In the mid 1930’s, noted writer, historian, and social commentator H.G. Wells, among the world’s most famous men of letters of the day, teamed up with producer Alexander Korda and director William Cameron Menzies to produce what would become the world’s most expensive film produced until the time, Things to Come (1936).
While Wells was present on set, his control over the film itself was far from complete. The film was, of course, produced for entertainment and not just for propagandizing in the name of Wellsism, although he believed the film served that end until his death in 1946. Cuts had been made by the time of release, and some scenes were simply not filmed. His novelization, or “treatment” of the script had been released a year earlier in 1935, complete with introductory notes, and offers a fuller picture of his intentions with this particular work.
In case you don’t know, the story is of a catastrophic world war that collapses the world’s economy and sends most areas back to a feckless feudalism governed by upstart warlords and despots. Redemption comes in the form of an international consortium of airmen intent on rebuilding a bigger, better, more orderly and peaceful world.
Interestingly, the location of the film never actually leaves one place, Everytown. But around the Mediterranean, a group of these airmen calling themselves Wings Over the World, unite under a common order opposed to war, greed and wasteful competition, and spread their gospel of international brotherhood through a miraculous “gas of peace.” A space shot is planned, which upsets Luddites among Everytown’s citizenry to the point of violence, and the film climaxes with the ultimate triumph of progress in using the tools of science to stretch out man’s vision and presence among the stars, closing with trademark Wellsian philosophic soliloquy.
But getting back to the point of this post, H.G. Wells had seen Fritz Lang’s view of a possible dystopian future in Metropolis (1927), and thought it “quite the silliest film.” I happen to love it. But so put off by Lang’s vision was he that when it was his turn some eight years later, his production notes included the admonition that the production crew take Lang’s film as a blue print for what not to do.
Wells described each character in good detail, but of course left openings for the costume department to “let their imaginations go.”
Regarding “The Boss” of Everytown, Rudolf the Victorious, played by the inimitable Sir Ralph Richardson, his description was thus:
The Boss can be a heavy, brutish-looking man of the condottiere type. He is in a rough costume between that of a boy scout, a Far West cowboy and a Cossack. A rosette is his symbol and it is everywhere present’ the last degradation of the English Tudor rose. He carries himself with a self-conscious swagger. … The salute is made by standing up stiffly, hands by the side and nose in the air. No hand lifting. The producer should bear in mind that the Boss is not intended to be a caricature of a Fascist or Nazi leader [emphasis added]. He is as much South American or Haytian or Gold Coast. He is something more ancient, more modern and more universal than any topical movements. There is a big flag with a rosette behind him.
But interesting it is to note that in the film, Rudolf’s uniform, vaguely reminiscent of a German tunic, features the collar tabs of a German general, and shoulder boards of a German junior officer.
A case can be made that these accouterments are the province of the nominally apolitical German army, so was this a test of Wells’s eye for detail played by the costumers, a happy accident, or a purposeful symbolic stab at the rising threat emerging from the heart of Europe? It is this that I will attempt to expand upon for an upcoming H.G. Wells Society publication.
Stills from Things to Come courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
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