Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Brothers, Sisters, We Don't Need This Fascist Groove Thing

I watched H.G.Wells Things to Come last month for, oh I don't know, the 7th or 8th time. Once again I was fascinated by this badly dated kind of clunky 1936 sci-fi drama. If it's badly dated and kind of clunky then why, you may well ask, do I keep watching it? Several reasons.

One, the set design by director William Cameron Menzies is extraordinary to behold as well as the overall design (how different fonts and animations are used for different expository scrolls, costumes, sound, etc).

Two, Ralph Richardson is terrific in his small but crucial role as the Chief, the thuggish postwar dictator of Everytown, the town featured in the film.

Three, like many sci-fi movies it unknowingly stumbles upon some amazingly accurate predictions of technology.

And Four, it's politics are insanely stupid. Let me say that again: It's politics are insanely stupid. So stupid in fact that critics at the time unfamiliar with Wells' book and his views asked if Wells' was aware that a film based on his work was supporting fascism. Oh yes, it turns out, Wells was quite aware. Quite aware indeed.

H.G. Wells operates on a sliding scale with me. For imagination I rank him near the top. For his prose I rank him somewhere in the mediocre middle, writing in a somewhat wooden style that has a droning quality to it, and for his intellectual ideologies I rank him somewhere in that region just South of the bottom of the barrel, scraping about with other like-minded political dimwits. He was intelligent yes, but sometimes very intelligent people can be political incompetents. Wells was one of those.

I'd love to point you towards a thorough and exemplary article published in 2000 in the Journal of Contemporary History by Philip Coupland that is available on JSTOR (Journal Storage Online), the invaluable archive of academic writings, but unless you work at an institution that does scholarly research, a publishing house or a library you won't be able to access it. Thanks to my job I can access it but it's a locked PDF file so I can't copy and paste from it. Nonetheless, if you're reading this in any one of the above mentioned places, here is the link. For the rest of us, allow me to summarize in a painfully simplistic fashion.

H.G. Wells expounded the political philosophy of Liberal Fascism, which he first called for in an address to the Young Liberals at Oxford in 1932. The Coupland article, "H.G. Wells's 'Liberal Fascism,'" contains generous amounts of quotes and excerpts from that speech as well as from interviews that illuminate these ideas. Wells had quite a bit of praise for Italian Fascism and German Nazism but didn't like their end results. Wells would build a free society by means of an "authoritarian elite."

First, you have to find your Authoritarian Elite, which Wells described as "public-minded, masterful people." Wells' big problem with Italian Fascism and Nazism was the cult of the charismatic leader, hence the need for a committee so to speak, an "authoritarian elite." This is a magical group of men who are intellectually superior to the rest of us. Wells of course was one of them. They use technological and industrial superiority to suppress the masses under their thumb, but for their own good. When everyone understands that the Authoritarian Elite are looking out for them and that they are really free, the Authoritarian Elite release their grip and everyone lives in a free society in peace and harmony. The Authoritarian Elite are never tempted by the reins of power and know just when to let up. In the novel, The Shape of Things to Come, when peace is achieved, the elite retire as they are no longer needed. They want to build a society based on freedom of thought and expression, and as soon as everyone learns what they should be thinking and how they should express themselves the elite can go away leaving everyone to leave in a communal utopia. Although you may have guessed already, Wells' Liberal Fascism also renounced "parliamentary democracy, private property and individualism."

In Things to Come, the movie, the town of Everytown falls under the control of a local thug, the Chief, played by Ralph Richardson, at the end of a worldwide war that lasts for decades. But secretly, a group of the Authoritarian Elite have been building another society that is technologically advanced, Wings Over the World, and is itching to throw its weight around Everytown. They send an emissary, played by Raymond Massey, to inform the Chief that individual sovereign nation states are no longer allowed to exist because... well, because they say so. Really, that's it. There's no other justification given. They have decided you can't run your own nation anymore, even if it's only the size of a small town in England. So those noble elite drop "gas bombs of peace" on Everytown, the Chief dies, is killed or commits suicide (it's not really explained) and Wings Over the World take over Everytown.

The movie then conveniently skips over the "re-education process" that follows and skips to a grand speech made by John Cabal about how wonderful the new world that follows their rules is going to be. A long montage shows the construction of this world, followed by a Luddite uprising over sending a man and woman to the moon. The rocket is shot off and Oswald Cabal, John's son, also played by Massey, gives his final speech of hope to the audience. The Luddites? Probably subjected to some more happy gas bombs and re-educated but we're not told for sure.

Wells was taken to task in interviews at the time about the ideologies in Things to Come and in those interviews he does not come off well. He describes the Communist Party as "that band of Russian Jews." Asked about the Chief in Things to Come being a fascist too, which would defeat Wells' own ideals, Wells corrected saying that no he was not "intended to be a caricature of a Fascist or Nazi leader" but that he was more "South American or Haitian..." In other words, if you're white and oppress people you're a progressive, like John Cabal, but if you're brown or black and oppress people, you're a thug. Sadly, Wells' Utopian ideologies were tinged with a suppressed racism.

Wells tried desperately to get support for his ideas. He spoke about his views throughout England and America but no one of any consequence ever signed on to his ridiculous notions. In the end, Liberal Fascism's biggest fault was that it was a muddle. Give people freedom but oppress them first. Allow them to think for themselves but squash individualism. Build a Utopian society based on the will of an elite few. It's a mess. A jumbled, garbled mess. And despite it's belief in the superiority of technology it rests on the faith that a few elite men will definitely not stay in power a moment longer than they need to. That's a leap of faith so vast the Pacific Ocean couldn't swallow it up. And it's all there in watered down form in the movie, preserving for all time the dimwitted political views of H.G. Wells. And that makes for some fascinating viewing. Even if it is badly dated and kind of clunky, it's still worth a look.


After watching it I put together a beginning to end video, much like I did for Forbidden Planet, to the music of Steve Tibbetts. Unlike the Forbidden Planet or Frames of Reference videos, it is not cued to the music but rather the music provides an atmosphere for the visuals. None of the political ideologies are really presented and the Luddite plot is excised completely but you can use it as a visual guide to the films production design and those expository scrolls I wrote of. Here it is if you'd like to watch it.


Quotes for this post taken from:

H. G. Wells's 'Liberal Fascism', Coupland, Philip, Journal of Contemporary History, volume 35, number 4, pages 541-558 url = Copyright © 2000 Sage Publications, Ltd.