A Very British Metropolis: H.G Wells’ Things to Come
When it comes to pre-War cinema, the science fiction film that everyone references is of course, Metropolis, recognised by many established critics as the Year Zero for the genre.
The brainchild of director Fritz Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou, on whose novel the film is based, the production in Germany was the costliest of its time, epic in scale, and swallowing much of German film industries resources. Its release in 1927 was met with mixed critical reviews and while having some success at the box office could not recoup the costs it took to make. When taken to America the film was severely cut in order to make it more applicable to audiences, resulting in a mess of a film, confusing audiences. The result was the collapse of the German studio UFA and the end of the German film industries attempts to rival American studios.
It’s subsequent rebirth and continual reinvention, the latest of which was the longest cut of the film yet found, and released on DVD/Blu Ray last winter, is a tale onto itself. But suffice to say that the themes contained within it, while somewhat simplistic and perhaps a little naïve, have resonated over time.
What modern science fiction fans may not release is that the 1920s and 30s saw the release of a number of films which presented a future world. While available to watch, nearly all these films are little known, but included, the comedy High Tension (1936), the futuristic musical Just Imagine (1930) and The Tunnel (1935), which predicted the construction of a transatlantic tunnel.
All of these films took the issues of the day and projected them onto a futuristic world in order that they could be explored in a context removed from every day existence. And it is clear Metropolis was an influence.
However, one man who was certainly not impressed with the film at the time of its release was H.G. Wells, the father of modern science fiction. His opinion of Metropolis was scathing, “I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier.”
Fritz Lang and Wells had a clear difference on the power of technology. For Lang, technology which was controlled by ruling elites would result in the creation of a slave class. For Wells science would be the instrument used to free mankind from the shackles of its existence. But only if it harnessed by the right sort of people…
It was in this fundamental argument that the seeds which would lead to the creation of the 1936 British science fiction epic, Things To Come.
The film was based upon the writings of H.G. Wells, and specifically, the book The Shape Of Things To Come, published in 1933. This was not a conventional novel, but rather a book which had the conceit of being written far in the future from the perspective of a historian looking back on events in the twentieth century. Wells in his later life had bought into his own press, and come to see himself as a prophet, proposing that an organised world state was the best way for mankind to develop. His books and the film were an attempt by Wells to educate and inform the general public about the virtue of a planned world. The book is very dry and is only really of interest to academics studying the life of Wells.
But someone saw something in the book. Famous British film producer Sir Alexander Korda, the man behind The Thief of Bagdad, The Third Man and The Four Feathers, bought the rights to the book and commissioned Wells himself to write the screenplay and help to oversee all aspects of production.
American film designer Cameron Menzies, who later did unaccredited work on The Thief of Bagdad and Duel in the Sun, but perhaps better known to science fiction fans for directing Invaders from Mars, was brought in to direct.
The film is different from the book on which it was based. Wells understood that the needs of the cinema were different than that of the novel. He was fascinated by the potential abilities of the motion picture and had previously attempted to bring his Outline of History to cinema screens only to be frustrated by demands that a love story be inserted. Therefore he jumped at the opportunity to be involved with an adaptation of his own work which would be based on his screenplay.
Things To Come is centred upon a city named Everytown, although it is quite obviously based upon London. We witness three distinct periods in the cities development, ranging from 1940 right through to 2036. The film begins in 1940, rumours of war abound as we are focused upon the figure of John Cabal who informs his friends that ‘If we don’t end war, war will end us’. Soon after this bombers start to rain destruction upon the city. There lasts after this nearly two decades of war, futuristic tanks are witnessed fighting on a battle field, millions are killed, across the world people suffer the so-called ‘wandering sickness’, becoming no more than zombies. The pre-war fears of a generation are manifest in this picture.
We see the next stage of Everytown; it remains in ruins after the bombing but a form of society is once again beginning to take shape. Under the control of the Chief (Ralph Richardson –playing a caricature of Mussolini) the citizens of Everytown are in a dictatorship and continuing a war with the so called Hill People.
Technology is practically non-existent, what parts are available are used by the engineers to repair aircraft in order for the Chief to conduct his war on an aerial level. Self interest rules and people struggle to make a living. It is into this world that John Cabal comes back into the story. Now a member of a society called ‘Wings over the World’ – these ‘Airmen’ seek to rebuild and reform the world. No longer would figures such as the Chief rule over people and misuse the technology created by men such as Cabal. Thrown in prison, Cabal raises the alarm to his colleagues who come to his rescue, dispensing a ‘pacifist gas’ upon the city, knocking everyone out. The Chief dies – his mind unable to cope with notions of peace and equality.
The final section of the film takes place in the year 2036. Everytown has been rebuilt away from the old ruins and placed underground. It is a world of white plastic and minimalist design. In charge of the running of the city is Oswald Cabal, the grandson of John Cabal. He is challenged in his authority by a sculptor called Theotocopulous who wishes to see a return to simpler times, when scientific progress was not the dominating purpose for human existence. The central issue of contention is a planned expedition to the moon, launched from a vast cannon. Although opposed by the artists, Cabal orders its launch. There is an invasion by Theotocopulous’s followers onto the launch grounds but they are too late, and the rocket launches. The end of the film witnesses Cabal and a companion named Passworthy looking through a mirror at the spacecraft. Cabal asks ‘All the universe or nothingness. Which shall it be Passworthy?’ for Wells the future of mankind lay out amongst the stars.
Viewed now the film contains a lot of stilted acting, and a script that is not so much a story as a series of debates and arguments that would not seem out of place in a book. Yet the film retains a power and scale that is astonishing. The length of time that passes, the various states of decay the city finds itself in all contribute to a film grand in design and intention. The visual effects can still amaze audiences to this day.
For Wells, unlike Lang, saw science and technology as the keys to human progression and enlightenment. However used in the wrong hands, such as the governments at the beginning of the film, which instigate the initial war, through to the attempts by the Chief to build aircraft, these tools could become the implements of tyrants to enforce their rule and bring ruin to society.
That is why for Wells only certain people could take control of government, leaders in the mould of the Philosopher Kings of Plato’s Republic, working for the good of all. He was a member of the Fabien Society, the intellectual wing of the Labour movement, which had founded the London School of Economics for this very purpose. As Wells stated:
‘It is no good asking people what they want. That is the
error of democracy. You have first to think out what they
ought to want if society is to be saved. Then you tell them
what they want and see that they get it’
The Cabal’s are only interested in furthering human endeavour, and the only means to accomplish that is through scientific research. The romanticism of Theotocopulous is natural but should not prevent the onward march of progress. Indeed it is not difficult to see the character of Theotocopulous as a comment by Wells on Lang himself, who placed a morality on technology.
To watch the film now, in the context of 1930’s Britain one does feel slightly uneasy witnessing figures clad in black named Oswald talking of taking the reins of government and reshaping them. Perhaps it is simply coincidence. Wells was certainly no supporter of Hitler. However what is unique about this film is its positive affirmation of technology, Things To Come remains one of the few films to show a future where machinery has benefited mankind.
Another area where Wells is firm upon is his anti war stance. Throughout the film we see its effects upon the world. That conflict is detrimental to human progression seems to be the central message of the film. Critics such as George Orwell were keen to remind people that ‘the equation of science with common sense does not really hold good. The aeroplane, which was looked forward to as a civilising influence but in practice has hardly been used except for dropping bombs, is the symbol of that fact. Modern Germany is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous.’
Wells wrote Orwell a response saying “That’s not what I meant you little shit!”. Always nice to know even the great figures of fiction could write as if they were message board trolls.
And as has already been mentioned Wells does accept this point, what else is the Chief but a comment upon the fascist regimes of Italy and Germany? Their attempts to create machines for murderous purposes are exactly what Wells was rallying against.
Both Metropolis and Things To Come are concerned with the same basic issue – the role of technology in shaping the future direction of the human race. For Lang it would enslave workers into a life of turning wheels, of servitude to pieces of metal. Wells however is far more optimistic about technology. The problem for him is not that the sciences will constrain the ambitions of humans but rather if the results of science are placed in the hands of tyrants they will be misused. By making the scientists the rulers the problem of its potential misuse disappears.
Both these films have a place in cinematic history; they present two sides of the same discussion. That Metropolis is remembered while Things to Come has all but been forgotten is tragic yet perhaps inevitable. The romanticism and portrayal of the conflict in stark terms made Metropolis a much more digestible picture than a discussion of how future societies should be run and the potential of science as a tool for good.
For me, Things To Come is a far better film than Metropolis – not that I dislike that film, but it never challenges me – technology is evil, repressive – even sinful. In Things To Come we see machines that bring death, but also machines that further human progress. The key is those that have control of such power – train them to rule wisely and there will be no danger of war.
The outbreak of war in 1939 made the world that Wells envisioned seem to be a near impossible dream; the stark, dark and oppressive world of Lang was much closer to people’s experiences. That it was the vision of Lang that endured in this period would cast a shadow over the development of science fiction cinema for the next seventy years.
Rob can be found on Twitter.