I can’t deny that there may be a slight “guilty pleasures” element in my choice of Things to Come as part of this series. William Cameron Menzies (1896–1957), however, was a towering figure in the history of film, if not as a director, then as an art director. I would argue that he crossed the line into auteurism, even while working for major directors like Walsh, Dwan, Lubitsch, Borzage, Griffith, Hawks, and Hitchcock. With his Douglas Fairbanks epics (The Thief of Bagdad, The Iron Mask), Menzies was responsible for some of the silent cinema’s most enduring imagery. His work on Gone with the Wind is legendary, and Alfred Hitchcock delighted in telling the tale of how he and Menzies together devised the ingenious plane crash at sea in Foreign Correspondent. As a director, Menzies’s contributions were slight—except for Things to Come.
The movies of the early- to mid-1930s offered much to the furtive devotees of science fiction. On Saturday afternoons, they could see Gene Autry riding the range in The Phantom Empire, staring in wonder as he disappeared into the bowels of the Earth, where a futuristic civilization flourished (perhaps the forerunner of Dick Cheney’s “undisclosed location.”) 1936 brought the first of Buster Crabbe’s three Flash Gordon serials, featuring Emperor Ming the Merciless of the planet Mongo, Hollywood’s dark flip side to the more earthbound and merciful Charlie Chan, he of the fortune cookie bon mots. Herbert George (H. G.) Wells (1866–1946) had mostly left the future far behind by then, but his 1890’s novels The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invisible Man were now made into successful films. (The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds would of course be filmed several times in later years.) Wells was a very respected prognosticator by this time, and his book, on which the Menzies film is based, was treated with due seriousness by an anxious between-the-wars public.
Wells’s book and screenplay (the latter written in collaboration with erstwhile Ernst Lubitsch and Josef von Sternberg collaborator Lajos Biro) provided Menzies with an unprecedented opportunity to let his imagination soar. Although Vincent Korda (brother of producer Alexander) was the nominal art director, it is unlikely that Menzies’s wasn’t the prevailing vision. Although the film can be criticized for keeping a certain distance from its characters, perhaps reflecting Menzies inexperience with actors and his preoccupation with the space surrounding them, Ralph Richardson and Raymond Massey are extremely memorable. (Richardson’s “The Boss,” in particular, reflects the crudity of Benito Mussolini and anticipates Mel Gibson’s Mad Max. Richardson was much underrated as a screen actor. His Korda films, especially The Four Feathers, are excellent, and his classic roles in The Heiress, The Fallen Idol, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, among others, deserve far greater attention than they have gotten).
Wells and Menzies created a credible contemporary world (with the war already looming in 1936) before they destroyed it. That the destruction of civilization depicted in the film did not fully materialize in post–World War II reality can mostly be attributed to the Nazi laxity in producing heavy water. The Boss’s world has echoes of Cecil B. DeMille’s primitive extravaganza. The leap into the space age, with the hindsight of today, seems quite abrupt. Wells was still relying on a space gun for interplanetary travel, as had Jules Verne and Georges Méliès. This, in spite of Robert Goddard’s rocket experiments and Fritz Lang’s 1929 Die Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon), with its Herman Oberth and Willy Ley–designed rocket. Only a few more years after the film was made, it was time for Werner von Braun to “aim at the stars”—but all too frequently hit London. In any case, Menzies’s vision of the future features spectacular sets, tempered with throwback tunics reminiscent of the Roman Empire. This seems to have anticipated Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run (1976), not to mention George Lucas’s Star Wars. On the whole, Menzies’s “world of tomorrow” seems a lot less silly than Lang’s much-celebrated Metropolis, made a decade earlier. Why Menzies directed so few films over the next twenty years remains a bit of an enigma. For an answer, perhaps we can look forward to James Curtis’s definitive biography, which is due in a few years.