Stars: Ralph Richardson, Ann Todd, Nigel Patrick, John Justin, Dinah Sheridan, Joseph Tomelty, Denholm Elliot | Written by Terrence Rattigan | Directed by David Lean
David Lean is well known for his romantic dramas (Brief Encounter) and literary adaptations (Great Expectations, Doctor Zhivago), which is why The Sound Barrier, his 1952 semi-biographical portrait of the British struggle to surpass the speed of sound, seems like something of an oddity.
The story focuses on the relationships between an ambitious RAF pilot Tony (Nigel Patrick), his military bride Susan (Ann Todd) her father, John (Ralph Richardson), a wealthy plane manufacturer who has lofty goals and doesn’t mind risking human lives to reach them. A brief prelude sees Susan’s brother Christopher – a small but welcome appearance from Indiana Jones’ Denholm Elliott – attempt to join the air force, despite both a lack of interest in and aptitude for flying. This ominous complication, paired with the young man’s desire to please his demanding father, results in Christopher’s death during his first solo flight.
This event, and the tragedies that later follow, smartly grounds the film in a pathos that might otherwise be missing in a tale about jet engines and the solitary joy of taking to the sky (though the occasional jarring racist jokes do take a bit of the shine off) . The specter of Christopher’s demise hangs over the characters, giving Susan pause for thought when her father offers her husband a job as a test pilot for his experimental pilot. Tony doesn’t hesitate in taking the job despite Susan’s misgivings, which are dwelt on by Lean’s empathetic camera but utterly disregarded by every other character in the film. It’s a shame that The Sound Barrier doesn’t spend more time in its mid-war passage, as Todd takes on the role of a harried wife and mother once her RAF uniform comes off (in figurative terms, obviously; this was the prudish fifties, after all…).
This is, as you might have guessed, a narrative about Great Men, with all their attendant ideals, brilliance and hubris displayed with scarcely a notion that what they are doing might not actually be worth the risk they take every time Tony lifts off or takes a nose dive. Susan even asks her father the point of all this, whether achieving being able to travel to New York in two hours or beat an enemy bomber to its target is worth the lives lost in the pursuit of such goals. He gives her a rote answer about pioneers doing things because they must, like the first Antarctic explorers and those who scaled Mount Everest, and is about as convincing as you’d think.
The war disappears from The Sound Barrier with little more than a transition and a couple of throwaway lines to note its passing. The film and its characters aren’t concerned with such trifles as global conflict or human suffering except when it concerns them directly, and this gives events an insular feeling, as though the airfield and small town where the characters live were the only places on Earth. A brief sojourn across the ocean sees the romantic leads fly themselves to Cairo, taking in the increasingly smaller landscapes as they comment on how unfamiliar it all seems.
Unfamiliar, too, are the flying scenes. There’s nothing all that cinematic about watching a single fighter plane fly against a clear sky. If this were a war film, there would have been a natural dynamism to Lean’s frames as they captured multiple fighters crossing paths in dogfights, a tension in the elastic distance between them. But there are no dogfights in The Sound Barrier, but that sense of solitude makes the most dramatic scenes – those in which pilots attempt to break Mach 1 and suffer wind buffeting accompanied by their craft practically rattling itself apart – all the more unnerving. The film’s thesis that pioneers achieve momentous leaps forward alone, and often at great personal cost, is reflected in these moments. Although there are people in Ground Control listening to the pilots’ dispatches, there’s a distinct helplessness found in watching their pained faces react to the more dramatic developments. This is the essence of a minor but still engaging and thought-provoking work by Lean: the terror of seeing someone so free and independent, torn from their obligations and literal earthly bonds, knowing that it could have a heavy cost but that, for some, nothing could be more worth it.
A new edition of The Sound Barrier is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 11th April.