William Cameron Menzies’ “Things to Come” [1] (1936) is based on H.G. Wells “The Shape of Things to Come” (1933) and narrates the transformation of Everytown: from a war-torn industrial town from the near future 1940’s, to a progressive and rational futuristic city of 2036 (a hundred years since the release of the film). Everytown is every town, “the average town of our times”, states Wells in the script for “Things to Come”: active, lively, energetic, swarmed with technology, people, workers, and machines. We are introduced to Everytown on a Christams Eve, which makes the town look even more merry and bright. This every-day-town, however, is under the shadow of war: amidst Christmas Eve’s liveliness and energy, the menace of war is lurking. And not just any war, but a war of global proportions, a Second World War. Everywhere in Everytown we find signs and newspapers that convey the imminence of this war: “Europe is arming”, “War scare”. The Christmas’s Carol’s coexist with authoritative orders; marveled kids contrast with worried men enlisting in war. The limitless happiness seems odd amidst the impending danger over the continent, or even the world –H.G. Wells brand, no doubt–. No one seems to believe that war is a possibility. No one, either, seems to care.

Leaving the streets, we enter Cabal’s house –a war pilot, and one of the few people actually worried because of the advent of war– where a Christmas party is taking place. The kids are receiving brand new toys as presents, and their novelty strikes their grandfather, who wonders: “Nice toys they have nowadays, nice toys. The toys we had were simpler. Ever so much simpler. Noah’s Arks and wooden soldiers. Nothing so complex as these. (…) I suppose their grandchildren will have still more wonderful things. Progress–and progress–I’d like to see–the wonders they’ll see.”  (Things to come). We are, from the start, confronted with two topics and possibilities: War, and the wonders that the future holds. The relationship between the two is discussed during the party. On the one hand, as Passworthy argues, war has a renewing capacity, it triggers and accelerates progress; on the other, Cabal posits that war, when unleashed limitlessly, harbors the possibility of annulling progress altogether, even more, he argues, “If we do not end war–war will end us” (Things to Come). This emphasis in the dangers of war and rejection of violence as a hamper of progress, argues Timothy Travers in his article “The Shape of Things to Come: H. G. Wells and Radical Culture in the 1930’s”, fits well with “the strong peace movement of the early 1930’s” (22), and stressed the fact that Wells’ anti-war attitude was familiar to a country that had witnessed the 1933 Oxford debate[2], the Reverend Dick Sheppard’s Peace Pledge Union[3], and the Peace Ballot of 1934-1935[4] (22). While this discussion is taking place war finally starts. It is 1940 in Everytown, so Wells and Menzies have predicted, in 1933 and 1936, respectively, the advent of a Second World War with only a year’s err.

War unleashes and it is an absolute debacle: it destroys cities, more than half of humanity and every trace of civilization, just as Cabal predicted it. One year onto global war and almost everything is destroyed. Nonetheless, there are still traces of civilization: there are planes going on about, and newspapers circulating. However, the latter bear marks of a metaphorical phenomenon that inaugurates with war: that of going back in time. We are shown “a very roughly printed newspaper with blurs and discolorations wipes across and replaces its predecessor. The newspaper marks a great deterioration in social efficiency. It is printed from worn-out type and the lower lines fall away” (Part VII, 21-25). Men can no longer produced what they used to, their machines are being worn out, slowly disappearing. This regression has proved that Cabal was partly right, that war has stopped progress, but even more: that it has reversed it.

Eventually, in 1966, 26 years after the start of war, people begin to forget what they were fighting for in the first place. Times keeps passing, war continues, humankind is still going back in time, and the world is heading its most profound state of destruction: war has left no place untouched, no stone unturned: “The Tower Bridge of London in ruins. No signs of human life. Sea gulls and crows. The Thames, partly blocked with debris, has overflowed its damaged banks. The Eiffel Tower, prostrate. The same desolation and ruin. (…) New York, ruined, in the background. A sunken liner at the bottom of the sea. (…) A few wild dogs wander through the desolation. Oxford University in ruins and the Bodleian Library scattered amidst the wreckage”, Everytown is no exception.

Humanity recedes into an even more barbarous state when a disease starts to spread: “the wandering sickness” renders men to a zombie-like state and kills them. During this period, depicted as the “Dark Ages” that strongly resemble the Middle Ages, a cure is sought but never found. War has left doctors and people of knowledge with such little equipment, that they cannot pursue anything successfully. Humanity finds, however, another way to fight the disease: shooting the sick. Paradoxically, this barbarous measure helps humanity recover and in 1970, thirty years after the start of war, society begins to recover and civilization to rebuild itself. If during the dark ages we saw individuals scattered and struggling for survival, after the end of the pestilence we see them gathering in small societal groups, almost feudally structured, and governed by violent and megalomaniac warlords: the Great War has become many small wars. During this period, machines and technology are pursued active and obsessively: warlords have the idea that they will help them win their wars once and for all. However, there is no technology and pre-war machines –now obsolete because of the lack of fuel- cause admiration on a civilization that is aware that it has “gone back too far” (Things to Come).

The warlord of Everytown is called “The Boss” or “Chief” and arises fanaticism evident in his greeting by the inhabitants of Everytown: grateful cheers and ovations.  His distinctive elements are a rosette badge, a sword and two pistols, which bring to mind an identification between authority, violence and fanaticism. Travers actually sees in this figure a parody of Mussolini, in particular, and of fascism, in general. The Boss, he argues, “expresses the fascist ideology of the State as the “totality of interests. The fascist theme of reliance on the emotions and instincts rather than reason is also sounded as the warlord declaims that science is the ‘enemy of everything that is natural in life.’ But the war lord especially represents Wells’ bete noire (sic.), a mindless and emotional nationalism” (23). Wells and Menzies, again, are not alone in this feeling, and are mere spokespeople for the anti-fascist Britain of the 1930’s, which “stimulated by Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, and the Spanish Civil War in 1936” was being pervaded with this political sentiment.

In parallel to this feudal-like civilizations, there is another one that has taken a different course, an ultra-technological and organized society that calls itself “Wings for the World” in honor of the airplane –summum of technology and symbol of civilization–. The encounter between these two worlds happens when Cabal arrives on an airplane to Everytown (where he used to live before the war). The machine causes alarm and excitement and Cabal reveals that he has come to Everytown to save them from uncivilized life and war and that, instead, he is to bring peace and technology. “We, who are all of what’s left of the old engineers and mechanics, have pledged ourselves to salvage the world. We have the airways, or what’s left of them. We have the seas. And we have ideas in common. The brotherhood of efficiency. The freemasonry of science. We’re the last trustees of civilization when everything else has failed” (Things to come). This altruistic intent, however, is not posed as a choice and societies must be peacefully subsumed: “Cabal. – We’re scouting this region now to see how things are / Chief. – You found out, this is an independent sovereign state. / Cabal. – Yes, we must talk about that. / Chief. – We don’t discuss it. / Cabal. – We don’t approve of independent sovereign states. / Chief. – You don’t approve? / Cabal. – We mean to stop them. / Chief. – That’s war. / Cabal. – If you will” (Things to Come). Eventually “Wings Over the World” attacks Everytown with “peace gas” and takes over the town to subject it to civilization. Once the town has been seized, plans of transforming the world are put into practice: “Cabal. – This is how I conceive our plans of operations. First a round-up of brigands, that last dismal vestige of ancient predatory soldier, the last would-be conqueror. Then settle, organize, advance. This zone, then that. And at last, “Wings Over the World”. And the new world begins. Do you realize the immense task we shall undertake when we set ourselves to achieve an aggressive peace? When we direct our energies to tear out the wealth of this planet and exploit all these giant possibilities of science that have been squandered hitherto upon war and senseless competition. We shall excavate the eternal hills. We shall make such use of the treasures of sky and sea and earth as men have never dreamt hitherto. I would that I could see our children’s children in this world we shall win for them. But in them and through them we shall live again” (Things to Come). This discourse and new civilization is admired, desired and idealized in the movie. Fascist and totalitarian undertones and a clear-cut capitalist discourse, however, are strongly present and seem to be what guides the transformation of the barbarian world into a futuristic and civilized society.

The regime triumphs and then comes 2036. The future is presented as a clear cut utopia of which technology is cause. “The object of this Part” indicates H.G. Wells on the script, “is to bridge, as rapidly and vigorously as possible, the transition from the year 1970 to the year 2054. An age of enormous mechanical and industrial energy has to be suggested by a few moments of picture and music. The music should begin with a monstrous clangour and come down to a smoother and smoother rhythm as efficiency prevails over stress” (Part X. 1-7). In this final age, the world is at peace and on its highest. Man has already conquered the world and its natural laws and is now aiming at the universe. The eternal search of progress and improvements is romanticized, and even though it is true that this eternal pursuit is portrayed as requiring some individual sacrifices, it is stressed that man is not an individual but part of something bigger, he is part of a continuum on whose behalf one must sacrifice.

Even though the plot sets to condemn war, emotional nationalism and fascism, the utopia proposed does not turn away completely from them. It is true that “Wings Over the World” is an international coalition, and is guided by reason; however, the organization seems also to be essentially fascist and not that different (in some respects) from the warlord rejected by the movie. “Wings Over the World” is authoritarian and strongly hierarchical (the scientist being on top of the pyramid); the expanding of its philosophy and territory is portrayed as imposed and somewhat violent; man is only considered a small component of society and does not have value as an individual; the efficiency, the homogeneity of its members, the uniforms, etc. All of these traits reek of fascism, which as long as is governed by intellect rather than emotion, seems to be the ideal for Wells or Menzies. Travers follows the same line and proposes that in both the novel and in the movie, fascism does not seem to be an altogether bad thing: “what attracted Wells to Fascism was the emergence of a self-disciplined elite (…), devoted to the efficient development and planning of a Modern State organization, rather than to selfish or class aims. What he did not like was the violent romantic (emotional) nationalism of Fascism, rather than the rational internationalism he espoused” (25).

What this movie finally does, in spite of itself, is issue a warning: not towards war and extreme nationalism, as it intended, but against truths imposed as universal and unquestionable. The film intends to move our sympathies in very clear directions during its running time: we are supposed to repudiate the warlord from the Dark Ages and, in turn, surrender happily to the 2036 utopian, rational and ultra-technological city. However, there is something so alien in the cold efficiency and unnaturally hygienic society of the future; that we feel a great more deal of sympathy for the emotional and violent Middle Ages. Our sympathies run in the wrong direction because our society is still closer to the ‘Dark Ages’? Or because we know the authoritarianism of imposed truths when we see them?

 

 

[1] This essay is a reworking of one of the texts considered for the proposal. I really wanted to develop ideas about this film that the proposal did not permit fully. Here they are more fully and thoroughly presented.

[2] In 1933 the Oxford Union, the debating society, passed a motion that “This House would not in any circumstances fight for King and Country”. Arguments such as “this House will never commit murder on a huge scale whenever the Government decided it should do so” were circulating, and it was posited that now thanks to modern weapons, the scale of destruction possible was undreamt of.

[3] A British pacifist non-governmental organization governed by the pledge: “War is a crime against humanity. I renounce war, and am therefore determined not to support any kind of war. I am also determined to work for the removal of all causes of war”.

[4] The ballot intended to prove that the people supported a policy of the League of Nations. The questions and answers were as follows: Should Great Britain remain a Member of the League of Nations?. Yes, 11,090,387. No, 355,883. / Are you in favour of all-round reduction of armaments by international agreement?. Yes, 10,470,489. No, 862,775. / Are you in favour of an all-round abolition of national military and naval aircraft by international agreement?. Yes, 9,533,558. No, 1,689,786. / Should the manufacture and sale of armaments for private profit be prohibited by international agreement?. Yes, 10,417,329. No, 775,415. / Do you consider that, if a nation insists on attacking another, the other nations should combine to compel it to stop— (a) by economic and non-military measures: Yes, 10,027,608. No, 635,074. (b) if necessary, military measures: Yes, 6,784,368. No, 2,351,981 (Nicholson, 57-8)

 

 

Works Cited

Nicolson, Harold. “British Public Opinion and Foreign Policy”, The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1, January, 1937, pp. 53–63.

Things to Come. Dir. William Cameron Menzies. Perf. Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke, Pearl Argyle, and Margaretta Scott. United Artists. 1936.

Travers, Timothy. “The Shape of Things to Come : H. G. Wells and Radical Culture in the 1930’s”, Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies,Volume 6, Number 2, May 1976, pp. 22-30

Wells, H.G. “Things to Come. A Film Treatment”, Unpublished Script. http://leonscripts.tripod.com/scripts/THINGSTOCOME.htm