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British Modernism on Film

A unique manifestation of Modernism in Britain was a pioneering science fiction film called Things to Come (1936). The film was the brainchild of H.G. Wells, one of the most important figures in the history of science fiction. Wells was renowned for stunningly accurate predictions about the future in novels like The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898).

A unique manifestation of Modernism in Britain was a pioneering science fiction film called Things to Come (1936). The film was the brainchild of H.G. Wells, one of the most important figures in the history of science fiction. Wells was renowned for stunningly accurate predictions about the future in novels like The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898).

The most influential science fiction film ever made was Metropolis (1927). Metropolis is a dystopian vision of the future in which humans are enslaved to technology. Wells hated Metropolis, its politics and its view of technology. In response, he devised a film that showed the benefits of technology. Well’s vision of the future is a Utopia: an ideal society.

In the film, a war breaks and devastates society. Eventually, the world is rebuilt as a technological utopia: an ideal society in which technology has been used to solve all social problems. This is the dream of Modernism.

H.G. Wells shared many of the ideals of Modernism and Modernist designers were hired to work on the film. Their role was to envisage the world of the future. The Bauhaus designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy had come to Britain to escape the Nazis. He settled in London in 1935, initially in Lawn Road Flats. He was hired to design the sets. Unfortunately, Wells rejected many of his designs, so Vincent Korda (the producer’s brother) did much of the design work. Korda began ransacking books on avant-garde design in order to piece together the look of the future.

This is the futuristic city of Everytown in 2036. The city is built underground and has flying walkways, lifts in transparent ducts and elevated terraces. It also has motorised pavements and transit tubes. These were ideas invented by the Italian Futurist architect, Antonio Sant ‘Elia. These terraces resemble the semicircular cantilevered terraces of the De La Warr Pavilion.

This set echoes the clean, white volumes of Modernism. There is a huge glazed wall that reveals the city in the distance. The city is planned on a geometric basis. The radial plan is reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, an ‘ideal’ city he devised but never executed. Modernists believed that rational planning would eradicate society’s problems.

There is a scene in which an old man gives his granddaughter a history lesson using a video of New York in the 20th century. He criticises the irrational and disordered society of the past. This interior has transparent furniture based on Oliver Hill’s designs for the Exhibition of British Industrial Art in 1933.

In conclusion, Things to Come is a quintessentially Modernist film for two reasons. Firstly, the production design responded directly to contemporary Modernist design. Secondly, the film presents a vision of a future society run on Modernist lines.

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Comments (4)

Fascinating! I do think, though, that man thrives in an "irrational and disorderly" environment, else we wouldn't create so many of them. It's interesting to see how buildings and cities reflect the mind and society of man.

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I have to agree, Pat. By the 1970s, Modernism came to be seen as overly rational and even dictatorial. My articles on Postmodernism deal with the idea that diversity, variety and stylistic eclecticism are vital elements of all true cities.

Dictatorial.. I can see that. Modernism leaves little room for individual expression. However, some very recent designs seem to have no basis whatsoever. :) When I get time, I'm going to read through all of your architecture articles.

You have done a wonderful job in the presentation of this article for both enjoyment and education focus.

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