The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1937)
The Man Who Could Work Miracles is a classic film based on a short story by one of sci-fi’s deities, H.G. Wells. The story was published in 1898; the film was released in 1937 and Wells co-wrote the screenplay, he was 70 at the time. If this film is any indication, even at 70 Wells’ talent was still in top form.
The Man Who Could Work Miracles is a brilliant film that works on all levels. It’s a fantasy comedy hybrid that is both funny and thought provoking. The central question of the film asks what would happen if you had nearly unlimited power. What would you do with it? The film begins with some gigantic transparent godlike beings floating in the heavens observing the tiny marble that is earth. Wells is careful with the super-beings’ dialog not to use any specific religious jargon, smartly steering clear of any preconception. The powerful godlike beings don’t even mention god by name, they call their boss “The Master”. This was no doubt intentional as Wells had rejected his mother’s Christianity and moved toward some form of humanism. Interestingly, these godlike beings never appeared in the original version of the story; and it turns out they’re pretty unnecessary. Perhaps they were added to provide material for the movie’s cheesiest special effects and heavy handed exposition.
After a questionable start, the movie gets into the story proper and it’s upward from there. We meet George Fotheringay, a skeptic everyman who is the recipient of miraculous powers granted by the aforementioned ethereal beings. It’s fun to watch him experiment with his newly discovered abilities and see special effects that no doubt seem quaint by today’s standards yet are entirely effective at telling the story. Roland Young is great as Fotheringay, wavering between delight, confusion, benevolence and megalomania. The supporting cast is also fantastic especially Ralph Richardson who garners major laughs with his over the top performance as the heavy drinkin’, gun totin’ Colonel Winstanley. Fotheringay pesters the Colonel with his miracles at the behest of the Colonel’s neighbor, Reverend Maydig. The reverend doesn’t like alcohol and guns a hell of a lot.
The film is billed as a comedy and is quite successful in that regard, but it has a more philosophical side that smoothly interlaces with the humor. Wells skillfully investigates the potential and consequence such massive power might behold as Fotheringay seeks council from friends, women, clergy and others. Wells also cleverly pokes fun at the military, religion, and the business community in some of the film’s more humorous moments.
The source material for the film was sparse and Wells does a masterful job expanding the tale. He covers most all the events in the story; the beginning and ending of the story match the film fairly closely, but he adds interesting new characters and delves much deeper into the big questions and various viewpoints that might surround a gift of such power.
The Man Who Could Work Miracles is an astounding film that entertains as it explores morality and comments on humanity and social establishments. It is a worthy successor to Wells’ landmark science fiction film Things To Come of the prior year, and these films clearly indicate that Wells was still effective in his later years, decades after his classic ‘scientific romances’ were written.
This movie is in the public domain (I think, I will remove the link if its not.) It can be watched in its entirety right here.