of the re-building of Everytown.

H. G. Wells wrote the screenplay, a loose adaptation of his own 1933 novel "The Shape of Things to Come" and his 1931 non-fiction work "The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind". THINGS TO COME offers a very different vision of the future to Fritz Lang's classic METROPOLIS (1926), to which it is usually compared. Wells was very critical of Lang's film, which offered a portrait of a world enslaved by science. By contrast, Wells saw science as a promise of mankind's salvation. The attack on capitalism that is central to the book is omitted in the movie. The film concentrates more on attacking the horrors of war, which in the book Wells made clear was a product of that system. Wells' screenplay was further streamlined and pruned by Korda and his script editor Lajos Biro to eliminate a diatribe against religion and a debate about the role of woman as love object or workmate. Otherwise the scenario was faithfully translated to the screen by Korda's production team. He imported Hollywood designer William Cameron Menzies to direct and commissioned Arthur Bliss to provide the music score. The art director was Alexander Korda's brother Vincent, who was inspired in creating the city of the future.

The cast also includes: Sophie Stewart (Mrs. Cabal), Ann Todd (Mary Gordon), Pearl Argyle (Catherine Cabal), Kenneth Villiers (Maurice Passworthy), Ivan Brandt (Morden Mitani), Anne McLaren (The Child), Patricia Hilliard (Janet Gordon), Charles Carson (Great Grandfather), Patrick Barr (World Transport Official), Noel Brophy (Irishman), John Clements (The Airman), Anthony Holles (Simon Burton), Allan Jeayes (Mr. Cabal), George Sanders (Celestial Body), Abraham Sofaer (The Jew), Terry-Thomas (Man of the Future), and Torin Thatcher (Celestial Body). Arthur Bliss composed the original music. H.G. Wells wrote the screenplay based on his novel "The Shape of Things to Come". William Cameron Menzies directed.

The rough-cut of the film was 130 minutes in length, while the version submitted for classification by the British Board of Film Censors was 117 minutes. By the time of the 21 February 1936 UK premiere and initial release, this had been reduced to 108 minutes, while the American print premiered on 18 April 1936 was further cut to 96 minutes. By late 1936, a 98 minute print was in circulation in the UK, and a 72 minute print was resubmitted for classification by the BBFC and was passed after further cuts for reissue in 1943. A 92 minute print was subsequently reissued in America in 1947 and the UK in 1948. A continuity script exists for a 104 minute version of the film, which contains all the material in the 96 minute and 92 minute versions, plus a number of other sequences. It is not known if this version was actually in circulation at any time.

Although the film lapsed into the public domain in the United States in 1964, copyright remained in force in the United Kingdom, the European Union, and elsewhere. In the UK its copyright does not expire until 2045. The film came back into copyright in 1996 in the USA under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act. In early 2007, Legend Films in the United States released a colorized version, supervised by Ray Harryhausen, of a cut copy of the 92 minute print on DVD. This would count as a newly copyrighted work in America, if it were not for the fact that the underlying film is not in the public domain.

The DVD supposedly "features a pristine new film-to-video transfer from original source materials", but viewers comments complain of the poor video quality. One wrote, "Having seen THINGS TO COME on VHS, I looked forward to buying it on DVD. When I received it, however, the reproduction was so poor as to render it essentially unviewable. In the initial scenes the images are so murky that I was often unable to make out the faces of the principal characters." Another viewer wrote of the Harryhausen version, "This DVD still looks to me like a bad 16mm print. I'm not a purist, but the film grain is coarse and obvious. The framing is not steady. The exposure varies, giving an irregular flickery effect. It's not exactly blurry, but it's not as crisp and sharp as any ordinary DVD of any ordinary 1950 black-and-white movie. Comparing it to the earlier DVD, I'm not sure what "restoration" was done except for colorization."

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