Things to Come (also known in promotional material as H. G. Wells’ Things to Come) is a 1936 British black-and-white science fiction film from United Artists, produced by Alexander Korda, directed by William Cameron Menzies, and written by H.G. Wells.
Also known as The Hundred Years to Come, The Shape of Things to Come, and Whither Mankind (all UK working titles).
Refer to H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1979).
In the city of Everytown in southern England, businessman John Cabal (Raymond Massey) cannot enjoy Christmas Day, 1940, with the news everywhere of possible war. His guest, Harding (Maurice Braddell), shares his worries, while another friend, the over-optimistic Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman), believes it will not come to pass, and if it does, it will accelerate technological progress. An aerial bombing raid on the city that night results in general mobilisation and then global war.
Months later, Cabal, now a Royal Air Force airman piloting a Hawker Fury, shoots down an enemy aircraft dropping gas on the British countryside. He lands and pulls the badly injured enemy pilot (John Clements) from the wreckage. As they dwell on the madness of war, they put on their gas masks, as poison gas drifts in their direction. When a young girl runs towards them the wounded pilot insists she take his mask, choosing to accept death to save her life. Cabal takes the girl to his aeroplane, pausing to leave the doomed man a revolver. The pilot dwells on the irony that he may have gassed the child’s family and yet he has sacrificed his own life in order to save her. A gun shot is heard.
The war continues into the 1960s, long enough for the people of the world to have forgotten why they are fighting. Humanity enters a new dark age. Every city in the world is in ruins, the economy has been devastated by hyperinflation, and there is little technology left apart from weapons of war. By 1966 the enemy’s armies and navies have been defeated, but their greatly depleted air force is deploying a biological weapon called the “wandering sickness” in a final desperate bid for victory. Dr. Harding and his daughter struggle to find a cure, but with little equipment it is hopeless. The plague kills half of humanity and extinguishes the last vestiges of government.
By 1970, the warlord Rudolf (Ralph Richardson), known as the “Boss”, has become the chieftain of Everytown and eradicated the pestilence by shooting the infected. He has started yet another war, this time against the “hill people” of the Floss Valley to obtain coal and shale to render into oil so his ragtag collection of pre-war planes can fly again.
On May Day 1970, a sleek new aeroplane lands in Everytown, startling the inhabitants who have not seen a new machine in many years. The pilot, John Cabal, emerges and proclaims that the last surviving band of engineers and mechanics known as “World Communications” have formed a civilisation of airmen called “Wings Over the World”, based in Basra, Iraq. They have outlawed war and are rebuilding civilisation throughout the Near East and the Mediterranean. Cabal considers the Boss and his band of warlords to be brigands, but offers them the opportunity to join them in rebuilding the world. The Boss immediately rejects the offer and takes Cabal prisoner, forcing him to work for his mechanic Gordon, who struggles to keep the Boss’s biplanes airworthy. Gordon takes an Avro 504K up for a test flight and heads for Iraq to alert World Communications.
Gigantic flying wing aircraft arrive over Everytown and saturate its population with sleeping gas globes. The Boss orders his air force to attack, but the obsolete fighters inflict little damage. The people awaken shortly thereafter to find themselves under the control of Wings Over the World and the Boss dead from a fatal allergic reaction to the sleeping gas. Cabal observes, “Dead, and his old world dead with him … and with a new world beginning … And now for the rule of the Airmen and a new life for mankind”.
A montage follows, showing decades of technological progress, beginning with Cabal explaining plans for global consolidation by Wings Over the World. By 2036, mankind lives in modern underground cities, including the new Everytown. Civilisation is at last devoted to peace and scientific progress.
All is not well, however. The sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) incites the populace to demand a “rest” from all the rush of progress, symbolised by the coming first manned flight around the Moon. The modern-day Luddites are opposed by Oswald Cabal, the head of the governing council and grandson of John Cabal. Oswald Cabal’s daughter Catherine (Pearl Argyle) and Maurice Passworthy (Kenneth Villiers) insist on manning the capsule. When a mob later forms and rushes to destroy the space gun, used to propel the projectile toward the Moon, Cabal launches it ahead of schedule.
Later, after the projectile is just a tiny light in the immense night sky, Oswald Cabal delivers a stirring philosophical monologue about what is to come for mankind to his troubled and questioning friend, Raymond Passworthy (Chapman), the father of Maurice. He speaks passionately for progress and humanity’s unending quest for knowledge and advancement as it journeys out into immensity of space to conquer the stars and beyond. He concludes with the rhetorical questions, “All the universe or nothing? Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be? …”
- Raymond Massey as John Cabal/Oswald Cabal.
- Edward Chapman as Pippa Passworthy/Raymond Passworthy.
- Ralph Richardson as Rudolf a.k.a. The Boss.
- Margaretta Scott as Roxana Black/Rowena Cabal.
- Cedric Hardwicke as Theotocopulos.
- Maurice Braddell as Dr Edward Harding.
- Sophie Stewart as Mrs Cabal.
- Derrick De Marney as Richard Gordon.
- Ann Todd as Mary Gordon.
- Pearl Argyle as Catherine Cabal.
- Kenneth Villiers as Maurice Passworthy.
- Ivan Brandt as Morden Mitani.
- Anne McLaren as Child (2036).
- Patricia Hilliard as Janet Gordon.
- Charles Carson as Great-Grandfather (2036).
- Patrick Barr as World Transport official.
- John Clements as Enemy pilot.
- Anthony Holles as Simon Burton (*as Antony Holles).
- Allan Jeayes as Mr. Cabal (1940).
- Pickles Livingston as Horrie Passworthy.
- Abraham Sofaer as Wadsky.
- All of Theotocopulos’s scenes were originally shot with Ernest Thesiger in the role, but Wells found his performance to be unsatisfactory, so he was replaced with Cedric Hardwicke and the footage re-shot.
- Terry-Thomas, who would become known for his comic acting, has an uncredited appearance as an extra in the film, playing a “man of the future.”
- It was his seventh film appearance.
- Although Margaretta Scott is credited with the dual role of Roxana Black and Rowena Cabal, the later character does not appear in the surviving longest version of the film.
Things to Come sets out a future history from 1940 to 2036. In the screenplay, or “treatment” that Wells published in 1935, before the film was released, the story ends in “A.D. 2054”.
Wells is sometimes incorrectly assumed to have had a degree of control over the project that was unprecedented for a screenwriter, and personally supervised nearly every aspect of the film. Posters and the main title bill the film as “H. G. Wells’ Things to Come”, with “an Alexander Korda production” appearing in smaller type. In fact, Wells ultimately had no control over the finished product, with the result that many scenes, although shot, were either truncated or not included in the finished film. The rough-cut reputedly ran to 130 minutes; the version submitted to the British Board of Film Censors was 117m 13s; it was released as 108m 40s (later cut to 98m 06s) in the UK, and 96m 24s in the United States (see below for later versions). Wells’s script (or “film treatment”) and selected production notes were published in book form in 1935 and reprinted in 1940 and 1975. An academic edition annotated by Leon Stover was published in 2007. The script contains many scenes that were either never filmed or no longer exist, although the extant footage also includes scenes not in the published script (e.g. the Boss’s victory banquet after the capture of the colliery).
Wells originally wanted the music to be recorded in advance, and have the film constructed around the music, but this would have impeded editing, and so the score, by Arthur Bliss, was fitted to the film afterwards in a more conventional way. A concert suite drawn from the film has remained popular; as of 2015, there are numerous recordings of it in print.
After filming had already begun, the Hungarian abstract artist and experimental filmmaker László Moholy-Nagy was commissioned to produce some of the effects sequences for the re-building of Everytown. Moholy-Nagy’s approach was partly to treat it as an abstract light show, but only some 90 seconds of material was used, e.g. a protective-suited figure behind corrugated glass. In the autumn of 1975 a researcher found a further four sequences which had been discarded.
The art design in the film is by Vincent Korda, brother of the producer. The futuristic city of Everytown in the film is based on London: a facsimile of St Paul’s Cathedral can be seen in the background.
Things to Come was voted the ninth best British film of 1936.
It was the 16th most popular film at the British box office in 1935-1936.
Writing for The Spectator in 1936, Graham Greene gave the film a mixed review. Although Greene made it clear that “a third of the film is magnificent”, the second third (as the world of tomorrow reverts to barbarism and anarchy) seemed implausible, and the last third of the film with the introduction of the “Great Conspiracy” (an international force of airmen bent on restoring Earth’s former glory) begins to lose all interest for Greene. The optimism and idealism comes off as naïve for Greene.
Science fiction historian Gary Westfahl has stated: “Things to Come qualifies as the first true masterpiece of science fiction cinema, and those who complain about its awkward pace and uninvolving characters are not understanding Wells’s message, which is that the lives and actions of individuals are unimportant when compared to the progress and destiny of the entire human race”.
During early development of what would become 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Arthur C. Clarke had Stanley Kubrick watch Things to Come as an example of a grounded science fiction film; Kubrick, however, disliked it. After seeing 2001, Frederik Pohl of Galaxy Science Fiction complained in a 1968 editorial that Things to Come was the most recent serious film with a large budget, good actors, and a science fiction screenwriter.
The film is recognised by American Film Institute (2005: AFI’s 100 Years of Film Scores – Nominated).
Duration, Releases, and Surviving Versions
The rough-cut of the film was 130 minutes in length, while the version submitted for classification by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) was 117m 13s. By the time of the 21 February 1936 UK premiere and initial release, this had been reduced to 108m 41s, while the American print premiered on 18 April 1936 was further cut to 96m 31s. By late 1936, a 98m 07s print was in circulation in the UK, and a 76m 07s print was resubmitted for classification by the BBFC and was passed – after further cuts – at 72m 13s for reissued by Exclusive Films in 1943.
The 96m 31s American print was cut down to 93m 19s by the removal of three sections of footage for a reissue by British Lion Films in 1948, and subsequently to 92m 44s by the removal of one more segment. A continuity script exists for a version of approximately 106m 04s, which contains all the material in the 96m 31s and 92m 44s versions, plus a number of other sequences. It is not known if a version of this duration was actually in circulation at any time, or if it was simply an intermediate stage between the premiere and release versions.
For many years, the principal surviving version of the film was the 92m 44s print (in countries using PAL or SECAM video systems, it runs to 89m exactly). From at least the late-1970s until 2007, this was the only version “officially” available from the rights holders in the UK.
In the United States, although the 92m 44s version was most prevalent, a version was also in circulation that included the four pieces of footage that were in the 96m 31s print, but not the 92m 44s version, although due to other cuts, actually ran shorter than the latter.
A cut version of the 92m 44s print was digitally restored and colourised by Legend Films, under the supervision of Ray Harryhausen (who had no connection with the making of the film) and released on DVD in the United States in early 2007.
In May 2007, Network DVD in the UK released a digitally restored copy of the 96m 31s version, the longest version remaining of the film. The two-disc set also contains a “Virtual Extended Version” with most of the missing and unfilmed parts represented by production photographs and script extracts. In 2011 Network released an updated and expanded version of this edition on Blu-ray in HD.
The Criterion Collection released the 96m 31s print on DVD and Blu-ray in North America on 18 June 2013. This includes the unused Moholy-Nagy footage as an extra.
Although the film lapsed into the public domain in the US in 1964 due to non-renewal, copyright remained in force in the UK, the European Union, and elsewhere. In the UK, copyright for films as “dramatic works” subsists for seventy years after the end of the year of release, or the death of either the director, the writer (or author of original story), or the composer of original music, whichever is the latest. As the composer, Arthur Bliss, did not die until 1975, copyright will not expire until after 31 December 2045. The current copyright holder is ITV Global Entertainment Ltd., while the longest surviving original nitrate print is held by the BFI National Archive, a copy of the 96m 31s print donated by London Films to the newly formed National Film Archive in March 1936.
The film came back into copyright in the US in 1996 under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), which, among other measures, amended US copyright law to reinstate copyright on films of non-US origin if they were still in copyright in their country of origin. The URAA was subsequently challenged in Golan v. Gonzales, initially unsuccessfully, later with partial success, but the challenge was ultimately defeated in Golan v. Holder and a new principle established that international agreements could indeed restore copyright to works which had previously come into the public domain.
- The dialogue and plot were devised by H.G. Wells as “a new story” meant to display the “social and political forces and possibilities” that he had outlined in his 1933 story The Shape of Things to Come, a work he considered less a novel than a “discussion” in fictional form that presented itself as the notes of a 22nd-century diplomat.
- The film was also influenced by previous works, including his 1897 story “A Story of the Days to Come” and his 1931 work on society and economics, The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind.
- The cultural historian Christopher Frayling called Things to Come “a landmark in cinematic design”.
- The date on the newspaper in the scene in which the war ends is 21 September 1966, which would have been the 100th birthday of H.G. Wells.
- The futuristic costumes worn by citizens of Everytown in 2036, and particularly the rigid shoulder extensions, were patterned after the kata-ginu (shoulder cloth) of Japanese samurai.
- Ralph Richardson stated that he intentionally modelled his character, the despotic boss of Everytown, after Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
- The film takes place in 1940, 1966, 1970 and 2036.
- The aerial combat scene was between a Hawker Fury (flown by Cabal) and a Percival Mew Gull.
- Only six Mew Gulls were made from 1934 to 1938.
- They were specialty racing airplanes.
- Released internationally in early to mid 1936, the movie opens at Christmas time, December 1940, which is when what turns out to be World War II begins in the story.
- Considering the fact that they were already dealing with a period of time over four years in the future, the filmmakers came pretty close to what turned out to be the real thing: UK declared war on Germany in September 1939, and the worst of the German bombing of London, a.k.a. the Blitz, occurred in 1940.
Production & Filming Details
- William Cameron Menzies.
- Alexander Korda.
- H.G. Wells (novel and screenplay).
- Arthur Bliss.
- Georges Perinal.
- Charles Crichton.
- Francis D. Lyon.
- London Film Productions (as A London Film Production).
- United Artists (1936) (UK) (theatrical).
- United Artists (1936) (USA) (theatrical).
- United Artists (1936) (Sweden) (theatrical).
- Kommunenes Filmcentral (KF) (1936) (Norway) (theatrical).
- Dr. Hauser & Company (1936) (Austria) (theatrical).
- Adams Filmi (1937) (Finland) (theatrical).
- United Artists (1938) (UK) (theatrical) (re-release).
- Exclusive Films (1943) (UK) (theatrical) (re-release) (edited).
- Film Classics (1947) (USA) (theatrical) (re-release).
- British Lion Film Corporation (1948) (UK) (theatrical) (re-release).
- Alexander Korda Films (1948) (USA) (TV).
- Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) (1977) (West Germany) (TV).
- Yleisradio (YLE) (1979) (Finland) (TV).
- Madacy Entertainment (1998) (USA) (VHS).
- Madacy Entertainment (1999) (USA) (DVD).
- Madacy Entertainment (2000) (USA) (DVD).
- Allied Artists Classic Library (2005) (USA) (DVD).
- Aurora DVD (2006) (Brazil) (DVD).
- Warner Home Video (2007) (Netherlands) (DVD).
- Hamburger Medien Haus (HMH) (2010) (Germany) (DVD).
- Elephant Films (2012) (France) (video).
- Pan Vision (2008) (Finland) (DVD).
- The Criterion Channel (2019) (USA) (TV) (digital).
- The Criterion Collection (2013) (USA) (DVD).
- Release Date: 21 February 1936 (London, UK; Premiere).
- Running Time: 117 minutes.
- Rating: A.
- Country: UK.
- Language: English.