Category Archives: H. G. Wells

Films that inspire me– “Things to Come” and the history that wasn’t– Part Two

(This is the second part of my discussion of the movie Things to Come)

Part Two– how this film inspires me.

My previous post was an appreciation of Alexander Korda’s Things to Come, discussing how it is a powerful, if sometimes disturbing, early science-fiction film classic. One of the powerful aspects of the film is that it took contemporary events and concerns of 1936 and projected them into an effective “future history“. There were many thunderstorms looming on the horizon that year. Germany was rising again under the Nazi dictatorship, which had no scruples about telling the whole world what it meant to do, especially in Eastern Europe. Asia had already seen the Japanese takeover of Manchuria in 1931 and would see all-out war between Japan and China in 1937. Civil War broke out in Spain in July, 1936, in what most historians now see as a dress-rehearsal for World War II. It didn’t take much prescience to see that another general war was coming.

The course the film lays out for this new Great War is a reasonable projection of the first Great War, which was deadlocked for most of its history. Supposing that the war could go on for year after year of bloody stalemate was not a wild leap of the imagination. In that stalemate the breakdown of civilization and the previous world order was all-too-reasonably a possibility.

The fact that the actual history did not turn out the way Things to Come thought they might teaches us some lessons about the business of alternate history. It also teaches us something about irony.

In its classic form, alternate history takes a single, critical event and changes it– Lee Harvey Oswald misses Kennedy, Hitler dies of poison gas in World War One, Harry Truman loses the 1948 presidential election– and examines how that one change alters history. When it’s done thoughtfully and well, alternate history can create worlds that are tragic, or evocative of what might have been, and can teach us important lessons about the contingency of life and history on decisions which might even appear trivial at that moment.

Watching Things to Come reminds me of all the ways history could have turned out differently in World War Two. The period is loaded with potential branch points for an alternate history, and it’s been a favorite of sci-fi writers for decades. World War Two is also a rich field for alternate history writers because the moral implications of a Nazi victory in the war would have been so profound– a nightmare that barely bears thinking about. Even short of that catastrophe, postwar history could have turned out a thousand different ways, right down to the very personal and intimate. What if Anne Frank had survived the war? What if Eisenhower and Kay Summersby had really hooked up? What if Hitler had immigrated to America in 1919 and become an illustrator for science-fiction magazines– which is the actual premise of Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream.

All of this is fertile ground for science-fiction writers, and looks to remain so for a long time to come.

At this point, though, you might be asking what Things to Come has to with alternate history– it was created as a future-history, not alternate history. To put it simply, all future-histories are fated to become alternate history. Eventually every future sketched out by an author finds itself diverging from factual history, real-life events having no obligation to adhere to some writer’s conception of what path they should follow. When this happens, some authors try to retcon their stories, but others throw in the towel and say, “It’s alternate history”. As an example, the future history of Star Trek, as described in the original series, has now diverged from factual history (no Eugenics War in the 1990’s, etc.).

In the case of The Shape of Things to Come, Wells’ original 1933 novel, his future history was obsolete almost at once. Things to Come did a little bit better, but by 1946 or so it was already diverging from real life– Western civilization did not fall into a recurring cycle of hot wars lasting a generation, but rather a Cold War with peripheral bush-wars and serious economic and political competition between East and West.

So why didn’t the future of Things to Come become our factual history?

The answer is pretty damn ironic– nuclear weapons.

Suppose that nuclear science took a different path in the 1930’s and that no one on the planet in 1940 has an inkling that nuclear weapons are a practical possibility. That means no Manhattan Project, no Tube Alloys (the code-name for the British bomb project), no German nuclear weapon program, no Soviet effort, no Japanese investigations– every major power had some sort of nuclear research going on on during the war. In fact, one of the poorly remembered aspects of the history of World War II is that, in certain circles, there was real fear the Germans were years ahead of the Allies and might deploy a weapon before them. In fact, for several different reasons, they were years behind.

Just as it was in the factual history, in our alternate history the war in Europe would have been won by conventional forces in the spring of 1945. The immediate result of our small alteration would almost certainly have been that the planned invasion of Japan in the autumn of 1945 would have gone forward. The Allies anticipated a long, hard campaign to subjugate the Japanese home islands, including a million casualties (killed, wounded, missing). There is no telling how devastated such a invasion would have left Japan, over and above the destruction already wrecked by aerial bombing.

Suppose the conquest of Japan adds two additional years or so to the war, so that World War Two ends in 1947 or 1948 (GIs in the Pacific anticipated this– their poetic formula for the end of the war was “Golden Gate in ’48”). America’s instinct then, as it was in the factual history, would have almost certainly been to demobilize the Army.

But….

In the absence of a nuclear deterrent, it is conceivable that the Soviets, under Stalin, would have seen the weak occupation forces the Western allies had in Germany (and they were weak), and been tempted to use the still powerful Red Army to try and scoop up West Berlin and then the rest of Germany. If so, the war would have resumed as the former allies fell out (as former allies tend to do)– and Wells’ generation of war would have been well under way.

In the factual history, though, nuclear weapons made even Joe Stalin think twice about resuming conventional warfare in the heart of Europe. The salient irony of nuclear weapons in the Cold War is that they were practically useless, in any traditional war-making sense– nobody ever figured out a meaningful definition of “victory” in a nuclear-armed standoff. As a result, a kind of quasi-peace settled over Europe, allowing it to rebuild and affording two generations of Europeans the time and space to buy Mercedes and Audis and time-shares in Majorca, rather than having to scratch for food amid the ruins of Birmingham or Paris.

This is what makes alternate history so much fun, seeing how one factor can change the whole historical equation. It’s also what makes it very hard to get right.

But I intend to keep trying.

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My next post on a film that inspires me– Aliens. Oh, yeah– this is the big one. Buckle up.

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Films that inspire me– “Things to Come” and the history that wasn’t– Part One

(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.