Things to Come

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Things to Come
UK poster for the premiere run of the film
Directed by William Cameron Menzies
Produced by Alexander Korda
Written by H. G. Wells
Based on The Shape of Things to Come
1933 novel
by H. G. Wells
Starring Raymond Massey
Ralph Richardson
Cedric Hardwicke
Pearl Argyle
Margaretta Scott
Music by Arthur Bliss
Cinematography Georges Périnal
Edited by Charles Crichton
Francis D. Lyon
Distributed by United Artists
Release date
  • 20 February 1936 (1936-02-20)
Running time
108m 41s (see below)
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget £260,000[1]

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. The film stars Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke, Pearl Argyle, and Margaretta Scott.

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.[2] 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; speculating on the future had been a stock-in-trade for Wells ever since The Time Machine (1895).[citation needed] The cultural historian Christopher Frayling called Things to Come "a landmark in cinematic design".[3]


In the British city of "Everytown", 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 his other friend, the over-optimistic Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman), believes it will not come to pass, but 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.

Cabal, now piloting a biplane, shoots down a one-man enemy bomber. He lands and pulls his badly injured enemy (John Clements) from the wreckage. As they dwell on the madness of war, they have to put on their gas masks, as poison gas drifts in their direction. When a little girl runs towards them, the wounded man insists she take his mask, saying he is done for anyway. Cabal takes the girl to his aeroplane, pausing to leave the doomed man a revolver. The man dwells on the irony that he may have gassed the child's family and yet he has saved her. A gun shot is then 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. The world is in ruins and there is little technology left, apart from the firearms used to wage war. In 1966 a biological weapon called the "wandering sickness" is used by the unnamed enemy 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 central government.

By 1970 a local warlord called Rudolf, but known as the "Boss" or "Chief" (Ralph Richardson) has risen to power in southern England and eradicated the sickness by killing the infected. He dreams of conquering the "hill people" to obtain coal and shale to render into oil so his biplanes can fly again.

On May Day 1970, a sleek, futuristic aeroplane lands outside of what remains of Everytown. The sole pilot, John Cabal, emerges and proclaims that the last surviving band of "engineers and mechanics" have formed a civilisation of airmen called "Wings Over the World". They are based in Basra, Iraq and have renounced war and outlawed independent nations. The Boss takes the pilot prisoner and forces him to work for Gordon, a mechanic struggling to keep the Boss's remaining aeroplanes flying. Together, they manage to repair one of them. When Gordon takes it up for a test flight, he leaves to alert Cabal's friends.

Gigantic flying wing aircraft arrive over Everytown and saturate its ruins and population with sleeping gas globes. The Boss orders his biplanes to attack, but they prove to be ineffective. The people awaken shortly thereafter to find themselves under the control of the airmen of Wings Over the World and the Boss dead from a fatal reaction to the sleeping gas. Cabal observes, "Dead, and his old world dead with him ... and with a new world beginning".

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.

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 to 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 nothingness? Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be? ..."


Cast notes
  • 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.[4]
  • 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.[5]


Things to Come sets out a future history from 1940 to 2036. In the screenplay, or "treatment"[6] that Wells published in 1935, before the film was released, the story ends in the year "A.D. 2054".[7]

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.[8] 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).[9] 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).[10]

Wells originally wanted the music to be recorded in advance, and have the film constructed around the music, but this was considered too radical and so the score, by Arthur Bliss, was fitted to the film afterwards in a more conventional way.[disputed ] 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.[11]

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.[8]

Historical parallels[edit]

The film, written throughout 1934, is notable for predicting World War II, being only 16 months off by having it start on Christmas 1940, rather than 1 September 1939. Its graphic depiction of strategic bombing in the scenes in which Everytown is flattened by air attack and society subsequently collapses into barbarism after years of continuous warfare, echo pre-war concerns about the threat of "the bomber will always get through". Wells was an air power prophet, having described aerial warfare in Anticipations (1901) and The War in the Air (1908).

The use of gas bombs is very much part of the film, from the poison gas used early in the war to the sleeping "gas of peace" used by the airmen of Wings Over the World. In real life, in the build-up to the Second World War, there was much concern that the Germans would use poison gas, which was used by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom during the Great War. Civilians were required to carry gas masks and were trained in their use. When war did break out, however, the Germans did not use gas for military purposes.

Everytown's aerial raiders are fired upon by the "guns of the battleship Dinosaur". The use of the ship name "Dinosaur" is a metaphor. The aviation-minded Wells perceived the power of the battleship as having been rendered obsolete by air power.

Wings Over the World is based in Basra, in southern Iraq, from where it begins a new civilisation.

The single world government having engineers, scientists and inventors as the rulers mimics the ideology of the concept of technocracy, where those of the greatest skill and intellect in various vocations would be the leaders.


Things to Come was voted the ninth best British film of 1936.[12]

It was the 16th most popular film at the British box office in 1935-36.[13]

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".[14]

During early development of what would become 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke had Stanley Kubrick watch Things to Come as an example of a grounded science fiction film; Kubrick, however, disliked it.[15] 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.[16]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Release history and surviving versions[edit]

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.[18] By the time of the 21 February 1936 UK premiere and initial release, this had been reduced to 108m 41s,[19] 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,[19] and a 76m 07s print was resubmitted for classification by the BBFC and was passed – after further cuts – at 72m 13s for reissue 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.[20]

Thanks to numerous so-called "public domain" copies, for many years the principal surviving version of the film has been the 92m 44s US print. From at least the late 1970s until 2007, this was also the only version officially available from the rights holders in the UK. In the US, although the 92m 44s version is most prevalent, a version is also in circulation that includes the four pieces of footage that were in the 96m 31s print, but not the 92m 44s version, although due to cuts elsewhere, it actually runs shorter than the latter.

Home video[edit]

Grey market, low-quality "public domain" copies of the 92m 44s version have often been screened on television and are prevalent on home video internationally. In countries using 25fps PAL or SECAM video systems, this version runs to 89m 00s.

In 2006, Legend Films digitally restored and colorised a slightly cut version of a poor quality 92m 44s print, under the supervision of Ray Harryhausen, who had no prior connection with the film. It was released on DVD in the US in early 2007, followed by a Blu-ray in 2011. Good quality, authorised DVDs of the 92m 44s print have been released in the US (Image Entertainment, 2001) and the UK (Granada Ventures, 2006).

In May 2007, Network DVD in the UK released a digitally restored copy of the 96m 31s cut (92m 38s PAL), the longest remaining version 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.[21] In 2011 Network released an updated and expanded version of this edition in HD on Blu-ray.[22] The Criterion Collection released a new version of the 96m 31s print on DVD and Blu-ray in North America in June 2013. They include unused Moholy-Nagy footage as an extra.[23]

Copyright status[edit]

Although the film lapsed into the public domain in the US in 1964,[24] 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.[25]

The film came back into copyright in the US in 1996 under the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA),[26] 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Film World". The West Australian. Perth. 20 March 1936. p. 3. Retrieved 5 August 2012. 
  2. ^ H. G. Wells, Things to Come – A Film Story (London: Cresset, 1935), p. 9.
  3. ^ Frayling, Christopher (1995). Things to Come. British Film Institute. p. 56. ISBN 0-85170-480-8. 
  4. ^ Cooper, Nick. "Things to Come Viewing Notes", Network Blu-Ray, 2012, page 15
  5. ^ Terry-Thomas on IMDb
  6. ^ H. G. Wells, Things to Come – A Film Story (London: Cresset, 1935), p. 11.
  7. ^ H. G. Wells, Things to Come: A Film (London: Cresset, 1935), pp. 91–93; Wells mentions the date four times on these pages, but in the "Introductory Remarks", he gives the date as "A.D. 2055" (p. xi)
  8. ^ a b Cooper, Nick. "Things to Come Viewing Notes", Network Blu-Ray, 2012, page 14
  9. ^ Cooper, Nick. "Things to Come Viewing Notes", Network Blu-Ray, 2012, page 18
  10. ^ Cooper, Nick. "Things to Come Viewing Notes", Network Blu-Ray, 2012, page 17
  11. ^ Frayling, Christopher (1995). Things to Come. British Film Institute. pp. 72–73. ISBN 0-85170-480-8. 
  12. ^ "Best Film Performance Last Year". The Examiner. Launceston, Tas. 9 July 1937. p. 8 Edition: Late News Edition and Daily. Retrieved 4 March 2013. 
  13. ^ "The Film Business in the US and Britain during the 1930s" by John Sedgwick and Michael Pokorny, The Economic History ReviewNew Series, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Feb., 2005), pp.79-112
  14. ^ Wells, H.G.. Gary Westfahl's Bio-Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Film. Retrieved 21 January 2014.
  15. ^ Arthur C. Clarke, The Lost Worlds of 2001 (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1972), pg. 35.
  16. ^ Pohl, Frederik (July 1968). "The Week That Was". Editorial. Galaxy Science Fiction. p. 4. 
  17. ^ "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-06. 
  18. ^ Things to Come Archived 27 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine. at BBFC
  19. ^ a b Low, Rachel (1985). The History of the British Film 1929–1939. London: George Allen & Unwin. ISBN 0047910429. 
  20. ^ Cooper, Nick. "Things to Come Viewing Notes", Network Blu-Ray, 2012, pages 24–26
  21. ^ Things to Come Special Edition DVD
  22. ^ Things to Come Blu-ray
  23. ^ The Criterion Collection: Things to Come
  24. ^ see Copyright Act of 1909
  25. ^ Cooper, Nick. "Things to Come Viewing Notes", Network Blu-Ray, 2012, page 20
  26. ^ Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the US

External links[edit]