The Things That Came and Went

“It was the silliest of movies.”

That was how H.G. Wells described Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS.  Wells went on to detail, with the maddening precision and relentless nit-pickery of the true geek, everything wrong with METROPOLIS.  If he’d been writing today instead of 1927, Wells would have been at home fanning an online flame war.

Then, about ten years later, Wells had the chance to put his money where his mouth was—or, rather, put Alexander Korda’s money where Wells’ mouth was.  It was directed by William Cameron Menzies, and is an eye-popping a piece of SF spectacle as you could ask for, but on the posters and the title sequence, it was Wells’ name above all others, above Menzies, above Korda.  This was Wells’ movie—and so it’s fair to see it, in part, as a direct answer to METROPOLIS.  And for all the nice things about THINGS TO COME, it does have some rough edges and awkward bits that reveal what happens when you put a disproportionate value on the predictive aspects of your speculative fiction.

Title card

For Wells, it was all about the predictive aspects.  That was his biggest gripe against METROPOLIS—that Lang had clearly not spent any time interviewing futurists or technologists to accurately forecast what the world of the future would look like.  Of course, Lang hadn’t done that because accurately predicting the future was of no more interest to him than accurately depicting history had been an impulse behind THE NIBELUNGEN.  Lang had gone around interviewing avant garde artists, whose notions he did incorporate into the film—a film which functions as poetry, not journalism.  But Wells didn’t see it that way.

The irony is, Wells had spent his professional life being buffeted by the exact criticism.  Wells couldn’t write anything without being taunted by his French counterpart, Jules Verne, sniffing at Wells’ implausible science and technological goofs.  (It probably made Wells happy to be able to turn the attacks around and fling them at someone else for a change).

Wells wrote the screenplay for THINGS TO COME, adapting his own 1933 novel THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME by way of his non-fiction utopian book THE WORK, WEALTH, AND HAPPINESS OF MANKIND.  Ordinarily that would have been the end of it, and Korda, Menzies, and the rest of the filmmaking team would have gone off and made the movie, but Wells saw to it he was in the middle of just about every aspect of the production.  (Let’s be fair and note that Herbert George had no experience with screenwriting, and wrote the script adaptation with the assistance of the well-traveled screenwriter Lajos Biro).

Everytown

The story begins in “Everytown,” on Christmas 1940.  War breaks out, and Europe—and the world—is plunged into a nightmare of arial bombing raids and gas attacks.  Hitler is not mentioned, nor is the enemy identified, but a great many commentators have marveled at how presciently this 1936 film predicted the onset of WW2—with a margin of error of only 18 months.

But before we go any farther, this is a point that needs to be dealt with.  Like the quatrains of Nostradamus, this is a “prediction” that has been blown all out of proportion by people who want to see Welles’ visionary foresight in action.  But if we’re going to get all hot and bothered by the fact that the film seems to anticipate WW2, what do we do with all the other inconvenient misses?  The war in the film drags on until 1966 (!), systematically driving the human race back to the Dark Ages.  The story concludes in 2036, on the day of the first moon shot.  Not only did Wells miss the actual Apollo moon mission by almost 7 decades, the rest of his vision of the future seems out of step with where we are, right now, in 2011.

Moon shot

I don’t think any of that invalidates Wells’ story, or diminishes his bigger points, or undermines any enjoyment the movie has—but it does make it hard for me to give and credence to the argument that this film should be taken as a serious prediction of things to come.

More to the point, Wells’ argument in the film is that war as an institution is a retrograde force, impeding scientific and moral progress.  “If we don’t end war, war will end us,” star Raymond Massey warns.  Throughout the first part of the film, Massey displays a rhetorical reflex instinct to take anything anybody else says and turn it back on them as a pithy attack.  So as soon as one of his buddies suggests that war can be a stimulating force, igniting technological and economic development, Massey immediately ridicules him.  “Jane, you ignorant slut!”

Massey the Self-Righteous

And so, in this film, Massey is right—the world marches ever backwards.  The armies of 1966 are no different than those of 1936, they just have less to work with.

But in the real world, the horror of WW2 did have an incredible stimulating effect.  It was brought to an end, in 1945, with the application of weapons of mass destruction so unthinkable that not even the visionary mind of HG Wells could predict them.  The war provoked advances in communications technology, from cryptography to the dawn of computers, the continued effects of which are ongoing today.  No science fiction writer of the age predicted what would happen with computers—if anyone saw the shape of things to come, it was Vannevar Bush—a brilliant engineer and leading scientific mind, who was one of the political organizers behind the Manhattan Project.  The successful landing of men on the moon was an indirect consequence of the ongoing Cold War, with Americans racing to out-science the Soviets.  In the real world, scientific progress and war were chums, not mutually exclusive enemies.

The odd thing is, if Wells had been serious about trying to forecast the future, and was solely motivated by that impulse, any cursory review of history would show that unholy alliance between war and technology.  If Wells resisted that lesson, it was not because hard-headed reason led him to that conclusion, but because his passionate utopian beliefs led him to want that conclusion.

Spaceman

Our self-righteous hero Massey comes flying in on a space-age plane to warn the warlord played by Ralph Richardson that if he doesn’t give up on his continued pointless war against his immediate neighbors (“the hill people”), Massey’s science-nerds at Wings Across the World/World Communications (it’s never entirely clear if these are two organizations or two names for the same thing) will make them.

It’s the same ultimatum offered by Klaatu in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: the peaceful representatives of superior technology inc. want the scrabbling rowdies to cut it out, or else.  Richardson doesn’t agree to the terms, so Wings Across the World unleashes their “peace gas.”

peace gas

“Peace gas,” huh?  Apparently this is a non-toxic gas that temporarily disables the victim—which means it’s just a friendlier weapon, but still a weapon.  It’s a tool used to overpower those who disagree with you.

Richardson is depicted as a bad guy, because he wants to develop airplanes and poison gas to kill his enemies so he can rule the way he wants.  Wings Across the World are the good guys, and they use airplanes and gas to subdue their enemies so they can rule the way they want.  The only difference is in whether the victims are killed—but the rest of the logic matches, point for point.  Oh, and by the way, once gassed by “peace gas,” Richardson’s warlord dies—and Massey feels no remorse.  He’s gotten rid of the last representative of an outmoded world—no more point grieving his passing than grieving the death of a dinosaur.

The future

The movie then jumps ahead to 2036—placing the finale a full 100 years after the making of the film.  This is slightly more interesting when we remember that the version of METROPOLIS that Wells reviewed/slammed has been shown in the US with a title card identifying the action as taking place in 2026—so THINGS TO COME is 10 years after METROPOLIS, just as the movie itself came along ten years afterwards.  The futuristic city is stylistically cleaner and more elegant than Lang’s city—and is a utopia of happy white men and subservient ladies, without the messy class divisions and barely restrained violence of METROPOLIS.

There is conflict, though.  Massey, now playing the grandson of his previous character, is preparing to launch his own daughter to the moon.  An angry mob led by Cedrick Hardwicke is on their way to smash the spaceship.  Their complaint is that all the scientific progress, as exemplified in the life and works of Massey the Younger, has cost their society the simpler joys of traditional values.  “What is the good of all this progress?” he asks.  In his most eloquent moment, though, Hardwicke puts his argument this way: “You make what we think great, seem small!”

Conflict

Of all the things shown in this film, this sentiment rings true to contemporary debates.  This is a valid prediction, from 1936, of the future world—unsettled by the relentless pace of change, and fearful that something about our society is being debased.

One last ironic parallel between METROPOLIS and THINGS TO COME: as you know, Lang’s masterpiece was cut, and has since been shattered into dozens of competing versions of wildly varying running times and content.  The same fate befell THINGS TO COME.  The first cut was allegedly 130 minutes (not far off the original running time of METROPOLIS).  I say “allegedly” because no one has seen that cut since, and by the time the British censors got their mitts on it, THINGS TO COME was clocking in at 117 minutes.  By the time the censors were done, it was down to 108—by the time it reached American theaters it was 96.  Along the way, variant cuts running 104, 98, 92, and 72 have all surfaced at different times.  The longest extant version is the 96 minute edition—available in England on a PAL format Region 2 disc, for those interested.

26 Responses The Things That Came and Went
Posted By kimd : March 12, 2011 6:40 am

Excellent blog.I love “Metropolis” but I’ve never seen “Things To Come”. Is it available in the States does anyone know? Many thanks.

Posted By kimd : March 12, 2011 6:40 am

Excellent blog.I love “Metropolis” but I’ve never seen “Things To Come”. Is it available in the States does anyone know? Many thanks.

Posted By mbm : March 12, 2011 8:25 am

yep it is available in the US, sadly in truncated public domain cuts (running anywhere from 90 to 95 minutes). The BBC ran an unedited version running 110 minutes (!) back in the late ’70s. I’m hearing that the BFI is restoring that version for a re-release for TV viewing (TCM perhaps?)…

Posted By mbm : March 12, 2011 8:25 am

yep it is available in the US, sadly in truncated public domain cuts (running anywhere from 90 to 95 minutes). The BBC ran an unedited version running 110 minutes (!) back in the late ’70s. I’m hearing that the BFI is restoring that version for a re-release for TV viewing (TCM perhaps?)…

Posted By Tom S : March 12, 2011 1:15 pm

It’s also available on Criterion’s Hulu page- you have to pay for Hulu plus to see it, but it’s a decent looking 96 minute cut, probably the same one as the r2.

I wish someone would put out a special edition, since in addition to the interest Mr. Kalat has shown, Chrisopher Frayling wrote a BFI Classics book on it- if someone got the two of them together for a commentary, that would be a must-buy at any price.

It’s easy to see how Welles could have wished that a forward-thinking, scientific hero would come and take away the power of all the idiot warlords in 1936- I wonder if he felt as utopian about science after Hiroshima.

Posted By Tom S : March 12, 2011 1:15 pm

It’s also available on Criterion’s Hulu page- you have to pay for Hulu plus to see it, but it’s a decent looking 96 minute cut, probably the same one as the r2.

I wish someone would put out a special edition, since in addition to the interest Mr. Kalat has shown, Chrisopher Frayling wrote a BFI Classics book on it- if someone got the two of them together for a commentary, that would be a must-buy at any price.

It’s easy to see how Welles could have wished that a forward-thinking, scientific hero would come and take away the power of all the idiot warlords in 1936- I wonder if he felt as utopian about science after Hiroshima.

Posted By suzidoll : March 12, 2011 4:58 pm

I don’t read science fiction, but I do like science fiction films. I remember being in a sci-fi film class in college attended by several fans of science fiction lit. They used to hamper discussion of the films by consistently criticizing the plausibility of the science in a kind of self-righteous, I-know-better-than-the-dumb-Hollywood-filmmakers way. The rest of us wanted to tape their mouths shut, because, frankly, who cares? Too bad we couldn’t blast them with peace gas.

After about 4 weeks of this, the frustrated professor remarked that films about the future are really allegories about the era that produced them, so discussing whether the science is “good science” or whether the future presented in the storyline could happen is meaningless to understanding the film. Likewise, movies set in the past are really about the era that produced them and discussing whether an event “really happened that way” is moot. He forbade any further comments about whether the science was “good science,” as the lit group dubbed it when referring to plausibility.

If I remember correctly, at this point the rest of us broke out in applause, while the sci-fi lit group sulked. In retrospect, this professor’s comment has been really useful to me as a film teacher to steer students away from comparing films to actuality.

I’ll bet Wells (with no “e”) would have hated this professor.

Posted By suzidoll : March 12, 2011 4:58 pm

I don’t read science fiction, but I do like science fiction films. I remember being in a sci-fi film class in college attended by several fans of science fiction lit. They used to hamper discussion of the films by consistently criticizing the plausibility of the science in a kind of self-righteous, I-know-better-than-the-dumb-Hollywood-filmmakers way. The rest of us wanted to tape their mouths shut, because, frankly, who cares? Too bad we couldn’t blast them with peace gas.

After about 4 weeks of this, the frustrated professor remarked that films about the future are really allegories about the era that produced them, so discussing whether the science is “good science” or whether the future presented in the storyline could happen is meaningless to understanding the film. Likewise, movies set in the past are really about the era that produced them and discussing whether an event “really happened that way” is moot. He forbade any further comments about whether the science was “good science,” as the lit group dubbed it when referring to plausibility.

If I remember correctly, at this point the rest of us broke out in applause, while the sci-fi lit group sulked. In retrospect, this professor’s comment has been really useful to me as a film teacher to steer students away from comparing films to actuality.

I’ll bet Wells (with no “e”) would have hated this professor.

Posted By Tom S : March 12, 2011 5:08 pm

Haha- there are distinct groups among sci fi fandom in literature, as well as film, who argue eternally about the relative value of realistic- ‘hard’- sci-fi against more sociological or psychological ‘soft’ sci-fi. Ironically, though, I don’t know that Wells is especially remembered as a writer of ‘hard’ sci-fi at this point, since his sociological critiques are still relevant while his attempts are predicting are generally somewhat moot.

Posted By Tom S : March 12, 2011 5:08 pm

Haha- there are distinct groups among sci fi fandom in literature, as well as film, who argue eternally about the relative value of realistic- ‘hard’- sci-fi against more sociological or psychological ‘soft’ sci-fi. Ironically, though, I don’t know that Wells is especially remembered as a writer of ‘hard’ sci-fi at this point, since his sociological critiques are still relevant while his attempts are predicting are generally somewhat moot.

Posted By AL PEREZ : March 12, 2011 6:10 pm

Have you seen the amazing COLORIZED version? You don’t mention THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES.

Posted By AL PEREZ : March 12, 2011 6:10 pm

Have you seen the amazing COLORIZED version? You don’t mention THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES.

Posted By pronountrouble2 : March 12, 2011 6:19 pm

For what it’s worth, Wells was not the only British SF author to anticipate WWII. In the preface to Star Maker (1937), dated March 1937, Olaf Stapledon wrote: “At the moment when Europe is in danger of a catastrophe worse than that of 1914 a book like this may be condemned as a distraction from the desperately urgent defence of civilization against modern barbarism.”

Elsewhere in the book, in an early chapter, the story’s narrator visits “The Other Earth,” and the chapter ends with a world war. The narrator, referring to his own Earth, states, “No doubt we ourselves are faced with the possibility of a scarcely less destructive war….”

Posted By pronountrouble2 : March 12, 2011 6:19 pm

For what it’s worth, Wells was not the only British SF author to anticipate WWII. In the preface to Star Maker (1937), dated March 1937, Olaf Stapledon wrote: “At the moment when Europe is in danger of a catastrophe worse than that of 1914 a book like this may be condemned as a distraction from the desperately urgent defence of civilization against modern barbarism.”

Elsewhere in the book, in an early chapter, the story’s narrator visits “The Other Earth,” and the chapter ends with a world war. The narrator, referring to his own Earth, states, “No doubt we ourselves are faced with the possibility of a scarcely less destructive war….”

Posted By Lamar : March 13, 2011 12:56 am

TCM showed a fabulous looking print not all that long ago.

Posted By Lamar : March 13, 2011 12:56 am

TCM showed a fabulous looking print not all that long ago.

Posted By Commander Adams : March 13, 2011 12:04 pm

There’s no need for there to be a war between science fiction literature and science fiction film; both art forms are equally valid, and have successfully inspired and invigorated each other. It’s sad how there continues to be a schism between the two sectors of fandom to this very day.

Posted By Commander Adams : March 13, 2011 12:04 pm

There’s no need for there to be a war between science fiction literature and science fiction film; both art forms are equally valid, and have successfully inspired and invigorated each other. It’s sad how there continues to be a schism between the two sectors of fandom to this very day.

Posted By Jeff H. : March 13, 2011 6:23 pm

I have the British DVD of THINGS TO COME, and it is the best looking print I have ever seen, and I think it runs close to 100 minutes. My hope is that either Criterion or Kino will acquire the rights sometime soon and make a real special edition for the US market.

Posted By Jeff H. : March 13, 2011 6:23 pm

I have the British DVD of THINGS TO COME, and it is the best looking print I have ever seen, and I think it runs close to 100 minutes. My hope is that either Criterion or Kino will acquire the rights sometime soon and make a real special edition for the US market.

Posted By Wendy T. Merckel : March 25, 2011 9:03 pm

The Man Who Could Work Miracles is arguably a more cohesive and enjoyable film than Things to Come, but knowing now about the cuts made to TTC, maybe it is unfair to compare them. The themes of the two films are quite different as well.

Things to Come seems to me to be a plea for peace, while The Man Who Could Work Miracles is a fable about man’s inability to learn (much)from his mistakes. A better comparison could be made between The Man Who Could Work Miracles and Lang’s Liliom.

Posted By Wendy T. Merckel : March 25, 2011 9:03 pm

The Man Who Could Work Miracles is arguably a more cohesive and enjoyable film than Things to Come, but knowing now about the cuts made to TTC, maybe it is unfair to compare them. The themes of the two films are quite different as well.

Things to Come seems to me to be a plea for peace, while The Man Who Could Work Miracles is a fable about man’s inability to learn (much)from his mistakes. A better comparison could be made between The Man Who Could Work Miracles and Lang’s Liliom.

Posted By Intermission Minus 0 : The Shadow Cabaret : April 2, 2011 8:54 pm

[...] From March 12: Turner Classic Movies Morlock blogger “davidkalat” casts a jaded eye on the merits of H.G. Wells’ and William Cameron Menzies’ 1936 speculative fiction classic Things to Come. [...]

Posted By Intermission Minus 0 : The Shadow Cabaret : April 2, 2011 8:54 pm

[...] From March 12: Turner Classic Movies Morlock blogger “davidkalat” casts a jaded eye on the merits of H.G. Wells’ and William Cameron Menzies’ 1936 speculative fiction classic Things to Come. [...]

Posted By Killer Meteor : May 25, 2012 1:05 pm

The scene of Hardwicke bemoaning progress on a giant TV screen reminds me of Sideshow Bob calling for TV to be banned…on a giant TV screen. At least he saw the irony there.

Posted By Killer Meteor : May 25, 2012 1:05 pm

The scene of Hardwicke bemoaning progress on a giant TV screen reminds me of Sideshow Bob calling for TV to be banned…on a giant TV screen. At least he saw the irony there.

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