The Sound Barrier (1952)

After my review of Dive Bomber, I had the desire to watch another film about pilots only tangentially related to on-screen aerial combat: The Sound Barrier (also released as “Breaking the Sound Barrier”, as on the dramatic, and misleading, poster to the left), directed by David Lean. Except for Ryan’s Daughter (1970), I have seen all of Lean’s late-career super-length epics, but only a few of his earlier British films; this one is sort of in-between the two phases and seems like a bit of a departure: neither wholly epic nor wholly intimate, with no proper action scenes, no war-time backdrop, somewhat understated drama and not much of an emphasis on wide and wonderful vistas. At times, it seems like it wants to be a thorough psychological examination of one character in particular, but shirks away from that, opting for looking at the issue of obsession in a more generalised fashion.

The film stars no one particularly famous except Denholm Elliott in a supporting role. He plays the son of John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson), stern patriarch of the Ridgefield family, once a pioneer of aviation and now owner of an important aeroplane design and manufacturing operation. Towards the end of World War 2, when the story sets in, he pressures Elliott’s character into becoming a pilot as well, despite him having no desire or aptitude for the job whatsoever. During his first solo flight, he promptly crashes and dies, leading to further estrangement of his sister from Ridgefield senior.
Said sister, Susan (Ann Todd), marries a Royal Air Force pilot, Tony (Nigel Patrick). After the war, his father-in-law employs him as a test pilot at the Ridgefield plant. Ridgefield’s aim: to build the first plane that can break the sound barrier, and Tony is supposed to be the man to do it. Tony is later joined in this quest by a military acquaintance of his, Philip Peel (John Justin, who played the prince in The Thief of Bagdad).

Plot-wise, this is remarkably similar to Dive Bomber: an important death, two characters needing to be reconciled, test pilots having to master a physical barrier to improvement… both films even have a card in the credits thanking the military for their gracious and extensive co-operation.

Beyond these superficial similarities, however, the two films are very different beasts. Whereas the (literally) colourful American movie treats the story almost like an adventure, the British film takes a different approach: it’s more serene and cerebral, a difference in tone that is underscored by the use of black-and-white photography. When Errol Flynn took flight, you could feel the joy and exhilaration; some of that is echoed in Sound‘s flying scenes, but there is an added element which, to my recollection, is missing in Dive Bomber: there is an element of insanity to what these pilots are doing, and all of them are characterised as obsessed, even addicted, to the experience.
The script definitely emphasises the danger and even foolhardiness of this endeavour in particular and scientific curiosity in general, with comparisons made to Prometheus (who brought fire to man but was harshly punished for his act) and the Robert Falcon Scott expedition (which arrived at the South Pole but did not make it back alive). Flying is not treated as an adventure, but as something almost mystical. Despite the deaths in Dive Bomber, there is a simple fun to watching those pilots in their fighters; conversely, in this film, there is a majesty and grandeur to air travel that is both awe-inspiring and hard-bought.

While I would say The Sound Barrier is more clinical and detached than the American movie, it kind of has to be, because it does not focus on a single character or two. It has more important things to say, in its mind: it’s about the human cost of exploration, progress and discovery, with the pursuit of supersonic speed just one example. These higher aspirations are evident in the interplay of director David Lean’s visual sensibilities and playwright Terence Rattigan’s screenplay: the film contains many recurring images and artful parallels, and of course a slew of characters obsessed with breaching frontiers. None of them, not the two pilots, the aircraft designer, or the businessman, can really articulate why they just have to be the ones to solve the mystery of the sound barrier; they just know that they do, no matter the cost or sacrifice (and there is a cost, which the film does not shy away from).

The film is also more interested in the female characters than the American movie, and not just because it actually has some that go beyond caricature. Susan’s role in the film could have consisted of looking worried and cheering her husband on, although of course she is still more passive than she would be in a modern film. Still, the actress needs to play a lot of shades between happy newlywed, concerned housewife, and estranged daughter, and Ann Todd pulls it off quite well. Philip Peel’s wife could have come across as one-note and staffage, but her final scene reveals that she’s a bit more complicated as well in the way she deals with her husband’s dangerous profession.

My impression from looking around on the internet is that this film, maybe because it is so atypical for Lean, has been neglected both by critics and by modern audiences (though apparently it was a hit when it was first released). It’s been unjustly forgotten, I think. Not everything works as well as it could – for instance, the ending is a bit abrupt, and one scene in particular could have used more elaboration -, but there are worse ways to spend two hours.

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