A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1936)

Works of fiction that pretend to depict things as they will be in a specific place and year tend to look a little foolish when that year actually comes. The years 1984 and 2001 didn't turn out to be precisely as George Orwell and Arthur C. Clarke envisioned them. But neither Orwell nor Clarke expected them to: Both were extrapolating from what they saw about the times in which they were writing. Orwell was viewing with alarm the struggle for power in 1949, and Clarke was elaborating on thoughts he had about the relationship of man, technology, and nature -- for good or ill -- in a series of stories beginning with "The Sentinel" in 1948. It's significant that both of these writers were working from a post-World War II point of view. But Things to Come starts from a very different place: England just before the second World War. H.G. Wells's 1933 The Shape of Things to Come was a meditation on a utopia founded on science, replacing religions, and a world government, replacing nationalism. The adaptation of these ideas in Wells's screenplay involves a world on the brink of war at Christmas, 1936 -- less than three years before the world actually went to war. Wells didn't have to wait long to see the ideas in the film superseded by reality. In the film the conflict lasts 40 years, and is devastating to the old order of things. There arises a kind of technotopia, which then has to battle with (and triumph over) reactionary, anti-science forces. We no longer have the kind of faith in technology to solve all problems that Wells possessed -- in fact, if the atomic outcome of World War II is any indicator, technology presents as many problems as it solves for humankind. Things to Come is muddled but fascinating: It raises the right questions while providing unsatisfactory answers. The best things in the film are the ones closest to home. For example, Ralph Richardson's performance as the dictator known as "The Boss" -- a slangy translation of Il Duce. Richardson was one of the three greatest English actors of the mid-century, but unlike Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud he rarely got a chance to show his stuff in movies. Here, his eccentric manner is the key to the role, and he plays it to the hilt. Unfortunately, Menzies, a gifted designer, wasn't much of a director, and he surrounds Richardson with inferior performers: Margaretta Scott, who had a long career once she grew accustomed to film acting, here recites her lines as if reading them for the first time and assumes poses copied from silent film vamps. For contemporary viewers, the most interesting things about the film are the set designs by Vincent Korda and the fantasias about what people will be wearing in 2036 -- which in Wells's scheme of things is the year of the first voyage around the moon. The costumes are credited to John Armstrong, René Hubert, and the Marchioness of Queensberry. (Her given name was Cathleen Mann; a portrait painter and costumer, she was married to the 11th Marquess of Queensberry from 1926 to 1946.)
H.G. Wells, Pearl Argyle, and Raymond Massey on the set of Things to Come