Shape of Things to Come (1936)
There are certain films that remain favorites throughout your life. As you grow up how you appreciate the film will certainly change but your love for it only grows with time. For me one such film is ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ made seventy years ago in 1936. As a child I enjoyed the scenes of huge air craft and rocket ships. As a young man I looked to the prophetic message of war, peace and social advancement that it contained. Now, I can appreciate not only for those reason but also as a film that was way ahead of its time; advancing the art of cinematography. In many senses of the word this is the definition of a classic; a film that not only endures time but a single person’s life. Sure something like Citizen Kane is perhaps the best film made but it doesn’t follow a person throughout their lives as ‘Shape’ can. If you are a younger viewer, new to seeing this film it may seem hopelessly dated even corny. Watch it several times and let yourself get into how much of what we enjoy today in special effects had their modest beginnings here. The director, William Cameron Menzies was an influence in the careers of such modern film marvels today as Steven Spielberg. The screenplay was written by one of the greats not only in science fiction but literature, H.G. Wells. Based on his novel the story transcends sci-fi and is a work of philosophy. Such ideas as global peace replacing local politics and war was unheard of back in the early thirties. This film also predicts such things we take for granted as television, jet planes and the involvement of technology in everyday lives.
Written after the devastation of World War I and before World War II was a reality this film opens in the English town of 'Everytown', obviously a stand in for London. On Christmas Eve as John Cabal (Raymond Massey) is with his family singing when news arrives on the radio that war has broken out. The bombing of cities on both sides reduces civilization to a mere glimmer of what it had been. By 1970 Everytown is reduced to little more than a hamlet controlled by a local warlord calling himself the Chief (Ralph Richardson). He maintains his meager population in a state of war against the ‘Hill People’. The Chief rose to power by dealing with an overwhelming aliment known as the Wandering Sickness. His method of control was simple and straightforward, shoot to kill anyone showing even the slightest symptoms. Now the Chief wants to have some old planes repaired and needs to take over a coal mine in order to rid his town of the menace of the Hill People. The repairs are not going well; few know how to fly or maintain the planes and there are just not enough spare parts to go around. The Chief sees some hope when a much more advanced aircraft lands near the town. Out of comes a tall, lanky man, John Cabal. He announces to the Chief that he is part of an organization of scientists called ‘Wings Over the World’. Based in a part of the mid-east that was largely unaffected by the recent protracted war they are seeking to rebuild society and have banned local nation states and war. Cabal is not disturbed in the slightest when the Chief orders him to be taken as a prisoner. The Chief’s head mechanic, Richard Gordon (Derrick De Marney) steals a plan and makes his way to the headquarters of ‘Wings over the World’. Soon, the skies of Everytown are filled with (then) futuristic aircraft. The few bi-planes that are working are pressed into service but are shot down in short order. The bombers drop the Gas of Peace, a powerful sleeping gas to subdue the population. The Chief dies of a heart attack bringing in the end of the age of local warlords. Upon hearing of the Chief’s death Cabal states" Yes, dead, and his world with him - and so the New World begins!"
In a classic montage sequence the audience watches as the airmen of ‘Wings over the World’ take one zone after another bring technology and peace to the world. By the year 2036 mankind is living in underground cities that are a marvel of technology. All is peaceful until a controversy arises over a newly created technology. The space gun has been invented that will be able to send people to the moon. A backlash group openly opposes this stating it is unnatural. An artist, Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) is the leader of the anti-technology group. He is gaining popular support much to the chagrin of Oswald Cabal, great grandson of pilot John Cabal. Theotocopulos starts a riot and the throng head to destroy the space gun. Cabal gets on television and employs them to stop, that for man to survive he must grow and expand his knowledge. They manage to launch the space craft with Cabal’s own daughter on board.
There is so much that still holds together with this film even after seventy years. Sure, living in the world we do a large screen television is nothing special. We have them in our homes and the largest are common place in public stadiums. Back in 1936 this was groundbreaking. Strategic bombings are also common place now but then it was a horrible thought that unfortunately became a prediction soon to be realized. Some of the major themes first shown in this film are still around. Such things as the collapse of the global economy are a real fear to this day. There is also the concept of peace through technology and persists to modern times. With will come people who oppose such advances with a religious and moral opposition to the changes technology brings. From a cinematic stand point this film is grand, full of majesty. From the use of music to devices like the montage this film was decades before its time. The special effects are nothing by today’s CGI standards but this was the foundation to what we have now.
The cast may seem to over act but you have to remember that most came from the stage and silent films. Without the advancements of microphones actors had to project to the back rows of the theater and convey much of their emotions with their body language. This film has some of the greatest actors possible. Raymond Massey is a commanding presence on the screen. He has the air of authority that surrounds him. When his rich, baritone voice gives the closing monologue you just know you are watching greatness. Ralph Richardson is another acting giant. He brings a sinister slant the Chief that is a memorable performance. Finally, Cedric Hardwicke as the anti-technology leader is incredible to watch. He is so strong in his performance that he mesmerizes the audience.
This is a film that demands a place in your collection. The technical presentation may not be up to contemporary standards but after all how good do most of us look at seventy. The video shows some of minor signs of age with a few white specks appearing now and again. Over all the video of the Image version is much better than I have ever seen it but then again like many fans of the film I’m used to old tapes. Some of the previous releases have been colorized. I personally find this as offensive to the original as subjecting a film to the Pan & Scan process. People should come to appreciate the merits of a black and white film instead of having some technician make decisions that affect the presentation of the film. The audio is also much improved over the venerable VHS copies. To be finally recognized for its lasting impact on the cinematic arts by inclusion in the much lauded Criterion Collection is long over do. Not only respect the artistic integrity of the filmmaker’s vision but to the audience that deserves to experience the work crafted by that artisan. Now that Criterion has been releasing their inductees in high definition the effect is more stunning than you can imagine. You are seeing this landmark movie with a clarity that was impossible to achieve except in the mind of its creator. The use of shadowing, lighting and staging is masterfully done by this pioneering director. The story by one of the most visionary giants of science fiction, H.G. Wells might have been written before World War II but this story remains a testament to the understanding of the human condition Wells had. Not only did he depict our base inclination for conflict and war but also the redemptive nature of our need to explore and understand nature. Naturally this edition is full of extras that will broaden your understanding of the film and the incredible people behind it.
"For Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and ways, and then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.... If we're no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. Is it this? Or...all the universe?.... Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?" – Oswald Cabal