The Baron Watches Seven "World War Three" Movies (SPOILERS Possible!)

This thread led me to think about all of the various movies I've seen over the years which revolved around "World War Three" happening and the aftermath thereof. While I've seen more than seven, seven is the number that I have currently available on disk or tape, so seven is the number I shall re-watch and describe here for your edification or amusement.

As an aside, I realize that this isn't a "Timeline" as such, but since I have this swell space here that the Skipper has provided, I figured that I ought to make some use of it. I'll be watching in release order, so that's sort of like a timeline, in a way. If you don't buy that, then think of this space as "The Baron's Timelines and Things", or some such.


Anyway, I begin my review of "World War Three" films in typical Baronial fashion by discussing a film that isn't about "World War Three" at all, but is in fact about World War Two.  This picture differs from the vast majority of World War Two movies in that it was made in 1936, three years before World War Two started. It's important to remember that in the 1930's many people imagined that a second world war would destroy civilization completely. In essence, back before the Second World War, "World War Two" was the "World War Three" of its day.


Things To Come (1936) was written by H.G. Wells, based on his book, which I confess to never having read. It was directed by William Cameron Menzies.


The film begins on Christmas 1940 in Everytown in England. I believe that's somewhere in Anyshire. We got a juxtaposition of images of impending Christmas with impending war. No name is given to the potential enemy, but I dare say that in 1936, it would have been fairly clear to the Great British public (Evening, all!) who it was meant to be.


We begin with John Cabal (Raymond Massey, all serious and portentous) sitting around with his buddies, whose general attitude seems to be "It'll never happen, and besides, it'll do us some good, and besides, we can't stop it." The jollity of the evening is interrupted by a surprise bombing raid, and the war is on.

The depiction of the war itself is interesting. While it has some elements in common with the Second World War as it actually happened, it is much more like the sort of 'roided-up World War One that alot of people of the time seem to have expected, with biplanes and gas attacks and such.

Some of the SFX are quite good for the time. There's a scene of a massive air raid on the town that is quite harrowing to watch, even now.  In many ways, it's like watching a nuclear attack without the nukes.

There's one scene where Cabal shoots down an enemy pilot who's gassing the town, then chivalrously lands his own plane to pull the downed pilot from the wreckage. Whilst Cabal pauses to pontificate on the horrors of war, a little girl and the enemy gas approach, in that order. The enemy matches Cabal's chivalry by giving his gasmask to the little girl. Cabal leaves him his sidearm before fleeing.  The pilot muses on the irony of  the fact that he may have killed the little girl's family, and then died to save her, before blowing his brains out, off-camera.

The war goes on for decades. By 1964, the enemy has begun to use a bio-weapon called "The Wandering Sickness", whose mute victims leave their sickbeds to wander about, mindlessly infecting others. In a way, they could be the prototypes of Romero's living dead!  

By 1966, Everytown is a ruin. It wasn't a nuclear war, but this could be seen as the protoype of any number of "post-nuclear" films, as we see people living primitive lives in the remnants of the old civilization. I am particularly amused by the depiction of automobiles being used as carriages, horseless no longer. The Boss (well-played by Ralph Richardson as a blustering, swaggering bully) has arisen, dealing with the Wandering Sick by shooting them on sight.

By 1970, the Boss is in complete control, and is attempting to create an air force for himself, to pursue a war against the Hill People. Cabal returns in a new plane, representing "Wings Over the World", a cadre of benevolent techno-fascists who are going around "cleaning up" the various local warlords, using advanced aircraft and the Orwellian-sounding "Gas of Peace". Cabal confronts the Boss, who locks him up. The Boss' Wife (Margaretta Scott, all regal and intelligent) quizzes Cabal about the wider world. In the end, Cabal's buddies come in giant planes of the sort that never existed in real life but were all over the fiction of the time and rescue him.The Boss dies ranting and shooting futilely,and his world dies with him.

We then get an interlude of seemingly endless scenes of re-building, and titanic machines that make me wish for a Jack Kirby adaptation of this film. Eventually we see Everytown in 2036, which has become the sort of effete, antiseptic, science fictional, socialist Utopia that took the place of the New Jerusalem for a certain type of bourgeois lefty thinker once upon a time, as if they had abandoned Christianity for a faith whose creed could be summed up as "There is no God but Progress, and Flash Gordon is Its prophet." We also get to see the "futuristic" fashions. Why did everyone assume that we'd stop wearing pants in the future back then?

We encounter Theotocopoulos* (Cedric Hardwicke, doing demagoguery quite well), who seems to be against Progress the way cranky old people are against young people being noisy late at night, and just generally seems to be against anyone doing anything even remotely interesting, ever. At the moment, he is especially against the Space Gun, a sort of massive cannon which could be considered a descendant of Verne's Columbiad.

We also encounter Oswald Cabal (Massey again, with hair coloring), great-grandson of John, and chairman of the local Soviet or whatever it is they have.  He's a big booster for space travel, and his daughter has volunteered to be part of the couple that gets launched around the Moon. Theotocopoulos stirs up a mob to attack the space gun, so Cabal #2 hurries the space launch. Theotocopoulos rants at them. The gist of his argument seems to be "Can't humanity ever just relax and sit quietly?" He also says "We shall hate you more if you succeed than if you fail!"


 The launch goes off as planned. We end with Cabal #2 giving a millennial speech about Progress: "All the Universe or Nothing? Which shall it be?", which sounds suspiciously similar to the old Nazi slogan of "Weltmacht oder Niedergang", which I'm told meant something like "World domination or ruin".


Overall: A very good movie, with generally good acting and good effects for the time.  Wells' politics  shine through a fair bit, and the picture does tend to get melodramatic and portentous and full of Big Ideas.  The war and the aftermath are quite good and obviously inspired countless imitators. The last segment with future Utopia is a bit weak and less convincing, but still not bad.  Definitely worth a look if you get a chance.


*Note that the troublemaker has a "foreign" sounding name.



Next: 1955, and the Return of the Mutant Boyfriend!

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William Cameron Menzies also did the production design, as also for Invaders of Mars (1953), which he also directed. He's a favourite of mine.

I like Raymond Massey too, but he's fairly stiff in this one.

I agree Massey is a bit stiff, but I think that to an extent at least, it's down to the character being written more as a sort of an ideal than as an actual person. It's almost like this picture is a "whitewash" biopic of an historical character, like Parson Weems' biography of Washington. One would almost like to see John Cabal: The True Story!

Presumably the young couple were killed by the sudden acceleration when the cannon was fired.

I don't doubt that that's what would happen if you tried something like that in real life.

  I've seen bits of this, but never all of it.  I think they went with the toga-like fashions because they were trying to show a Greek/Roman culture influence.  I often wondered why Flash and Dr. Zarkov only wore shorts on Mongo.  I guess it was the best way to represent futuristic fashions.  Intersesting that in 1936 the could imagine a world wide apocalypse by means other than the atomic bomb.

I expect you're right, and they were going for a "Greco-Roman" thing.

 I sometimes wonder if societies like the one in Metropolis or like this one had comic books.

Probably their comics were on special infra-cerebro cubes that they plugged directly into their brains.

The theme of the destruction of civilisation and/or its aftermath goes back further than one might think. Older works on this theme I can think of include Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man (1826), which involves a world-wide plague, and After London (1885) by Richard Jefferies, which I reviewed here.

Some novels depict cosmic catastrophes. In The Second Deluge (1911-12) by Garrett P. Serviss the Earth passes through a mass in space that causes a world-wide flood; in The Poison Belt (1913) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, through a belt of poison. In When Worlds Collide (1932-33) by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer life on Earth is destroyed by the Earth's collision with a rogue planet. Wikipedia's page on the novel suggest it influenced the newspaper strip Flash Gordon. The novel was adapted as the comic strip Speed Spaulding in 1940-41, and a film version directed by George Pal appeared in 1951.

Wells himself wrote several works depicting future wars and their aftermath. The ones I can think of are The War in the Air (1908), The World Set Free (1914), and The Shape of Things to Come (1933), which last was the movie's basis and is reportedly written in the form of passages from a history of the future. Edgar Rice Burroughs's Beyond Thirty (1916) is set in a future in which Europe has reverted to barbarism due to war. Olaf Stapledon's multi-millennia future history Last and First Men (1930) begins with descriptions of a series of future wars which wreck Europe.

Jack Bechdolt's The Torch (1920) depicts a post-catastrophe New York, and might be the first work with post-disaster imagery of the Statue of Liberty (although I doubt it could survive one thousand years without maintenance). According to this page the novel represented the catastrophe as caused by a comet, but Wikipedia's summary refers to "an atomic disaster". My guess is the novel was revised for its first publication in book form in 1948.

The newspaper strip Buck Rogers, which started Jan. 7, 1929, was initially set against the background of an America five hundred years hence which had been conquered by the Mongols. The Mongols mostly kept to their advanced cities, and much of the US had reverted to wilderness. Americans had been driven into barbarism, but they had recovered and were now beginning to challenge the Mongols' dominance of the continent. This theme was dropped after about a year. The strip was based on its author Philip Francis Nowlan's novella "Armageddon 2419 AD" (1928), which had appeared in Amazing Stories. (A sequel "The Airlords of Han" (1929), appeared in the same magazine shortly after the newspaper strip started.)

A 1931 French film La Fin du monde (Eng. The End of the World), directed by Abel Gance, depicted the near destruction of the world by a comet. It was based on an 1894 novel of the same name by Camille Flammarion. According to this review, in the book the comet collides with Earth.

A 1933 film on the catastrophe theme called Deluge depicted the destruction of New York by flood. I know about it from Lyz's review here. It was based on a 1927 novel of the same name by S. Fowler Wright. Possibly the film was the inspiration for the destruction of New York sequence in The Human Torch #5A.

I reviewed a Pearson's Magazine article from 1900 called "How Will the World End?" here. The post has a link to a page with the text of the article and its illustrations.

Dates mostly from Wikipedia or the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.

Other 30s SF movies set in the future include Just Imagine (US 1930) and The Tunnel (a.k.a. Transatlantic Tunnel, UK 1935)(1)(2). Other 30s films based on works by Wells are Island of Lost Souls (US 1932), The Invisible Man (US 1933) and The Man Who Would Work Miracles (UK 1936), the last of which I reviewed recently here.


(1) The British version has a fair amount of model work depicting the world of the future and its technology, like Things to Come. German and French versions appeared in 1933 but I haven't seen these and don't know to what extent they had this kind of content. The films were based on a German novel by Bernhard Kellerman. Apparently there was earlier a German silent version in 1915.

(2) George Arliss played the British Prime Minister in the UK version. I think he was probably reprising in effect his title role in Disraeli, for which he won the 1929 Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. But in this movie the role is only a minor part.

With WW2 approaching they must have thought that they were as close to the end of the world as everyone in the cold war did. WW1 and WW2 definitely destroyed what had been Europe and a way of life.

I have heard that hysterical women say

They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,

Of poets that are always gay,

For everybody knows or else should know

That if nothing drastic is done

Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,

Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in

Until the town lie beaten flat.

-W.B Yeats, opening lines from "Lapis Lazuli", Last Poems and Two Plays (1939, published posthumously)


Apparently there was also a 1933 musical comedy called It's Great to be Alive in which all the men in the world are killed by a disease that affects only men, except for one trapped alone on an island. It was a remake of a 1924 film called The Last Man on Earth and was based on a 1923 novella by John D. Swain. I'm having a hard time believing this information isn't a hoax, but it doesn't seem to be.

The German author's name was Bernhard Kellermann.

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