It’s an oft-quoted adage (and one that I quote myself quite a bit) that nothing dates faster than a vision of the future. Sci-fi movies are full of Jetsons-level future worlds being depicted as only a few years ahead of where we are now. I’ve been fascinated by this idea for a long time; whether it hurts science fiction to be so wrong, retroactively.
The very first article I ever wrote for Nerdist, in July of 2010, was entitled “6 Ways Sci-fi Lied,” in which I talked about the lack of flying cars and Mars colonies and things. I recently saw Disney’s Tomorrowland, which seems to have been dated three decades ago at least, and it got me thinking about one of the great science fiction writers of all time, H.G. Wells, and how insanely incorrect he has been proven, especially in the making of the 1936 film on which he was the creative driving force, Things to Come.
It boggles my mind to think about H.G. Wells, that beacon of ideas from the late-1800s, being anywhere near feature films, but he was. And not only was he around to see some early versions of his books, he was the integral, driving force of this 1936 film. Producer Alexander Korda approached Wells (who was only about 70 at the time) about making a proper, sanctioned film of one of his works. The story goes that Korda was so eager for this to happen that he agreed to Wells’ absurd conditions that he’d be the name above the title and would, as the writer, have complete say in everything, even though he’d never been on a film set before.
To direct, Korda got Oscar-winning production designer William Cameron Menzies, and brought people like modernist artist-designer Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, special effects man Ned Mann, and Korda’s brother Vincent to be the set designer. All were there to facilitate Wells’ vision of the future, based not on one of his more popular novels, but on two of his massive future histories, treatises written to explain what HE thought the future would be like, based on current trends. It was proven wrong almost immediately.
The story of the film is actually split into three distinct sections: 1940, 1966, and 2036. In the fictional Everytown, England, everyone in 1940 lives in fear of the beginning of some kind of massive war. Intellectual John Cabal (Raymond Massey) speaks to friends and fellow engineers about the horrors of war. He says “if we don’t end war, war will end us.” A very heavy-handed speech there, but that’s the kind of thing we’re dealing with.
The war comes to Britain, it gets bombed, and young, intelligent men have to go and fight, including Cabal who flies an airplane. Eventually, the chemical and biological warfare begins and the population is ravaged by something the movie calls The Wandering Sickness, which reduces the population by more than half.
We then move to 1966, when Everytown has become one of many bombed-out settlements overseen by a warlord, whom the citizens of Everytown call the Chief, or the Boss (played by Sir Ralph Richardson). The war has continued since 1940, only now nobody really remembers why they’re fighting, and new generations have been born into a world that is wholly this hell hole.
People who show symptoms of The Wandering Sickness are shot on sight. There are discussions about cars, since only a few of them are still around, and the people who drive them are called “Petrol Hoarders,” believing some day cars will come back. One day, a strange, new-agey airplane lands and out of it pops a white-haired man in a black jumpsuit with a large, weird, bulbous helmet. It’s Cabal, much older of course, but returning to his hometown with a purpose. The Boss sends soldiers to arrest him, but he doesn’t take to that and simply goes to find an old engineering friend of his to tell him about a new plan for the world.
When he finally goes to see the Boss, never fully accepting that he’s technically under arrest, Cabal says he represents a new group called Wings Over the World. They have a plan to end war in England, and the world, by eradicating individual nations. The Boss doesn’t believe him, but does want Cabal to bring him the petrol and equipment needed to repair his fleet of no-longer-functional airplanes. So he imprisons Cabal and the man of peace now fixes the planes alongside the Boss’ engineer, Gordon.
However, as soon as Gordon takes one of the fixed planes up for a test, he flies off to seek Cabal’s friends at WOW for help. The Boss has his newly-working planes sent up to defend against this new world order, but they’re quickly shot down by WOW’s enormous, futuristic planes. Eventually, the planes drop a “Gas of Peace” on the people of Everytown, which knocks everybody out, except for the Boss who dies from it, frothing and firing his pistol until the last.
When the people of Everytown wake up, they find themselves under the “protection” of Wings Over the World, who have established themselves as a purely egalitarian and intellectual body who want the progress of mankind to be the thing everyone strives for. We then see a huge montage of engineers working to create vast, underground cities as well as industry and things.
We finally reach 2036, when the world has become basically a Utopian paradise. Everyone is wearing white garments, looking like a mixture of Flash Gordon and Ancient Greece, and everyone lives in perfectly clean apartments with clear furniture. John Cabal’s great grandson, Osward Cabal, is still the leader, and the world now consists of scientists, artists, engineers, and generally people of great thought. Pettiness is gone.
However, all is not well. Cabal and the other scientists are nearing completion of a massive Space Gun that will fire a craft into space for the first (!) manned mission around the moon. Sculptor Theotocopulos (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and other intellectual Luddites want an end to Mankind’s rush for continued progress, believing it to be sending young people to their deaths, and begin to lead a revolt to dismantle the Space Gun. Cabal’s daughter and her boyfriend want to be on that mission to the moon, which is still about four weeks from ready, but in order to stop the crowd, they decide to go up now and maneuver the craft to the moon that way. As the gun is ready, the mob have no choice but to watch progress. The film ends with a rousing speech by Cabal.
This is one of the more heavy-handed depictions/warnings about the future out there, and it’s basically Wells’ manifesto writ large. He would not and could not foresee any sort of positive outcome of war, finding the very idea of it to be barbaric and uncivilized, a holdover from an older, less refined age. He’d already seen the horrors of World War I, not firsthand, of course, but certainly he’d been aware of just how destructive it had been, with its use of mustard gas and trench warfare. And while he was only about a year off from when he said the next Great War would begin (World War II began officially on September 1, 1939), he completely misjudged what that war would be like, or the kind of scientific breakthroughs that would come about because of it. As awful as that war was, and how many deaths accrued, the innovations made because of it, including many, many devices we take for granted today, cannot be ignored. But Wells believed war to be a wholly destructive and detrimental practice.
Wells was also, clearly, not opposed to forms of Communism, Fascism, and especially Oligarchy, and hated Nationalism. He once famously had a meeting with Josef Stalin (you know, one of the most evil men in history) and said something akin to “I think Communism has some very interesting and correct ideas, but why on earth would you give the power to the people? Surely, scientists and scholars should possess all the power because they can rule fairly.” And then I can only assume Stalin was like “Get this little Englishman away from me so I can continue to murder my own people.”
But Wells’ idealistic interpretation of the world was that narrow. He thought, much as was depicted in the movie, that learned men should be in charge because they surely couldn’t be petty or corrupt, because they only have the greater good of the people and the progress of humanity in mind. The fact that they take control in the movie via a “Gas of Peace” that knocks people out somehow proves that they aren’t vindictive or evil, they just know better than everyone else and hence should take power, peacefully, in any way they can. Every shot of Cabal once he returns to Everytown in the ’60s is from a low angle, signifying that he is, in fact, looking down on everyone in their little war parties. And, he thought, whoever controlled the skies would control the world.
And finally, what he was perhaps most wrong about, was the complete lack of a space race. Humanity doesn’t reach the stars until well into the 21st Century, and in the book The Shape of Things to Come it’s even later. Wells thought we’d need to make the Earth perfect before we could travel elsewhere, completely unknowing (and he would never know, since he died in 1946) there would be a Cold War that would galvanize the Western world to try to beat the Soviets to the moon.
Wells also insisted the means of traveling to the moon must be some sort of gun, though other depictions of space travel, notably Fritz Lang’s 1929 film Frau im Mond (or Woman in the Moon), show a rocket-propelled craft heading to the Earth’s natural satellite. Even scientists of the day agreed that gun-type of travel would liquefy anyone inside. But, Wells thought for a symbolic purpose, the gun was the only way to go, so the beginning of the film could show guns being destructive while the end showed it to be the source for violence-free progress.
Truly, the only way the movie really works is as a viewscreen into one man’s ideas based entirely on how the world of 1936 was. Everything else has been disproved by time and experience. That is, with the exception of the modernist art and architecture used in the movie. We’ve seen hotels and buildings that look an awful lot like the grand Everytown city center, and the ’50s were chock full of these visual ideas of modernity.
If nothing else, Things to Come made for some lovely futuristic scenes and special effects that were truly impressive for the time. Beyond that, H.G. Wells, for all that he gave to science fiction literature and the ideas he helped perpetuate, showed that he was not a man with his finger on the pulse of the future, but on an idealized, and ultimately unattainable, vision of what his future would have been.