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The Sound Barrier

by Glenn Erickson Apr 14, 2020

 

Why is David Lean’s stirring ode to British aviation so historically and technically bogus?  Because at heart it’s a science fiction film!  Ralph Richardson drives his test pilots and his own son to die on the altar of aviation R&D, in a tale focused firmly on futurism and the push to the stars. Nigel Patrick and Denholm Elliott struggle to measure up, while Ann Todd hugs her baby and resists. Watching this terrific production, you’d think the Queen had a monopoly on supersonic aviation.


The Sound Barrier
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1952 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 117 109 min. / Breaking the Sound Barrier / Street Date April 28, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Ralph Richardson, Ann Todd, Nigel Patrick, John Justin, Dinah Sheridan, Joseph Tomelty, Denholm Elliott.
Cinematography: Jack Hildyard
Film Editor: Geoffrey Foot
Original Music: Malcolm Arnold
Aerial and second unit director: Anthony Squire
Written by Terence Rattigan
Produced and Directed by
David Lean

You could almost hear author Tom Wolfe laughing in his fine book The Right Stuff. Wolfe reported that when the future astronauts saw The Sound Barrier in 1952, they couldn’t believe their eyes and ears. David Lean’s movie declared an English test pilot to be the first to exceed the speed of sound, in a British jet the pilots knew was incapable of going that fast. Chuck Yeager and others scratched their heads … he held the honor of breaking the sound barrier five years before, in 1947. Although English aviation engineers did indeed make big early strides in the development of jet technology, they were running a losing race against the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

The Sound Barrier often gets discussed last in the filmography of David Lean, as it doesn’t fit well with his costume pictures or the four grand epics that occupied the last 25 years of his career. As the story is told through Ann Todd’s aviation wife character, it really fits in with his intimate dramas, three of which starred Ms. Todd.

The beautifully filmed movie can boast terrific aerial sequences. It’s a well-judged melodrama about the hazards of testing experimental aircraft, that takes pains to avoid emotional fireworks around fatal crashes. Ann Todd was often described as a cold actress, but I think it’s because David Lean placed her in cold roles — a potential murderer in Madeleine, and the stoic wife and mother in this picture. There’s a lot to like in The Sound Barrier — I’m fascinated by its blindly chauvinistic take on English aviation. These were years when England’s artists were asked to do whatever they could to help the economy. Were David Lean and Alexander Korda spinning a propaganda tale for Queen and country?

Cut by nine minutes and released as Breaking the Sound Barrier in America, the 1952 movie can only be seen as an alternate history story, in which British aviation leads the world. The fantasy denial should have been unnecessary, as the English were true jet pioneers. They were the first to come up with the concept of jet turbines and had some of the first jet aircraft flying. The English company BOAC inaugurated the first commercial jet service in 1952, the year of The Sound Barrier. But the movie rewrites aviation history, and is wildly inauthentic about its flying details.

In Terence Rattigan’s original script, fictional aviation industrialist John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson) is obsessed with the race to break the sound barrier. John’s son Christopher (Denholm Elliot of A Room with a View) dies trying to learn to fly, so desperate is he to win his father’s respect. Daughter Susan (Ann Todd) marries Tony Garthwaite (Nigel Patrick), an ex- RAF flier who becomes Ridgefield’s key test pilot very much to Susan’s displeasure. Competing aviation company de Havilland suffers a loss when Geoffrey de Havilland Jr. dies in a test flight. Tony pushes Ridgefield’s new jet close to the sound barrier, where the airframe buffets so badly, some say the barrier is a wall in the sky that can’t be broken. Susan thinks it madness to risk lives in a race to be the first to fly Mach 1, but Tony and especially John feel that the effort is all-important. Tony recruits Philip Peel (John Justin of The Thief of Bagdad), an old flying buddy and even better pilot.

The exciting The Sound Barrier has a weird take on the role of family in society. The technocrat millionaire John Ridgefield can be an overbearing bully, but the show endorses him as a moral visionary who sees beyond the limits of bourgeois values. The tycoon pushes his experts and pilots to extremes. Son Christopher would rather kill himself than say ‘no’ to John. Aviation is everything, and only the worthy can become knights of the air.

 

A woman’s place is to shut up and birth new pilots.

Looked at from the viewpoint of Ann Todd’s Susan, the movie has an oppressive attitude toward bourgeois ‘womanly values’ of family security. It’s definitely a sexist world in 1952. When Susan wants to move with Tony to a house of their own, John Ridgefield quashes the idea with an offhand remark. There’s no way she can assert any control over her marriage or her family’s future. Susan loses two of the important men in her life, both sacrificed to her father’s grand obsession. Poor Chris Ridgefield is barely in the ground when John and Tony are admiring a model of a new jet design. The setup is not quite as callous as the “Joe Who?” denial of death in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, but it’s close. Even though Tony knows he isn’t the best man for the flight test, he won’t disqualify himself because he feels he must hold up his end. He takes his jet into the sound barrier’s deadly buffet zone, not really believing he can break it. Susan knows that objecting will do nothing, even though she’s carrying Tony’s baby. She takes to going to movies when Tony is flying, just to distract herself. That detail ought to be seen as pathetic.

This reaching for the sky business is presented as a boys’ game only, as if girls weren’t capable of the same ambitions. Women are just too ’emotional,’ even though Susan is 100% SUL (Stiff Upper Lip). Big Emotions just aren’t proper, dear. Susan hasn’t anybody to reinforce her doubts — Philip Peel’s wife Jess (Dinah Sheridan of The Railway Children) is a half-ditz concerned only that Philip gets a raise in salary. At the finish she’s used for a weak joke.

Susan’s dilemma is finding a way to live in a techno-dynasty that to her seems a death cult. Feminists will not be happy that Susan eventually surrenders to the male prerogative. She forgives her father and accepts that his commitment to aviation progress is more important than individual human lives. In the final scene she seems ready to dedicate her baby boy to the same imperative.

The male heroes cannot be seen to have doubts about anything. In Terence Rattigan’s most theatrical scene John Ridgefield asks Susan if she really thinks he killed his ‘sons’ for nothing. He then regains his emotional footing, and asks Susan ‘never to mention the subject again.’ It’s a cold idealism that appeals to technocrats and Ayn Rand zealots.

 

It all makes sense if…

Critics often discuss The Sound Barrier solely as an exercise in superior David Lean cinematics. But the one way it makes sense is as a science fiction film, a viewpoint that I first read about in John Baxter’s excellent book Science Fiction in the Cinema (A.S. Barnes, NY, 1969). Baxter:

The Sound Barrier was one of the first films to offer the suggestion that a new technological society had been born, a group of people to whom emotional and social allegiances were of little importance.”

The film’s obsession to push the edge of the envelope in aviation has a pure sci-fi core. Powerful David Lean visuals link the mastering of supersonic flight to an eventual conquest of the heavens, literally dissolving from jets in flight to a starry galaxy.

The visuals emphasize that science-fiction miracles are happening now (1952). The men eagerly play with models of the sleek, propeller-less craft. Tony is made curious by the scream of a jet engine coming from a secret research hangar. He’s enraptured to finally confront one on its test cradle… a moment that has the impact of our first glimpse of George Pal’s The Time Machine… it’s an entirely new kind of propulsive engine.

When Susan protests why anybody should care about breaking the sonic barrier, Philip patronizes her by saying that books once taught that the Earth was flat, but now we know better. That’s core ’50s sci-fi dialogue, as when a scientist in Invaders from Mars argues that we ought to believe in Martian mutants, because fifty years ago, nobody believed airplanes were possible.

As noted by John Baxter, one beautiful sequence in particular expresses Sci-fi’s ‘sense of wonder. ‘ Tony takes Susan on a casual one-day outing in a jet plane — all the way to Cairo, Egypt. David Lean’s visuals show their jet streaking high above European capitals, the Alps and the ancient ruins of Greece. Our commitment to the techno-future is changing the relative importance of everything: the world’s physical barriers and past history can now be skipped over entirely. Tony and Susan lunch in Cairo and take a commercial jet flight right back to London. The globe has shrunk to nothingness.

Wings Over the World.

The Sound Barrier is therefore science-fiction in theme. What it really does is restate a key premise in H.G. Wells’ gargantuan sci-fi talk-a-thon Things to Come, made only fourteen years before. Ralph Richardson and Ann Todd had key roles in that movie, coincidentally. The final episode in Things to Come takes place in 2036 when the toga-clad leaders are sending their children out to explore space, with the distinct possibility that they won’t survive. The young people are eager to sacrifice themselves to the new religion of Progress: as man must conquer space and somebody has to put their life on the line. One of the most important speeches in Things to Come basically states that the modern techno-crusade “… didn’t eliminate death and danger, it only made death and danger worthwhile.”

When Susan changes her mind and falls in with John Ridgefield’s idea that breaking the sound barrier is an essential quest, she’s really accepting her role in the new religion of techno-progress. The new world requires a new breed of man. Tony was noble yet lacked the full measure of ‘the Right Stuff.’ He wasn’t a college-trained engineer like Philip Peel. Tony had the courage but not the extra technical savvy that allows Philip to intuit his way through frightening mid-flight crises.

 

The final scene of The Sound Barrier even more closely parallels that of Things to Come. Both take place in observatories with telescopes, and both hold up a future promise of a peaceful, if perilous, conquest of the universe. No mention of God in any of this, by the way; Ridgefield is at war with Creation, using his “God-given weapons of imagination.” The movie starts with victory over the Nazis, and finishes with the statement that the way to the future (and perhaps out of economic stagnation) is to conquer the air and then outer space. We must commit to more research, more avionics, more science, and more danger, to forever “slip the surly bonds of Earth.”

The Sound Barrier’s vision of the future is almost as cold and unyielding as H.G. Wells’. The world will be inherited by an elite new class composed of the best technicians and the finest specialists. Susan can only hope that her baby boy will have what it takes to compete in the Great Quest of the future.

Susan sets her baby down on the floor of the Ridgefield observatory, onto a photo of the craters of the moon. The visuals therefore suggest that her son might be the first man on the moon. This is visionary optimism, for sure. The aviation we see in The Sound Barrier is so advanced, we might think that Great Britain is ready to begin a ‘Rocket Group’ project, such as that run by the fictional Bernard Quatermass in the first and second Quatermass films. David Lean’s final image pictorially combines a telescope, a starry sky and an airplane model that looks like a spaceship from Destination Moon or Walt Disney in Space and Beyond. Thematically speaking, The Sound Barrier links directly from Things to Come, right to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The buffeting violence going through the sound barrier, is a ‘thematic rhyme’ with Stanley Kubrick’s cosmic Star Gate.


David Lean can be counted on for excellent performances to support the main premise. The key word seems to be ‘restraint.’ Ralph Richardson has his moment of crisis but understates all of John Ridgefield’s imperious gestures. Ann Todd ‘maintains an even strain’ far better than average wives in aviation movies… especially when compared to Eleanor Parker’s frantic atom bomb missus in Above and Beyond from the same year. Dinah Sheridan gets featured billing but has much less screen time than the great John Justin. This is possibly the best screen appearance for Nigel Patrick, who does well expressing enthusiasm for dicey tests (“Piece of cake!”) even as he repeatedly shows Susan that her wishes are low-priority compared to flying, dangerous experiments, her father’s ambitions, etc.


 

Other screwy technical observations about The Sound Barrier’s odd denial of facts both historical and scientific ….

Responding to my concern over ‘who broke the sound barrier first,’ advisor Gary Teetzel reminds me that American movies, especially war movies, often ascribed what were mainly British combat stories to American troops (Objective, Burma), and habitually inserted American heroes into mostly all-Brit situations (The Great Escape). Much more recently, there was also the flap over the movie U-571 for rewriting a British naval incident that took place before America got into the war and turning it into an American story. Even the British Parliament and Tony Blair chimed in on the controversy. Hollywood has a pretty dismal track record of rewriting history to be all about America and Americans.

The Sound Barrier doesn’t announce that it is fiction, and instead begins by listing a number of real test pilots that contributed technical advice. Since Chuck Yeager’s 1947 supersonic flight in a rocket plane was not widely publicized, David Lean’s convincing drama had many believing that an English pilot was the first to fly faster than the speed of sound. That raises a question … was Yeager’s flight such a secret that not even the English knew of it?  Could David Lean have thought he was making honest speculative fiction?

According to Tom Wolfe, the U.S. test pilots were confused when Lean’s movie invents a totally bogus technical detail, that the flying controls of an aircraft reverse themselves when the speed of sound is approached. One impossible-sounding detail appears to be true (thanks to a correction from John Hodson). In the opening scene Philip Peel puts his WW2 Spitfire into a steep dive and approaches the speed of sound. The airframe buffets violently like the later jets, and Peel barely pulls out of his dive. According to Wikipedia, the Supermarine Spitfire’s maximum speed was under 400 miles an hour. Yet the truth is that during the war, something exactly like this actually occurred. This BBC article explains it.

The two-seater jet flown by Tony and Susan fly could never go non-stop to Cairo without refueling. They return on competitor de Havilland’s Comet, the first commercial jet airliner. That aircraft went into service in 1952, the year of The Sound Barrier. Note that the Comet we see has square windows. The de Havilland establishment learned a hard lesson about airframes and metal fatigue when three Comets broke up in mid-flight and crashed in the space of one year. As part of the ‘fix’ for the flaw, the square windows were replaced with oval designs.

The dangerous effect of metal fatigue on high-stress airframes was predicted in 1951’s No Highway (in the Sky), the James Stewart thriller with Glynis Johns and Marlene Dietrich. Its source book was written by Nevil Shute, who was an aviation engineer by trade.

My father the Air Force aviator said that if a jet nosed into a soft field at high speed, it might indeed instantaneously bury most of itself below ground level — that scene isn’t an exaggeration. He also said that fliers never expected movies to be realistic on any level, or for that matter, to be taken seriously at all. So The Sound Barrier would be given a pass because of its high quality.

Speaking of typical inauthenticity: a comparable Hollywood jet test pilot movie was WB’s Chain Lightning from 1950. It’s pretty clueless overall. The story of pilot Humphrey Bogart testing an unlikely-looking super plane is so generic, it could have been adapted from a script for a race car driver, or a newspaper editor, for that matter.


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Sound Barrier is a real beauty. I was told in 2009 that the BFI had just completed a restoration, but this BFI restoration is touted as accomplished in 2018. In any case the picture looks brand new, which will be good news to fans of David Lean and of early British jet aviation. It goes without saying that a David Lean film will exhibit exemplary visuals, editing, the works.

Correspondent John Hodson told me that the film’s aerial scenes were shot on infra-red stock; Lean’s air sequences are almost as thrilling as those in 1983’s The Right Stuff. In HD we can finally see that the cockpit shots and many of the control tower scenes were filmed as automatic traveling mattes. Some are almost imperceptible.

Malcolm Arnold’s stirring music score sounds great. The movie won a 1953 Oscar for best sound, and also earned Best Picture at England’s BAFTA Awards.

The one video extra is a BFI interview with Lean conducted by actress Maureen Pryor. Formatted as a casual conversation, the ten-minute piece begins with a lengthy film clip and then takes the time to watch them light up cigarettes and exchange small talk. Lean acts charming, but mostly gives forth with generalizations, such as, ‘visuals are more important than dialogue.’ We do get to see how he looks and talks when on his best behavior.

The audio commentary by Peter Tonguette is superficial, and tends to bog down in repetition and off-topic sidetracks.   Tonguette will announce a subject like editing, only to stop at bland statements like ‘Lean believed in the power of editing.’ We get little context for the movie. His one mention of The Right Stuff simply compares Tony and Chuck Yeager as ‘cowboys of the air,’ a descriptor that wouldn’t seem to apply to Tony at all. We instead hear extended discussions about Peter Bogdanovich, about directors that direct their wives, about Louis Malle and Atlantic City, and Ann Todd’s potential as an Alfred Hitchcock blonde. The big question is never addressed: did the Brits ignore the fact that the U.S.A. broke the sound barrier, or did secrecy prevent David Lean from finding out that it had already been done?

We do learn that Terence Rattigan wrote the story and screenplay at David Lean’s suggestion sometime around 1950. But Tonguette doesn’t speak to why the movie is 98% disinformation, or why its fictitious storyline incorporates the true fate of test pilot Geoffrey de Havilland Jr.. There’s no discussion of the real British aviation companies whose planes pose as ‘Ridgefield’ aircraft. Looking around on our own, we find out that the unlucky Geoffrey de Havilland Jr. was a cousin of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.

Edited with corrections by correspondent John Hodson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Sound Barrier
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent despite being mostly faux-historical
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by Peter Tonguette; BFI archival interview with David Lean; trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
April 12, 2020
(6244barr)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.