Sunday, September 29, 2019

July: We, The Moon, and Things to Come-Part One

Here it is the end of September and I'm still on topics from July. This is the last of this series, though. Even so, I'm going to go farther back into the early part of this year and try to catch up on some things that I have left hanging, including a return to the Thompson-Pendragon controversy, plus I'll look at a couple of Weird Tales-related books that I read this past winter and spring.

On July 20, 2019, we celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the first moon landing. I had already been thinking about moon-related topics--actually just one moon-related topic, the subject of this essay and its sequel. The anniversary only brought these thoughts to the fore. I was working on my science-fiction story that weekend, too, and there is a silver moon in the green sky of Carillon, my fictional, faraway planet. That weekend was also the birthday of a girl I knew a long time ago, and she was on my mind as well.

Some friends and I get together once every month or two for a movie night, usually a science-fiction movie night. In March--on the evening of the new moon, March 6, to be exact--we watched Things to Come, from 1936. It was the first time I had seen this movie since I was a teenager or young adult. I have to say, I didn't remember it very well at all, and I had almost forgotten the core of the movie in which Ralph Richardson gives a bravura performance as a kind of strongman leader in a post-apocalyptic world. He is tough where other men are weak, decisive and brave where they are afraid. "I adore him," says his consort, played by a very attractive Margaretta Scott. There might be a lesson in her words and the feelings they express for every man of today.

There are three parts to Things to Come, and they cover a lot of science-fictional ground. First is a future-war. Moviegoers of the 1930s could hardly have avoided thinking about some true things to come when they saw the cinematic Things to Come: just three years after it was released--and eighty years ago this month--the Nazis invaded Poland and thereby plunged the world into war. There are some effective scenes in the first third of the movie, perhaps none more so than the one in which some partygoers step out into the evening to witness the start of the air campaign against their country. In a scene that's as true-to-life as any, they can hardly believe what is before them--that war has come into their lives.

The middle part of the movie depicts the post-apocalyptic world of 1966 and after. As I said, Ralph Richardson plays the Boss, whom I think might have been intended to remind people of Benito Mussolini. Played by another, less skilled actor, this role might have been simple and stereotyped, even comical. Instead we have something a little more nuanced and complex. We're supposed to root against the Boss and in favor of the man who comes along to spoil his fun, played by Raymond Massey. Instead, the Boss has our sympathies--or he at least has mine, or at least a little of mine. I'll get to that in a while.

My friend Hlafbrot made what I think is a really important observation: in this post-apocalyptic world, there are those who suffer from "the wandering sickness." Hlafbrot pointed out that these poor people might have been the first zombies in cinema--not the helpless, solitary zombies of Haiti as in the movies and stories of the 1930s and '40s but zombies as we think of them today, that is, as victims of a contagion that turns them into hordes turned loose in the world, very often in a post-apocalyptic setting. There are some very brief scenes in Things to Come that could easily appear today in The Walking DeadThe Boss, by the way, demonstrates his strength, toughness, and decisiveness by shooting the zombies down.

The last part of Things to Come is a Utopia where everything is clean and modern, everybody is perfect and dresses in gauzy curtain-like garments, and the world, guided by science and reason, has progressed into a great and glorious future. In other words, it's a Dystopia. But in H.G. Wells' extraordinarily breathtaking naïveté (he wrote the screenplay), this is the world we're supposed to want to come about: we're supposed to be in favor of Raymond Massey's character, called Cabal, and his very progressive ideas--he's a man of science and reason after all--and we're supposed to be against the irrationality and reactionary conservatism of the artist played by Cedric Hardwicke, who wants to say, if not "Stop," then at least "Go slowly."

And this is where I had my own insight, for I realized by the end of the movie that Cabal is the real villain of Things to Come, and the whole thing is an exercise in the same kind of utopianism, internationalism, scientism, and collectivism that resulted in the deaths of countless millions of people during the century just past. In other words, here was a movie warning against the true-to-life war that was about to be waged by socialists--national socialists and fascists to be sure, but socialists nonetheless--and offering as a favored alternative just another brand of socialism. I ask myself, how could anyone have been so naïve, so ignorant of history and human nature? But then we have nearly ninety years of history that were unavailable for Wells' review.

In watching the end of Things to Come, I also realized that Wells had been unknowingly outflanked a decade before by a far more clear-seeing author who had had personal experience with the crimes and horrors of socialism and collectivism. In effect, Wells' movie had been rendered obsolete even before it was made.

To be continued . . .

Directed by William Cameron Menzies and with art, design, and special effects by a large crew headed by Victor Korda and others, Things to Come is visually extraordinary. It's still hard for me to believe that this film was made in the 1930s. How did the moviemakers ever figure out how to show these great vistas of buildings and spacecraft, ramps and walkways, with apparently real people walking and rushing here and there among them and over their surfaces? Anyway, as you can see by the movie poster above, Things to Come has a classic science-fiction look that must have influenced artists and writers for years and decades after its release. But that may have been a problem. If it was or is still, the problem was diagnosed nearly four decades ago by William Gibson in his story "The Gernsback Continuum" (1981), which ought to be on your reading list if it isn't already. Again, Wells was outflanked, this time by an author of a later time.

By the way, Things to Come ends in the year 2036, a century after its release and only seventeen short years from now. We should be happy that we haven't yet had an apocalypse as it foresaw, but we should also be happy that the socialist/progressive/collectivist/internationalist Dystopia envisioned--and longed for--by H.G. Wells and others hasn't befallen us . . . yet.

(Just wait until the fake Indian and Crazy Bernie get ahold of us. Then the wailing will begin.)

Copyright 2019 Terence E. Hanley

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