Things to Come

Things to Come is a 1936 British black-and-white science fiction film from United Artists, produced by Alexander Korda, directed by William Cameron Menzies, and written by H. G. Wells.

The film stars Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedric Hardwicke, Maurice Braddell, Derrick De Marney, and Ann Todd.

I’m sure I saw this around 1980-1981 in the Ngaio Marsh Theatre as a student. Only the final speech remains as a memory. And I couldn’t remember what was said.

The film is based on his 1933 story ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ a work he considered less a novel than a “discussion” in fictional form that presented itself as the notes of a 22nd-century diplomat.

The film story is told in distinct parts:

In the city of Everytown, businessman John Cabal (Raymond Massey) cannot enjoy Christmas Day, 1940, with the news everywhere of possible war. His guest, Harding (Maurice Braddell), shares his worries, while another friend, the over-optimistic Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman), believes it will not come to pass. An aerial bombing raid on the city that night results in general mobilisation and then global war.

Months later, Cabal, now a Royal Air Force airman piloting a Hawker Fury, shoots down an enemy aircraft dropping gas on the British countryside. He lands and pulls the badly injured enemy pilot (John Clements) from the wreckage. The pilot dwells on the irony that he may have gassed the child’s family and yet he has sacrificed his own life in order to save her. A gun shot is then heard.

The war continues through the 1960s and into the 1970s. The warlord Rudolf (Ralph Richardson), known as the “Boss”, has become the chieftain of Everytown and eradicated the pestilence by shooting the infected. He has started yet another war, this time against the “hill people” of the Floss Valley. On May Day 1970, a sleek new aeroplane lands in Everytown, startling the inhabitants who have not seen a new machine in many years. The pilot, John Cabal, emerges and proclaims that the last surviving band of engineers and mechanics known as “World Communications” have formed a civilisation of airmen called “Wings Over the World”, based in Basra, Iraq.

They have outlawed war and are rebuilding civilisation throughout the Near East and the Mediterranean. Cabal considers the Boss and his band of warlords to be brigands, but offers them the opportunity to join them in rebuilding the world. The Boss immediately rejects the offer and takes Cabal prisoner. He is forced to work for mechanic Gordon, who struggles to keep the Boss’s biplanes airworthy. Gordon takes an Avro 504K up for a test flight and heads for Iraq to alert World Communications.

Gigantic flying wing aircraft arrive over Everytown and saturate its population with sleeping gas globes. The Boss orders his air force to attack, but the obsolete fighters lose.

The people awaken shortly thereafter to find themselves under the control of Wings Over the World and the Boss deads. Cabal observes, “Dead, and his old world dead with him … and with a new world beginning … And now for the rule of the Airmen and a new life for mankind”.

A montage follows, showing decades of technological progress, beginning with Cabal explaining plans for global consolidation by Wings Over the World. By 2036, mankind lives in modern underground cities, including the new Everytown. Civilisation is at last devoted to peace and scientific progress.

In 2036 fashion resorts to Roman Times

All is not well, however. The sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) incites the populace to demand a “rest” from all the rush of progress, symbolised by the coming first manned flight around the Moon. When a mob later forms and rushes to destroy the launch, Cabal launches it ahead of schedule.

Later, after the projectile is just a tiny light in the immense night sky, Oswald Cabal delivers a stirring philosophical monologue about what is to come for mankind to his troubled and questioning friend, Raymond Passworthy (Chapman), the father of Maurice. He speaks passionately for progress and humanity’s unending quest for knowledge and advancement as it journeys out into immensity of space to conquer the stars and beyond. He concludes with the rhetorical questions, “All the universe or nothing? Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?

This movie is huge in scope and ambition. It does succeed, although the political solution offered is rather authoritarian.

New York Times Review

Geoffrey O’Brien Essay (JUN 20, 2013)