Things to Come (1936)
Things to Come (1936)

Genre: Sci-Fi Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.

Release Date: September 14th, 1936 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: William Cameron Menzies Actors: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedric Hardwicke, Maurice Braddell, Sophie Stewart, Derrick De Marney, Ann Todd, Pearl Argyle




t’s 1940 during Christmastime in Everytown when the news of war suddenly infiltrates holiday festivities. The streets overflow with revelers, merrymaking right alongside propagandistic warnings pasted across banners lining virtually every building. “All’s right with the world,” scoffs John Cabal (Raymond Massey), who nonetheless worries about the rumors of conflict, though his pessimism is rivaled by friend Pippa Passworthy’s (Edward Chapman) insistence on celebrating another good year. At the end of the day, however, John and his wife (Sophie Stewart) hear guns in the distance. Their fears are confirmed; war has come.

The mobilization of troops replaces the Christmas cheer, as trucks and motorbikes begin to swarm the town square. Loudspeakers demand that civilians go home, gas masks are distributed, and the cover of underground locales is overloaded. In short time, John and Pippa are off to do their part, marching into battle.

“Things to Come” may be based on H.G. Wells’ science-fiction novel (he goes uncredited as the screenwriter), but it’s spot-on when it comes to predicting realistic horrors of war. Chaos and casualties are unlimited, reducing the nondescript city to rubble; death and destruction know no boundaries. “Why do we have to murder each other?” As the years pass (1955, 1960, and 1966 ominously flash across the screen), with the war raging on, a pestilence goes unchecked, essentially turning inhabitants of poison-gas-soaked regions into zombies (a condition far ahead of Hollywood’s most notable forays into the realm of re-animated corpses).

By 1970, the “wandering sickness” has wiped out half of the population. But with such a reduction in the numbers of survivors, the epidemic gradually subsides, allowing humanity to regain a hint of social vitality. Life, however, has reverted back to something primitive, where flying has ceased, automobiles are now pulled by horses, and clothing is little more than rags. It’s reminiscent of medieval times. In this new era, mechanic Richard Gordon (Derrick de Marney) has given up on acquiring petrol to fuel aeroplanes, but the arrival of a lone, tiny aircraft brings him renewed hope. When it lands, out steps a strange figure, dressed in a futuristic black uniform, complete with a shiny, oversized helmet. Could this curious visitor provide an answer to endless combat?

“What government are you under?” “Common sense.” As a member of Wings Over the World, or the Brotherhood of Efficiency – the last trustees of civilization to counter the warlords and the perpetual, petty fighting – the seemingly alien pilot is met with expected hostility by the Chief (Ralph Richardson) and his right-hand woman (Margaretta Scott). With the current existence of small factions of self-proclaimed, sovereign territories, worldwide peace will be virtually impossible. It’s not unlike the obliterated societal structures of postapocalyptic properties such as the “Mad Max” and “The Planet of the Apes” series, or even “Waterworld.” And, like “The Time Machine,” decades of fighting has turned back the clock, transforming the future into something resembling the past. Humanity is destined to destroy itself; even those striving to save the world aren’t afraid of violent means to achieve a prosperous end. Ultimate supremacy is worth any sacrifice.

“Things to Come” brilliantly envisions a bleak, crude outcome to ceaseless warring, while mixing in a few sci-fi elements – such as advanced aircraft, costumes of black fabrics and metal components, hi-tech chemical warfare, Vincent Korda’s “Star Trek”-like sets, and a curiously overconfident stranger waltzing into the remnants of civilization like Michael Rennie in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” On its path to world order, however, the film dismisses the unlikely nature of a single group of morally superior people reaching ascendancy; eternal strife occurs because a common vision can’t be attained when too many minds are involved (oftentimes even within smaller organizations). This is a goal reached in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and a concept that is eventually countered when “Things to Come” moves all the way into the year 2036, when mankind plans to journey among the stars (starting with the moon – a feat that was, amusingly, achieved a lot sooner than anticipated by this picture’s 21st century setting). “I rebel against this progress!”

Wells’ story might be too ambitious, covering too large a span of time for a single movie (though even that possible failure is a fresh idea for the ’30s). As the lead characters continue to transition from decade to decade, it grows more difficult to align with specific heroes and villains – despite the fact that actors portray dual roles as their own descendants. Nevertheless, the speculative qualities of this epic sci-fi drama are worth seeing, particularly due to the early year in which it was theatrically adapted.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10