The Sound Barrier, 1952.
Directed by David Lean.
Starring Ralph Richardson, Ann Todd, Nigel Patrick, John Justin and Denholm Elliott.
Fictionalized story of British aerospace engineers solving the problem of supersonic flight.
The Sound Barrier, directed by David Lean midway through one of greatest runs in film history, is the story of the bid to achieve supersonic flight told through a fictionalised conflation of true events. In Lean’s account, it’s Brit aircraft magnate Sir John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson), aided by his test pilot son-in-law Tony (Nigel Patrick), who through obsessive single-mindedness shatters the perceived limits of jet engine technology. In reality it was USAF pilot Chuck Yeager, not any British airman, who first broke the sound barrier, but to Lean this detail is inconsequential. For his picture is not really about who shattered the record first at all. The Sound Barrier is rather a tale of Man’s need to test the boundaries placed upon him by nature, and of one man in particular’s all-consuming desire to craft a legacy. In moments, it feels like Lean’s Citizen Kane.
The Sound Barrier’s Kane figure, Ridgefield, is played with cold detachment by a BAFTA-winning Richardson, harsh and subdued in his portrayal of a man so possessed by an idea that he’s prepared to alienate everyone he holds dear for its sake. That includes his eager-to-please son (Denholm Elliott in an early role) and daughter Susan (Ann Todd), whose husband embarks on increasingly dangerous test flights in pursuit of his father-in-law’s dream. It leads to strain on Susan and Tony’s marriage, a subplot that persists as The Sound Barrier’s main dramatic weak point – but then that’s never the relationship that Lean and screenwriter Terrence Rattigan truly wish to explore anyway.
The Sound Barrier is instead most interested in the relationship between Man and the environment he seeks to conquer. Lean and Rattigan present a world of men putting their lives on the line for no more a reason than because breaking the sound barrier “simply has to be done,” and the pair do so with a surprising feminist slant. Like Lean’s subsequent classics The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound Barrier is an almost all-male affair, but it’s a man’s picture seen through the eyes of an everywoman. Surrounded by fanatics, Susan is the film’s only major female character as well as its sole voice of reason, admonishing these aviation crusaders for treating life so cheap in the face of their progress.
Though the drama on the ground can be stagey, Lean’s film is energised whenever it takes flight. As characters look out of stifling interior scenes to the sky above, a place which in this film represents endless possibility, you get the sense that Lean is also with his film looking beyond cinema’s old styles to the possibilities of a then-rapidly-evolving art form. The Sound Barrier still has one foot in cinema’s past, with shaky back-projection, stuffy Hays Code-era sexual politics and its 4:3 aspect ratio (this was a few years before Lean became addicted to the widescreen format), but when it takes to the skies The Sound Barrier is as invigorating as any of Lean’s more ground-breaking works.
The aerial sequences are beautifully orchestrated by the perfectionist filmmaker, who shoots real historical aircraft at thousands of feet up. Malcolm Arnold’s majestic score cuts out in the flying sequences, with nothing but the symphony of jet travel to soundtrack cinematographer Jack Hildyard’s images. He gifts Lean some good ones: prototype fighters plummeting through an endless carpet of cloud; quaint English countryside incongruously interrupted by sleek aircraft of the future soaring overhead; Greek ruins and crumbling pyramids sat quietly below on a test flight from England to Cairo, remnants of once-great civilisations powerless but to watch as a new power progresses above.
The Sound Barrier and its own Kane of the skies both recognise that glory in the field of pioneering is fleeting. As Ridgefield and his team move closer to reaching supersonic speeds, the film looks increasingly to the stars. Even as he nears his goal on Earth, Ridgefield is already considering the viability of space travel. There are few genuine human moments in Lean’s film, but when he and Rattigan do occasionally give us a peak at the vulnerability beneath Sir John’s chilly veneer, we see the futility of trying to attain happiness in a field where the goalposts are constantly moving.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.
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