The shape of things that ought to have gone

I couldn’t resist watching, when YouTube’s algorithms offered it, the full print of Alexander Korda’s 1936 adaptation of H. G. Wells’s 1933 novel, The Shape of Things to Come. That’s because I watched it on our 14in TV back in the late 1950s, when the 1940 world war Wells accurately predicted, as Hitler came to power, was in the film still only half over. At the age of seven or so I was, naturally, impressed with the sci-fi sets and costumes – which were certainly not bad for the 1930s.

In retrospect it’s easy to see the film (which, note, varies to some extent from Wells’s original) in its social-historical setting. One commentator has suggested that the vision of perpetual progress seen in the nineteenth century began to be dampened by the First World War, eventually dying by the turn of the twenty-first century. But in the interim, he suggests, the hope was kept somewhat alive by the idea that an enlightened “civilised” elite could impose a scientific world order based on social and technological progress. This is classically seen in the US Technocracy Movement, but Wells and, indeed, many other intellectuals, had been espousing similar utopian ideas for decades.

So the film, like the novel, begins with the highly prophetic onset of air-raids (albeit it using poison gas rather than bombs) by an unnamed foreign power whose pilots have German accents(!). Indeed, Wells predicted Germany kicking off a war by invading Poland, but that detail would surely have been unacceptable for a 1936 feature film.

The war drags on until 1970, destroying civilisation in the process. In 1966 an unprecedented pandemic supervenes to kill half the world’s population. But nothing daunted, local warlords capture coal mines so that a surviving chemist can be cajoled to synthesise fuel to power the few remaining biplanes to “finish the war off in victory.” It seems that warlords back then had no reverse gear from escalation of dangerous conflicts. The warlord’s assertion that his little domain is a “free sovereign state” demonstrates that nation states were seen by Wells as the seed-bed for ignorance, despotism and war.

Into this post-apocalyptic scene there suddenly drops Raymond Massey in a hi-tech plane and futuristic garb. He was once a citizen of the same town, and a pilot at the start of the war. He announces that fellow-pilots (they are scientific and selfless, you see) have established a new civilisation at Basra, of all places, and intend to impose their enlightened technocratic world order to restore civilisation, stop war, and ensure progress forever by “Wings over the World” (not to be confused with the Paul McCartney tour of the same name).

Interestingly, when the warlord boasts that he too has a private fleet of aircraft, Massey says, “We don’t approve of private aircraft.” Clearly, then, the technocracy is socialist, or at least centralist.

When Massey is taken as a hostage, a local pilot escapes for help to Basra, whose massive military industrial complex (the origin and funding of which we never learn) is quickly mobilised in a fleet of huge bombers to rescue Massey. The government there decides it’s a good opportunity to try out their new “gas of peace” on real people. It seems that in the benighted 1930s, clinical safety trials weren’t considered necessary in Utopia.

So “Everytown” (standing, I guess, for all the uncivilised mini-states run by warlords, much like Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria) is gas-of-peaced into submission, which presumably also nudges them into good citizenship. Massey is elected chief of the new world order, and after the minor task of mopping up brigands around the world (the modern term is “terrorists” or, in some cases, “insurrectionists”), suggests they must harvest all the world’s resources in the service of perpetual Progress. So next we see lengthy scenes of huge sciency-looking machines doing largely unidentifiable tasks behind tiny masked workers, though one can identify some quarrying and construction work amidst the Unfathomable Wonders.

My first impression of these scenes was how unacceptable all this environmental degradation is to modern eyes, but then I realised I was probably not watching the equivalent of destructive fracking, but the equivalent of laudable cobalt quarrying and lithium strip mining in far away places, where there is no environment.

Anyway, fast-forward to 2033 and the world has been built back. Everybody now lives in underground cities (a panoramic shot shows unspoiled, and apparently un-farmed, parklands beyond), and marvels at the bad old days when people built upwards and had windows for natural sunlight, lacking the benefits of artificial sunlight and building down. We learn that respiratory viruses have been abolished, presumably through mass-vaccination. And everyone seems to be wearing togas, which don’t seem to be suitable wear for those maintaining the technological infrastructure. We don’t see them.

In this egalitarian Utopia, it seems that Raymond Massey’s great-grandson just happens to be running the government, and his daughter just happens to be chosen to crew the new space-gun imminently planned to fly round the Moon. Yes, in the new sustainable and just world order, funding interplanetary travel still seems to be a way to sort out the remaining problems of humanity – I guess that seemed logical, somehow, in 1936. We are to learn in Massey’s final speech that trans-humanism, and even deity, is the final goal:

“For man, no rest, he must go on. First this little planet and its’ winds and ways, and then all of the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets above and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he conquers all the depths of space and all of time still he will not be finished.

“All the universe or nothing! Which shall it be?”

But there is trouble in paradise, as a Luddite rabble-rouser opposes all this progress, apparently for no other reason than because it is progress, and because, like the warlords of old, he can arouse the rabble. As a result a huge crowd of rabble – presumably the taxpayers who funded the project – swarm around the space gun as zero hour approaches. Massey warns them that the concussion of the launch will kill them all, but the launch goes ahead anyway. Ignoring the shattered bodies below, Massey makes his final soliloquy, quoted above, and the final credits roll.

Now, in the light of the actual outcome of the Second World War, Wells’s (and Korda’s) utopian ideology seems a little too much like Hitler’s technological war machine for comfort. It was the high technology atomic bomb, not the gas of peace, that ended the war. And rather than sovereign states threatening the new world order, it was the multi-national leagues, the Soviet Union and NATO, that kept an uneasy peace for the rest of the century only by threatening to annihilate the world if the other side misbehaved. Indeed it was only the ordinary people’s influence in nation-states that led to the limitation of universal, corrupt power, from the anti-soviet revolts in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, to Brexit.

And so it seems that, as my source concluded, the thinking that saw the world of Things to Come as both possible and desirable is an anachronism from a transitional decade, after we moved beyond the “sky’s the limit” hopes of the Victorians and become fully cognisant of the realities of our divided and imperfect world. We cannot embrace such an outdated and rosy view of future reality now.

Another commentator on the work expressed this well in an essay in 2015. He seems to sum up the second decade of the millennium well as he concludes:

…whereas that very feudalism and its competition makes achieving a unified voice in addressing urgent global problems even more difficult, and where despite our current perceptions, war between the armed groups that represent states the gravest existential threat to humanity, we, unlike Wells, know that no one group of us has all the answers, and that it is not only inhumane but impossible to win human unity out of the barrel of a ray gun.

Well, that was 2015. But just a few years later, into this post-apocalyptic scene there suddenly dropped another visionary in futuristic garb. He announced that he and his fellows, selfless and scientific to a man, have established a new civilisation at Davos, of all places.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to The shape of things that ought to have gone

  1. shopwindows says:

    “They promised us flying cars and all we got was 140 characters”. Not so much technological progress as messing about with information, control structures and attitudes?

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