Things to Come is one of the most impressive Science Fiction films ever made, yet one of the least popular. A giant prestige production from an England between the wars, it was originally dismissed and largely ignored, much as was H.G. Wells himself in his waning years. Its much more modest companion film The Man Who Could Work Miracles was by comparison a big hit. Watchable prints of this Art Deco Utopian fantasy have become incredibly rare. If you're the kind of person that can't get beyond the plastic-toga costumes worn by the hoi polloi of 2036, or are aren't interested in a film that predicts the Battle of Britain four years ahead of time, well, you can take Armageddon back to your sandbox and be happy there. Wells' original screen treatment can be read online here.
There are any number of ways to approach this epic: as Wells' socialist riposte to Fritz Lang's Metropolis; as a masterpiece whose reputation might be reestablished if it could be properly restored; and, more troublingly, as a curious and perhaps malevolent expression of H.G. Wells' ideas about a eugenically-cleansed future for Mankind.
Network and Granada's Things to Come 2-Disc Special Edition has been hotly awaited since last fall, with the hope that the rumored 113 or even 117 -minute version of the film might be restored. That's not the case, but the release does have a few new scenes, especially for UK viewers. More below.
In 1936 (when the film was made) the peaceful Everytown (read: London) is bracing for conflict, which comes in 1940 in the form of massed air raids. A decades-long world war ensues, bringing an end to civilization. Thirty years later, Everytown has barely survived a terrible plague called The Walking Sickness, and is still a rubble heap. Its feudal ruler Rudolph, The Boss (Ralph Richardson) wages un-mechanized war on neighboring fiefdoms in hopes of gaining the raw materials to revive more sophisticated weaponry. Into this Dark Age lands a futuristic aeroplane. Its pilot John Cabal (Raymond Massey) wears a giant bubbleheaded helmet. Cabal was once a citizen of Everytown who preached pacifism. Now he's a leader in a Basra-based technical guild called Wings over the World that is using superior technology to defeat the warlords and make a new start for mankind. The Boss holds Cabal hostage, but engineer Richard Gordon (Derrick De Marney), his wife Mary (Ann Todd) and Doctor Harding (Maurice Braddell) conspire to steal one of Everytown's antiquated biplanes to summon reinforcements from Basra. When giant bombing planes drop the 'Gas of Peace' Everytown is conquered without bloodshed, and joins the New Order.
Decades of scientific advancements follow, re-engineering Earth into a peaceful technocracy of industry and underground living. A century later in 2036 society has built a giant Space Gun to shoot humans around the moon, but a dissident group of artists led by master sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) incites a mob to destroy it. The revolt fails. As the Moon capsule blazes to the stars, John's grandson Oswald Cabal pontificates on the destiny of Man.
Things to Come is a feast for the eyes and ears and the brain, too. Many of its special effects are still awe-inspiring, as is its sweeping symphonic score. For detractors, the main objection is that its acting is disjointed and its dialogue is a constant flow of 'author's message' speechifying. Ragged cuts made to the film after release created most of the bad continuity gaps that startle viewers. The lengthy speeches were mandated by author H. G. Wells, to present his philosophical ideas about socialism and futurism.
Visually, Things to Come has few peers in Science Fiction. William Cameron Menzies' designs are as massive as those in Fritz Lang's Metropolis and his cinematics benefit from more advanced editorial firepower. Sophisticated montages advance the story across years of war and turmoil. The opening musical montage of the Christmas jitters and the later air raid on Everytown are successful examples of Eisensteinian montage, juxtaposing images of 'peace' and 'war.' The montage of mining and manufacturing the futuristic city 'for Our Children's Children's Children' is a wonder of graphic industrial imagery. The score by Sir Arthur Bliss veers from martial tensions to airy reverence for a future undreamed.
Many scenes are meant to be symbolic and although some come off as stilted, others have undiminished power. The little girl who runs to the side of John Cabal and a downed enemy pilot is a strange pre-echo of the tot seen in the 1964 campaign ad run by President Johnson to defeat Goldwater. The body on the barbed wire that dissolves to only a few remaining tatters echoes back to a similar setup in Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front. The Boss, who rants and raves about 'sovereignity' in 1970, was immediately equated with Richard Nixon by the group of college kids to whom I showed Things to Come -- in 1970! And the all-powerful, all-potent figure of Oswald Cabal challenging the heavens that ends the movie has triple thematic echoes, back to the ending of Wells' book The Food of the Gods, and forward to both the conclusion of King Vidor's version of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, and by extension, to the Star Child of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In 2001 I was happy to see Image Entertainment's acceptable DVD release because watchable copies of this wonderful picture were becoming rare. Network and Granada TV's Things to Come 2-Disc Special Edition is a distinct improvement in most respects.
First things first. The Network disc is cleaner and more complete than the Image disc, which we now assume to be the standard American cut of Things to Come. Promotions for the Network release were never specific about how much material had been restored and instead repeated the mantra that the edition was the 'longest in existence.' I'm assured that this is probably true. Early in the commentary (more on that in a little bit) Nick Cooper tells us that several restored sequences bring the film back up to its original American release length, which indicates that Network's idea of a cut print is an even shorter version (89 min?) eventually screened in the UK. Things to Come seems to have been one of those unlucky pictures that was hacked by its own makers just prior to release and then cut further on subesquent runs. For some unknown reason linked with its failure at the box office, nobody saw the slightest harm in chopping it down, and throwing away the discarded footage.
The BBFC measured Things to Come at 117 minutes when it gave its censor approval in 1936. Along the way version lengths of 113, 105 and 97 minutes have been mentioned. The standard American cut clocks in at just under 93 minutes on the Image disc running at 24 fps. The Network cut comes to almost the exact same running time at 25fps., which means that it is in reality about three minutes longer, and is probably the 96-minute cut we've all heard about. Confused?
Watching the film, I caught only three serious restorations. In the first sequence, Passworthy and Harding exit Cabal's house; Passworthy talks 'patriotically' about war as a merciless program of vermin extermination. This extra moment helps smooth out the transition to the second 'war preparation' montage, elminating a ragged cut.
The second reinstated scene is the Boss Rudolph's drunken banquet, where we realize that he has other female favorites besides Margueretta Scott. He makes a pig-headed speech about books being a nuisance and travel being unnecessary because home is where good citizens belong. Unfortunately, this addition does nothing to mend the erratic continuity gaps in the scene that follows when Roxana goes down to talk with Cabal in his improvised cell.
The third bit is a portion of dialogue restored during the grandfather / granddaughter's 2036 history lesson, including an unnecessary bit about sneezing. And that's it. Putting together what's been said before, we appear to be looking at an export version prepared for America, and then trimmed a bit on arrival. All the major cuts happened earlier.
I watched Things to Come on an all-region DVD player converting PAL to NTSC, so the disc might look much better on a PAL set. It was clean and smooth, but many scenes still displayed a bit of fluttering contrast -- it doesn't look to be some magical prime element in perfect condition. Some scratches are evident, but I'd guess that a lot of problems were smoothed out with digital processing. The best aspect of the transfer is that most of the flaws we're used to seeing in American P.D. cuts are gone. Previous jumpy cuts and jarring timing changes have been smoothed out or eliminated. Dissolves and other transitions are much improved.
Strangely, the audio is just as difficult as ever to make out. The combination of a compressed track, boomy voices, low volume, English clipped enunciation and the 4% speed-up of PAL make Network's disc still a hard listen -- even though it has many pops and flaws, the Image track is easier to hear. No subtitles are provided to help out. On the other hand, Sir Arthur Bliss' bombastic score is better than ever, cutting through in places where it was once inaudible.
The extras feature the welcome involvement of fan-archivist Nick Cooper, who provides an authoritative and relaxed commentary behind the feature. He explains as best he can the twisted history of the film's many versions and restoration problems, which are indeed a big headache.
Much of the contents of Cooper's excellent 625 Things to Come site are duplicated as extras on the second disc. The best extra is a Virtual Extended Edition that adds intertitle cards throughout the film to show scenes and dialogue that were in the final script and were probably once a part of the film. These include the rather anti-Semitic scene with Roxana berating a merchant named Wadsky (Abraham Sofaer) for not allowing her first look at some new fabric. With the titles, the show extends to a whopping 134 minutes.
That bloated running time helps us understand why London Films went scissors-happy with the picture, as at least 2/3 of the new material consists of extended speeches between the characters. This isn't character dialogue; the actors simply stand stock still and 'orate' at one another. Things to Come already suffers from too many scenes that are nothing more than one-sided debates, and the characters that spout Wells' POV always prevail. The situation is almost identical to the film version of The Fountainhead, where author Ayn Rand also enjoyed dictatorial power over the screenplay: her movie is also dominated by windy speeches. H.G. Wells' apparently had veto power over any attempt to trim his futuristic, socialist philosophizing. The wholesale cutting apparently occurred immediately after a brief premiere release. As shown in the Virtual Extended Edition, we lose Margaretta Scott's entire second role as Cabal's wife Rowena. Theotocopolous' dissident speech is reduced to a few lame fragments.
The other disc extras are interesting diversions. Sir Ralph Richardson makes an entertaining 40-minute appearance on Russell Harty's interview show, but says nothing about Things to Come. From 1971, Sci-Fi author Brian Aldiss stares at the camera in front of H.G. Wells' last London address and gives forth with an amusing discourse on the author's life and times. An original 1935 audio recording The Wandering Sickness appears to be a description of the fictional malady for actors on the set of Things to Come (Cooper's guess) or perhaps an audition for a possible narrator. An image and artwork gallery comes right from Nick Cooper's archive, and an American reissue trailer looks like a ragged English original with a new distributor card slapped on the end.
Network and Granada's Things to Come 2-Disc Special Edition is the best we've seen, and yet is still an incomplete copy of a film that one would think would have been preserved better than this ... but tragedies do happen. Maybe one day we'll find that some relative of Winston Churchill has a long cut stashed in his cellar, or that Swedish monks kept a copy. We don't care if it comes from England or Basra, but an any improved copy of Things to Come would sure be welcome. In the meantime, American viewers would love a Region 1 version of this version. Since Network claims that they've mastered on Hi-Def, a proper 24 fps. transfer with a better-engineered soundtrack is in order!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Things to Come 2-Disc Special Edition (PAL Region 2) rates: