Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Things to Come (1936)

Promotional newsreel for Things to Come.

Based on H.G. Wells' 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, 1933's Things to Come is in equal parts a benchmark of cinematic design and one of the more disturbing utopian fantasies to be put to celluloid.

Much like Wells' novel, the film begins with an obvious portend of the future. It is Christmas in Everytown - a generic London - in 1940, and scenes of Yuletide cheer are cut with the looming threat of war. Ensconsed before the hearth, John Cabal and his associates debate the relative merits of combat. His friend Passworthy is skeptical that the sabre-rattling will even go so far, and if it does, well nothing is so stimulating for man or economy like a good war. Harding, the medical researcher, is worried that the war will interrupt his work. Cabal, played by Raymond Massey, is already tired enough and fed up enough with the state of humanity that he is reduced to uttering nothing but cynical, pacifistic platitudes.

Then war is declared, some 16 months after it was in historical fact. Cabal joins the air service and disappears after downing an enemy pilot and rescuing a little girl from chemical gas. The war is not so neatly finished as it was in actuality. Wells' war is a protracted conflict spanning 30 years, ending only when the combatants are so exhausted and economically ruined that civilization simply collapses. In the vacumn of infrastructure, a new plague takes hold and wipes out most of the war's survivors.

In such a world, only the strong survive, and Everytown has been taken over by The Chief. To consolidate his own power, The Chief has been conducting a new war with "the people of the hills". One instrumental tool is the chemical gas he has been trying to force out of Harding. Another is a fleet of leftover biplanes whose reconstruction is in the frustrated hands of Richard Gordon. Neither is able to accomplish their task without the necessary resources, nor is either particularly willing. Gordon opines that the age of flight... the age of anything... is over.

Suddenly from the sky emerges a flying craft, a new design of plane piloted by none other than a greyed John Cabal. He brings an ominous message: behind him is Wings Over the World, a militant society dedicated to science, reason and progress that is sweeping across the globe, outlawing independent nations and creating a one-world government. Centred symbolically in Iraq, they intend to force the barbarous world back into civilization. After Cabal is taken captive and forced to rebuild The Chief's airplanes, Harding and Gordon are able to escape and get word to Wings Over the World. They return with a full compliment that sweeps over Everytown and abolishes the old order.

Wings Over the World builds, and builds, excavating huge underground caverns in which to erect their glorious retro-futuristic cities. By 2036, the whole world has become a utopia of the test tube, healthy and hale and strong. Yet there are always discontents. Theotocopulos, a sculptor played by Cedric Hardwicke, is tired of progress, machine efficiency and a life devoted to constantly pushing towards the future. Where is now? When may man finally rest? His target is the giant space gun, by which the government of Oswald Cabal plans to send another failed moon mission.

As a film, the only substantive flaw in Things to Come is that it does not spend nearly long enough exploring the futuristic society of 2036 and the dissent of Theotocopulos. Perhaps this was included in the original UK running time of 108 minutes, which was reduced to the existing 93 minutes by hook and crook. The result is a weakened presentation of the legitimate concerns to rise from a technocratic government. Or, more to the point, a theocracy of science. In Wells' original novel this government is extremely aggressive, outlawing nationhood, ethnicity and religion. All falls under the weight of the efficient society.

Relative to the barbarism of war and feudal post-apocalyptic chiefdoms, the super-scientific world of Cabal seems beautiful. It is a scientific age, after all, an age of progress. Things to Come actually prefigures Walt Disney's own plans for a utopian, technological society governed by efficiency and dedicated to constant progress. That vision proved unsustainable and the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was reduced to EPCOT the theme park, and for good reason. A democratic nation cannot indulge privately-governed technocracies within its borders.

I have quoted French philosopher Jacques Ellul on this weblog before, and he is once more relevant here. Once more, what is described is perfected technique, "the totality of methods rationally arrived at, and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity." Things to Come outlines, without much reflection, a world where "Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity."

To its credit it does not shy away from Ellul's great criticism of our own prophets of technique, which is how they propose to impose their golden age of technology. In raising the questions of how, Ellul states,
there is one and only one means to their solution, a world-wide totalitarian dictatorship which will allow technique its full scope and at the same time resolve the concomitant difficulties. It is not difficult to understand why the scientists and worshippers of technology prefer not to dwell on this solution, but rather to leap nimbly across the dull and uninteresting intermediary period and land squarely in the golden age... If we take a hard, unromantic look at the golden age itself, we are struck with the incredible naivete of these scientists. They say, for example, that they will be able to shape and reshape at will human emotions, desires, and thoughts and arrive scientifically at certain efficient, pre-established collective decisions. They claim they will be in a position to develop certain collective desires, to constitute certain homogeneous social units out of aggregates of individuals, to forbid men to raise their children, and even to persuade them to renounce having any. At the same time, they speak of assuring the triumph of freedom and the necessity of avoiding dictatorship at any price. They seem incapable of grasping the contradiction involved, of understanding that what they are proposing... is in fact the harshest of dictatorships. In comparison, Hitler's was a trifling affair. That is is to be a dictatorship of test tubes rather than of hobnailed boots will not make it any less a dictatorship.

Things to Come, and the author behind it, would look at this squarely and say "you're right, and it is necessary."

That makes Wells' dictatorship all the more horrifying. C.S. Lewis observed that the worst kind of dictatorship is the moral one, because a cruel dictator may eventually be satiated. The moral dictator will never tire because they believe they are oppressing others for their own good. Cabal, in his closing lines, offers humanity only the choice between a nasty, brustish and short life in a state of nature or the ceaseless efficiency of a life submissive to the cause of science. His government has exchanged freedom for peace, but not true peace. They have perfected the absense of war but have not left the individual alone to be at peace.

Therein lies the question that Things to Come does not really explore. Has Cabal only provided us with a false dilemma? Is there a way to have a world of both peace and freedom, where we can do away with both types of dictatorship?

Thanks to the magic of the public domain, Thing to Come is available for viewing at the Internet Archive.


tantalus1970 said...


First of all Things to Come can be, although sometimes heavy-handed, at times a great piece of cinema. When the war starts, one of the first buildings destroyed by bombs is a cinema; exactly like the one the audience would be watching the film in.

What you have to understand about the morality of the film, particularly the ending, is that it was made by people (on the left and the right) who still believed in the elite ie that there was one group of people who were simply so much smarter, stronger, healthier and technically more gifted than everyone else that they could do everything better, and everyone else was just a simple-minded, easily-led spear-carrier. They would have genuinely believed that Cabal would make a just and great leader (remember that at the time, lots of people thought Hitler was at least efficient and that Stalin was a wonderful leader and a great humanitarian, if a little harsh at times!) All societies have elites (in arts, health, education, sport etc) but in Britain many still believed in AN elite, which is a different concept.

To give one example form the real world, at the start of WW2, it was still official RAF policy that only the public-school educated (i.e the posh, fee-paying schools) could be fighter pilots, because only they would have the necessary qualities and aptitudes. It was beginning to be circumvented by then, but it was still technically in effect. In other words, they believed that if you were state-educated, you could not, by definition, possess what the Americans call the Right Stuff!

Cory Gross said...

Certainly it was an attitude that was in the air. One of the things that I find... unfortunate... about pre-WWII liberalism is that a belief in eugenics went hand-in-hand with suffrage, temperance and universal education and health care. It wasn't until Hitler actually tried enacting those policies on an industrial scale that people rethought it. And even then, eugenics programs stuck around in the West until as recently as the 60's and 70's, and have started cropping up again as some people have started thinking that we're all just irrationally scared of it because of the Nazi boogeyman (as opposed to learning our lesson). I doubt there was any way for Wells to recognize that he was basically promoting facism, which either excuses him or makes him that much more frightening.

tantalus1970 said...

I would say it excuses him up to a point. The idea of one group of people imposing their will for the benefit of everyone else (literally a Cabal) was such a widespread belief among what we would call the political classes, all across the political spectrum, moderates as well as extremists, that he would have had to go out on quite a limb to come up with something else.

Cory Gross said...

Perhaps I'm less merciful on Wells than I am on the suffragettes or the socialists of the time period because I don't like him, but my reaction to having to go pretty far out to find something different is "yes he should have." Maybe it's also because I happen to find his version particularly horrifying because I know I would be a victim of it.

tantalus1970 said...

Yes, me too; my mum's family were what are now called the underclass and, in the UK at least, would have been among the first lined up for 'treatment'.

The thing is, is Wells worse for saying and showing what A LOT of other people were thinking or were they worse for whispering what he was shouting (relatively speaking)?