(I have so much to say about this film and how it inspires me that I’ve broken this post into two parts– an outline of the movie itself and how it gets my creative juices going)
Part One– The movie
I love history, and, as a corollary, being a science-fiction fan, I am deeply in love with alternate history. The exploration of how history might have turned out fascinate me. At one time or another, most science-fiction authors have tried their hands at alternate history, while some have make it their chief stock-in-trade (S.M. Stirling and Harry Turtledove, for example).
Alternate history is what my mind turns to whenever I watch Alexander Korda’s Things to Come, (very) loosely based on a story by H. G. Wells, from 1936–
Starting in a then near-future 1940, it posits the advent of World War II (although the enemy nations are kept safely anonymous in the film) as the starting point of a new Thirty-Years War, a conflict that drags on and on until human civilization lies shattered. It is rescued by Wings Over the World, an super-scientific organization dedicated to peace and progress. The rest of the film depicts the world of 2036, as the scientific elite launches a Moon mission, against the resistance of narrow-minded romantics who stand against Progress (note the capital letter. We’ll come back to that later).
Alexander Korda tended to imbue his films with an ambitious sweep, and this one is no exception, starting out with the opening sequence, in which worrisome war warnings juxtapose with life-as-usual Yuletide merriment. The film loosely follows a group of people and their descendants through the destruction of the war, the aftermath, reconstruction and shiny future. Its whole point is that Progress is good and essential, and anything that gets in its way needs to be put aside.
In many ways the film was prescient in the way it depicts what is to come, particularly the effects of war on civilization. The sequences in the bombed-out ruins of the town meant to stand in for all of England (or, for that matter, all of Western civilization) could have been any number of actual locations in Europe or Asia in 1945. Aerial bombing and biological warfare are both part of the narrative, and major reasons why civilization breaks apart. The film loses its prescience to some extent when it enters its final sequence– the Lucite, Art Deco future in which everyone wears sandals and cloaks looks quaint now, but that doesn’t really take too much away from the overall vision of the filmmakers.
The film is not perfect, and one real imperfection is the fact that the locales are allegories (the town at the center of the story is called “Everytown”, just to hammer the point home), and most of the characters are archetypes. One exception is (not yet Sir) Ralph Richardson’s portrayal of the Boss, the local warlord of Everytown in 1970. Richardson brought a blustery avarice and self-aggrandizement to the character that reminds one most pointedly of Mussolini, and he owned the middle part of the film.
But an enormously more problematic aspect of the movie is its fixation with Progress. How much this fixation was Wells’ or Korda’s, or both, I don’t know, but it’s pretty much the axle around which the film revolves. As I’ve already indicated, we’re obviously talking about Progress with a capital “P”, progress that becomes a thing in itself, and in the path of which nothing, not even real, breathing human beings, can be allowed stand. In its radical form it assumes the aspects of religion, and has been used to justify everything from bulldozing forests to Communism. The final speech by Oswald Cabal (Raymond Massey), the head honcho of the Everytown of 2036, is all about life being a stark choice between extinction and Progress. It’s a little disconcerting to hear this in a film from this precise period, knowing as we do everything That Was to Come. The Twentieth Century drank the cup of that sort of “progress” to its dregs, and we nowadays can’t listen to this speech with the same innocence with which people in 1936 might have heard it.
(A quick aside– this period was also when J. R. R. Tolkien was rousing from his academic slumbers to first pen The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings. Quite a juxtaposition…there’s a master’s thesis or two in there….)
Despite this objection, this film still has power. The tattered state of civilization after the war still speaks to the human capacity for destruction, and resilience. The sequence leading up to the firing of the space-gun is tense, and still somehow evokes the sense of being in NASA Mission Control during a launch, thirty years before the fact. It keeps you riveted, and not many films closing in on their eightieth anniversary can say that. Things to Come is one of the few really great pre-World War II science-fiction films, and a landmark in sci-fi cinema in general.
Next– Part Two– how this film inspires me.