Title: The Sound Barrier
Director: David Lean
Major Players: Ralph Richardson, Nigel Patrick, Ann Todd
Out Of Five: Four
I’m loving the trend for re-mastering and re-issuing older films: it’s a chance to enjoy them all over again and introduce them to a whole new audience. Over the past few months, there’s been Doctor Zhivago, Ran and Brief Encounter. Now another David Lean film arrives on DVD for the first time, over 60 years after its original release. And it’s one of his lesser known titles.
Yet The Sound Barrier enjoyed more than a little critical success when it was released, winning an Oscar for Best Sound and three BAFTAs – Best Actor for Ralph Richardson, Best British Film and Best Film. Since then, it’s faded into the background compared to some of Lean’s other films and, in truth, it hasn’t aged that well. But that doesn’t mean that it’s have anything going for it. Quite the contrary.
This is a dramatized account of the breaking of the sound barrier. The reality was that the British government worked on a top secret project in the early 40s to develop an aircraft capable of breaking the sound barrier, but it was cancelled. However, the government did a deal with the Americans to give them access to all the plans and designs and in 1947 they succeeded in breaking the sound barrier. The pilot was Charles Yeager.
But this version of the story is placed very firmly in Britain. Towards the end of World War II, fighter pilot Tony Garthwaite (Nigel Patrick) marries Susan (Ann Todd, at the time also Mrs David Lean), whose father is wealthy aircraft manufacturer John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson). With the war over, Tony goes to work for his father in law as a test pilot. The company is developing a new jet aircraft and is in competition with two others to be the first to break the sound barrier. And Tony gets the prestigious job of testing the aircraft to its limits. Mach One.
On the downside, the film does look very dated and some of that is down to the conventions of the day. It is frightfully English, with clipped RP in abundance. There are some exceptions, the main one being Richardson’s aircraft magnate who sports a generic – and sometimes uneven – Northern accent. These were also the days when, on film, married couples slept in twin beds, so both Patrick and Todd are buttoned up to the neck in their jammies, as well as being several feet apart. It’s a miracle she becomes pregnant. And the attitudes towards women could easily raise some contemporary hackles. Todd’s Susan is supposed to have gone to Oxford and she’s clearly intelligent, yet both her husband and father insist on talking to her like she’s a child. Her friend Jess (Dinah Sheridan) fares even worse, a stay at home mother who is portrayed as completely empty-headed, oblivious that her husband has achieved something significant because she’s preoccupied with the right colour for their little girl’s new coat.
But the film has definitely earned its re-release and deserves a re-appraisal. It has a formidable trio behind it: director David Lean, of course, but also a screenplay by Terrence Rattigan and music by Malcolm Arnold. It’s set in typical Rattigan territory, a middle class family with tensions simmering just below the surface. But the story isn’t about them as such. It’s about the fascination with aviation that went with the post-war era: it was regarded as the future, as the film makes clear, especially after the heroic efforts of the pilots in the Battle of Britain. It’s about the determination to the point of obsession that makes watersheds like breaking the sound barrier actually happen. And there’s the cost ……
With its emphasis on strong images and sound to tell the story, it’s a typically Lean film. The opening shot of the White Cliffs of Dover pans round to see soldiers with anti-aircraft guns and some wreckage from a German plane. We know exactly where we are. Equally, when one of the test planes crashes after an attempt on the sound barrier, the camera races along increasing amounts of debris until it reaches the edge of the crater created by the plane. And the two farm workers stood at the edge show just how massive it is.
Arnold’s score is used sparingly and effectively. At some of the most significant moments in the test flights, the screen is all but silent. No music, no dialogue, only the sound of the plane itself and then, at the last moment, the pilot telling the control tower how the plane is reacting. And those moments are completely gripping. Incidentally, take a look at the two men in the control tower: one of them is a young, uncredited Leslie Philips!
So it might be a period piece and it might seem stuffy and old fashioned. But it was made 64 years ago about events that, in reality, happened nearly 70 years ago, so that does date it. But underneath that is something universal – the dedication of visionary people who want to the move the world forwards, whatever the cost – personal and otherwise. And it makes for really good cinema
The Sound Barrier is released on DVD today and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 14 April.