Things to Come versus Metropolis
The Science Fiction classics Things to Come and Metropolis are movies that depict cities in the 21st century. They have held up well over the years. Arguably the flaws in these films enhance their historic significance. These movies show a fickle populace that can easily be turned into a mob. One person’s words can move the populace to action. H.G. Wells hated Metropolis so much he told everyone connected with the movie Things to Come to do the opposite of what was done in Metropolis.[i] These films show two different views of the future, which is now the present. This article contains spoilers for both these movies.
[i] United States Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0028358/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv).
Things to Come
H.G. Wells wrote the screenplay to Things to Come (1936). It is a science fiction movie set in the British town, Everytown. The movie’s timeline goes from 1940 to 2036. The movie begins on Christmas 1940. Everytown is celebrating Christmas but signs of a possible war are interspersed with the Christmas songs and images. The children play with toy soldiers and weapons. During the celebration John Cabal (Raymond Massey) says, “If we don’t end war, war will end us.” There is a radio report of a bombing raid and a mention the battleship Dinosaur shot at and missed the bombers. This attack caused heavy damage to the British ships. The unnamed enemy bombs Everytown. Time stamps show the war raging on for years. Fleets of warplanes fill the skies. Troops and tanks fight. Futuristic looking tanks ride into battle. Bombing reduces Everytown to rubble. A newspaper dated September 21, 1966 claims the end of the war is near. It claims the enemy with its few remaining planes was spreading a disease called the Wandering Sickness. Those stricken with the disease wander aimlessly. A man (Ralph Richardson) forms a militia and controls the sickness in Everytown by shooting dead any of the wanderers. He is subsequently made The Boss. On May 1, 1970 a town crier declares the Wandering Sickness plague over. The Boss and his Everytown militia are fighting against the hill people. The master engineer, Richard Gordon (Derrick De Marney), declares flying over. Then John Cabal flies in with his airplane. He represents an organization called “Wings over the World”. The organization is made up of engineers and airmen. “Wings over the World” doesn’t tolerate sovereign states. The Boss and John Cabal don’t recognize each other’s claim to authority. The other members of “Wings over the World” drop an incapacitating gas they call “the Gas of Peace” on Everytown. Then they parachute into Everytown. The Boss dies from the gassing and Everytown surrenders to “Wings over the World”. In 2036 Everytown is now an advanced underground city. Oswald Cabal (Raymond Massey) is the head of the science committee. They are on the eve of a moon shot. The plan is to have two people shot out of a giant cannon which will orbit the moon. Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke), a master craftsman, is against the mission. He believes scientific progress should stop and people shouldn’t be sent on dangerous missions. Oswald Cabal gave the chances of the crew surviving the mission as 50-50. Theotocopulos went on television and spoke out against the mission. This caused the populous to march on the launch site. The race was to shoot off the space gun before the mob destroyed it. The movie ends after the space gun shoots the capsule into space.
The movie’s premise of a global conflict in 1940 became a harsh reality. The massive bombing raids and bombed out cities also became a shocking reality. The Wandering Sickness parallels the influenza outbreak that killed about 50 million people at the end of World War I.[i] The newspaper that announced the Wandering Sickness outbreak cost £4 which paralleled Germany’s post World War I hyperinflation. The newspaper claimed the enemy caused the Wandering Sickness. This could either be the movie’s prediction of biological weapons or propaganda blaming the enemy for a crisis. The film showed futuristic looking, for 1936, tanks. A dogfight set early in the war pits a biplane against a fixed landing gear monoplane. The film opened on February 20, 1936[ii]. The first Supermarine Spitfire flew on March 5, 1936[iii] and was in RAF service when World War II began. This illustrates one of the difficulties of making a film with a future setting. It’s possible the technology illustrated will look antiquated when the year in the movie setting actually comes. The “Wings over the World” transports had a twin fuselage, flying wing design. There was interest in twin fuselage aircraft with twin cockpits or cabins and flying wing aircraft during and after World War II but such aircraft can be considered aviation oddities. The “Wings over the World” transports were lumbering and low flying aircraft. They would have been easy targets for 1940 vintage front line fighters. The movie didn’t depict nuclear weapons, jet or rocket propulsion. All three were in theory or development in 1936 and were used in World War II. The large flat screen televisions depicted in the movie is a great example of life imitating art. Everytown 2036 bears a striking resemblance to large 21st century shopping malls. There are no cars or other private conveyances visible in Everytown 2036. In Everytown 2036 there are no weapons and “Wings over the World” prohibits private aircraft. It is possible private vehicles are also outlawed.[iv]
Things to Come depicts John Cabal as the voice of wisdom and The Boss as the voice of stupidity. The Boss and John Cabal are both arrogant. The Boss isn’t interested in what John Cabal has to say. John Cabal arrived in Everytown with preconceived notions. John’s grandson, Oswald, is the president of the ruling counsel. Oswald’s daughter, Catherine (Pearl Argyle), is one of two people sent on the moon shot. If she survives the mission this would seem to put her in a good position to someday become the president of the counsel. This would seem to give the appearance of nepotism to the populace. When Theotocopulos makes his appearance on television[v] Oswald laments his words are going to the whole world. He muses, “I might suppress it but no, they’ll have to hear him and make what they can of it.” It sounds democratic but when there is a popular uprising against the space gun Oswald proceeds with the moon shot. It’s an example of free speech where the populous can say whatever they want but the powers that be will ignore them. The movie seems to equate intelligence with wisdom and goodness.
Things to Come shows a good 1930s view of how the 21st century might look. The movie arguably launched the post apocalyptic genre. The Walking Sickness seems a precursor to the zombie virus movies.
[i] Flu.gov (http://www.flu.gov/pandemic/history/).
[ii] U.S. Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0028358/releaseinfo?ref_=tt_dt_dt).
[iii] Vintage Aircraft Recognition Guide, by Tony Holmes © Harper Collins Publishers 2005.
[iv] In his scathing review of Metropolis H.G. Wells faults the movie for not having futuristic looking cars (http://erkelzaar.tsudao.com/reviews/H.G.Wells_on_Metropolis%201927.htm).
[v] In the movie it is called radio.
Fritz Lang directed Metropolis and his wife, Thea von Harbou, wrote the screenplay. It is a German Science Fiction movie set in a city 100 years in the future. In this city workers live and work underground. They work 10 hour shifts and perform repetitive tasks. High above the city is the “Club of the Sons” where the sons of the elite live a life of leisure. Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is the son of the city’s master Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). Maria (Brigitte Helm) takes some of the workers’ children to “The Club of the Sons”. After she is made to leave Freder sets out to find her. He goes to the Heart Machine. There he sees workers toiling away. Worker exhaustion causes an accident and many workers are injured. Freder sees a vision of the machine as a monster that feeds on men. Freder goes to his father in “The New Tower of Babel”. There Jon Fredersen paces in his office as his subordinates busily crunch numbers. A distraught Freder rushes in and tells his father about the accident. Joh Fredersen coldly asks Josaphat (Theodor Loos), “Why am I learning about the accident from my son?” He sends Josaphat to get the details. Grot (Heinrich George) the Heart Machine foreman walks into the office and gives Joh Fredersen maps he found on two injured workers. Since Joh Fredersen learns about the maps from Gort instead of Josaphat he dismisses Josaphat. That means Josaphat is ruined. He will become one of the laborers. Freder stops Josaphat from killing himself. He lets Josaphat stay at his place. Joh Fredersen sends a man[i] (Fritz Rasp) to follow Freder. Freder sees an exhausted worker, Georgy – 11811 (Erwin Biswanger), and trades places with him. Freder finds a map in Georgy’s clothes and learns about a meeting after the shift ends. Joh Fredersen goes to C.A. Rotwag – the Inventor (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) for information. Rotwag, Joh, and Joh’s deceased wife Hel, were in a love triangle. Rotwag never forgave Joh. Rotwag shows him his invention, the Machine-Man. Rotwag takes Joh to a place where he can see the catacomb chamber indicated on the map. There Maria tells the Biblical tale of Babel. She proclaims “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart.” Joh orders Rotwag to make the Machine-Man in Maria’s image. Joh’s plan is to discredit Maria. Rotwag agrees but his plan is to destroy the city, Freder, and Joh. Freder believes he is the mediator. Rotwag kidnaps Maria and makes the Machine-Man in her image. The Machine-Man spreads jealousy among the elite and incites the workers to rebel. The workers and their wives storm up to the machine level and destroy the heart machine. This causes the worker’s living quarters to flood. Maria, Freder, and Josaphat rescue the children. The Machine-Man leads the elite in celebrating, “the world going to the devil.” The workers find Maria. She runs from the mob and through the elite revelers. The mob catches the Machine-Man and burns it at the stake. Rotwag chases and grabs Maria. Freder and Rotwag fight it out on top of a cathedral. The fight ends with Rotwag falling to his death. Everyone gathers at the church Gort and Joh know they have to get together but they can’t bring themselves to shake hands. Freder steps between them and grabs their hands. “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart.”
Germany in the 1930s and 40s proved Metropolis prophetic. Most Metropolis characters were guilty of causing the catastrophe. Freder and Rotwag wanted the Machine-Man to make the populace cause a disaster. The working class willingly followed the Machine-Man giving no thought to the consequences of their actions. Gort had the doors closed so the mob couldn’t get in. When Joh ordered him to open the doors Gort reluctantly opened the doors even though he knew what was likely to happen. Gort’s behavior is similar to many subjects in the Milgram experiment.[ii] When they realized the consequences of their actions they turned on the person who they eagerly followed.
Fritz Lang visited New York City in 1924 and that inspired his vision of the city in Metropolis. If the power to the pumps in New York City fails 13 million gallons of water a day will flow into its subway tunnels.[iii] The Metropolis image of 21st century cities with numerous skyscrapers is a reality. H.G. Wells in his review of Metropolis stated; “The vertical city of the future we know now is, to put it mildly, highly improbable.” Wells also faulted Metropolis for depicting workers doing drudge work for slave or subsistence wages. The 21st century has shown there are sweat shops and people working long hours, often for low wages, are a reality.
Fritz Lang didn’t have an agenda when he directed Metropolis[iv]. This was probably to the movie’s advantage. The characters are well developed and their motivations are simple but not stereotypical. Joh Fredersen’s motivation was to control the workers. He was busily running the city as were his subordinates. Except for the sons of the rich everyone in Metropolis worked hard. Rotwag’s motivation was revenge because Hel married Joh. Except for the city and a television monitor Metropolis shows little in the way of futuristic technology. The real futuristic technology is the Machine-Man. The Machine-Man is an amazing character even by today’s movie standards. It is an obedient android. Its creator gives it general instructions and it leads two different groups of people to behave in two different ways. It mimics human emotions but doesn’t have them.
[i] The character is credited as “The Thin Man”.
[ii] Psychologist Stanley Milgram began his experiments in the United States in 1961. The experiments showed most people would follow the orders of a supposed authority even if they had reason to believe their actions were killing somebody.
[iii] Life After People: Heavy Metal, Season 1, Episode 4.
[iv] A Fritz Lang Interview, 1974 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=or0j1mY_rug).
Cliches Metropolis may have started
- Antagonists falling to their death.
- Someone being chased running into a crowd of revelers.
- An evil look alike.
-Someone of privilege living as one of the downtrodden.
Things to Come or Metropolis
© 2015 Robert Sacchi
Robert Sacchi (author) on September 24, 2020:
I wouldn't have titled it this way if I hadn't read the scathing review H.G. Wells wrote on Metropolis. One time when I watched "Things to Come" on TCM the host said H.G. Wells instructed the crew to do everything different from "Metropolis".
Dale Anderson from The High Seas on September 24, 2020:
What an impossible choice to make in comparing these two movies. I loved them both and always feel bad for someone when they tell me that they have not seen them nor have they heard of them.
Robert Sacchi (author) on November 12, 2017:
Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, they are both interesting movies and important from a history of science fiction movies perspective. Things to Come use to make the round during the Christmas Season. It's initial setting is Christmas 1940.
Science fiction movies set in the future have some hits and misses. These movies often are based partly on current trends so it's not surprising the writers will score some hits. In some cases inventors get inspired by what they see and make it happen.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 12, 2017:
I have not seen either movie so did not vote in your poll. They both sound interesting. So often what authors of science fiction foretell in their books comes to life in one form or another...at least some of it does. It is almost as though those authors are prescient as to what lies ahead.
Robert Sacchi (author) on June 20, 2015:
Also since Metropolis is a silent movie a modern audience needs to make some allowances.
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on June 19, 2015:
I haven't seen either movie so I can't comment on them but HG Wells books have made great movies in the past so I'd probably go with "Things to come"