FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
Reportedly after H.G Wells had seen Fritz Lang's classic 1927 future-tale METROPOLIS, he Wells pronounced it the "silliest thing he'd ever seen." Though Wells had written a fair number of famous satires of modern culture, something about the silent film evidently rubbed him the wrong way. I suspect, given the work Wells wrote roughly six years later, that he may have faulted METROPOLIS because its future society did not rise to a higher state of affairs due to its mastery of science.
Such is the theme of Wells' hard-to-classify book THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME. It isn't precisely a novel-- Wells termed it a "discussion"-- though it relates to the prose-genre later called "the alternate history." Because Wells wrote a future-history spanning his contemporary period of 1933 all the way through the 22nd century, he chose a very pedantic way to present his narrative: as a notebook, written by a 22nd-century diplomat, which falls into the hands of a modern-day interlocutor. This means that SHAPE, because it spans such a long period, has no central protagonists, just a stream of personalities who have no more dramatic heft than a historical summary might give real historical figures. Though Wells sought to communicate one of his key ideas-- the triumph of a "world state" administered by a technological elite-- often the book feels like a long and tedious lecture entitled, "Why H.G. Wells Was Right About Everything."
Wells is given sole credit for the script of the 1936 THINGS TO COME, which doesn't borrow more than a few major scenes from the novel, and creates many scenes that have no analogues at all in SHAPE. In this online essay the unnamed writer claims that Wells "had little control over the final film and much of his written material was ignored or edited from the final cut." Based on what I've heard about the flee-flow collaborative atmosphere on other films helmed by producer Alexander Korda, I think it likely that many hands crafted the narrative of THINGS TO COME, even if both the screenplay and its later novelization were credited to Wells alone. Director William Cameron Menzies, a production designer famed for his elaborate, well-crafted settings on films like 1924's THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, probably had major input in constructing the mise-en-scene of the 1936 film.
THINGS TO COME has many faults, but I can't imagine anyone saying of it that "the book was better than the movie." Whereas the book wanders ceaselessly through endless, sterile future-history summations, always accompanied by Wells' sententious commentaries on the necessity of the world-state, the film is divided into three coherent periods.
First, in order to give the developments of the future immediate relevance, THINGS begins in modern times, as the English city of Everytown (a.k.a. London) is suddenly attacked by aerial raids. Three central characters during this section-- Cabal, Harding, and Passworthy-- witness the sane world of organized civilization torn asunder by a Second World War-- and right on the eve of Christmas, no less! The origins of the conflict are deliberately left vague, so that the audience cannot think of it as an unusual occurrence. The script intends for the audience to see this event as the beginning of the dissolution of separate nation-states. Cabal himself (Raymond Massey) pilots an aircraft and shoots down one of the invaders, but there is no triumph in this, for Cabal knows that the problem of war itself cannot be solved by defeating a particular enemy.
The Second World War lasts over two more decades. Thanks to the "other side" unleashing biological weapons, Earth devolves into a new Dark Age, something of an ancestor to the "Mad Max" films of the 1980s. The second section opens in 1970, focusing again on Everytown. The shattered city is now ruled by a petty chieftain who calls himself "Boss" (Ralph Richardson), and under his rule it's clear that there can be no advancement of mankind, though the 1933 Harding is still alive, striving to keep medicine alive. Then a strange aircraft lands in Everytown, and out steps the city's former native son, a much older John Cabal. He proclaims that he represents an organization of air pilots, "Wings Over the World," devoted to stamping out independent nation-states everywhere. (Note: the original novel speaks of an "Air and Sea Patrol," but the film wisely focuses only on the superior technology of the "Airmen," who bring order to the world even as the invading planes of the first section brought only chaos.) The Boss keeps Cabal prisoner, in part on the advice of his much smarter concubine Rowena. However, thanks to the help of one of the Boss' subordinates, Cabal is able to send a message to his fellow Airmen, who defeat the Boss and his pocket army by gas-bombing them into submission. Only the Boss dies, and Cabal sanctimoniously observes that the old world of warring nations has died with him.
There follows the film's greatest scene: an eight-minute montage capsulizing how the Airmen take advantage of the "gigantic possibilities of science" to build the new world order. This comes into fruition in 2036; the film's third section. By this time massive art deco cities have replaced the chaotic warrens of the old mankind, including that of Everytown, which has become a sleek new "metropolis." The descendants of the 20th-century Cabal and Passworthy are important citizens of Everytown, and their grown children are scheduled to take part in the first attempt at space-travel, when their capsule will be fired into the void by a huge "space-gun."
This plot-development resembles nothing in SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME, where Wells seems at pains to emphasize that all civilization under the world-state has become pacific and arguably rather sedate. Indeed, the high ideals expoused by Oswald Cabal (Massey again)-- in which he stresses the need for risk and daring-- sound like something that Alexander Korda might have wanted, the better to make the future-world less of a dusty old man's fantasy. The voice of conservatism, opposing space-travel in principle, comes from an unscientific artist named Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke). In the novel he's a minor comedy-relief character who doesn't do much of anything, but in the film he's given a visual appearance somewhat like that of Percy Shelley as he rebels against Cabal's attempt to extend the boundaries of mankind further. The artist and his followers storm the spaceport but fail to keep the massive cannon for firing its human cargo into infinity. Although Cabal succeeds in his experiment, he tells Passworthy that they may have to attempt the same adventure again and again before they find a way to take mankind to the stars-- a fairly realistic assessment, before the film closes on a deeply philosophical quote: "All the universe, or nothingness? Which shall it be, Passworthy, which shall it be?"
Though I disagree strenuously with Wells' vision of a world-state, much less one controlled by a techno-elite, THINGS TO COME is certainly the greatest cinematic realization of this vision. As many others have noted, its concentration upon polemic robs its characters of any depth or individuality. In contrast to the novel, where all of the female characters are either romantic interests or functionaries, Rowena the (implied) concubine at least gets a memorable speech in which she expresses her frustration at not being able to wield power in man's world, though subsequently she simply disappears from the story after making an attempt to save Harding and his daughter.
The Montage of Science, as I like to call it, does seem like something Wells would have conceived as his answer to the romanticized pessimism of METROPOLIS. The montage is, at base, an expression of faith in man's ability to use science to extend his horizons. To be sure, Wells never really answers Lang's criticism of human society; never allows for any possibility that power in his perfect future-world can be abused. But as a pure expression of the emotions behind "the Faith in Science," THINGS TO COME presents a visual feast for the eyes that has rarely been equaled in cinema.