As a belated Christmas present to myself, I invested in a copy of ITV’s David Lean Collection, a boxset that contains the great director’s British output (before he became a global commodity). Most of its ten titles I’ve seen before. A few – Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter, Great Expectations – are firm favourites and a real pleasure to own in such beautifully restored formats. Not even the best film makers get away without the occasional lesser piece; Lean always walked a fine line between magnificent spectacle and over-indulgence and for my first Tuesday’s Forgotten Film entry, I’ve picked a title from this collection that spills into the latter.
The Sound Barrier was one of those rarest of Lean experiences – a first time viewing. I can kind of see why. All the film’s credentials are present and correct – Terence Rattigan screenplay, Ralph Richardson and Ann Todd on the bill, access to some of the top aircraft of the day – but the end result doesn’t quite succeed. There are two basic reasons for this.
The first is that it’s hogwash. Absolute tripe. Attempts to break the sound barrier were the stuff of Cold War secrecy, meaning few people going to see this film in Britain would have known that it had already been breached in America five years previously. At the film’s première in America, Chuck Yeagar – the pilot credited with achieving supersonic speeds in the Bell X-1 – put in a public appearance, undermining The Sound Barrier’s credibility and turning a ‘worst kept secret’ into public knowledge. Yeagar went further, pointing out that the film’s method of successfully breaking the sound barrier would never have worked out in reality, leading only to another pilot’s death. And indeed, to a twenty first century viewer’s eyes, even one whose knowledge of aerospace engineering extends to the occasional episode of Horizon, it does seem fanciful.
Rattigan’s screenplay was based on newspaper articles of the time and followed loosely the story of the de Havilland Aircraft Company. Its founder and designer, Geoffrey de Havilland, was famous for his cutting edge, experimental innovations, one of which led to the tragic death of his son. A couple of de Havilland’s creations appear in the film, as does the family loss, though the film’s victim – Denholm Elliott’s callow Christopher – who dies from inexperience and nerves appears to be a far cry from the real Captain de Havilland (his death came a year after he’d been awarded the OBE). Rattigan’s work led to an Oscar nomination, in particular for its ‘semi-documentary’ style. A pity that its premise rested on factual inaccuracies, not to mention the expense for the approach he took, which was a surprisingly boring and mostly tension free film (Reason Number Two).
Some critics have blamed Nigel Patrick, the actor playing hotshot pilot Tony Garthwaite. Tony’s wartime adventures end in marriage to Susan (Todd) and a job in the family business as a test pilot for her father, aerospace innovator John Ridgefield (Richardson). Intended to be the very epitome of flying derring-do, thus living up the film’s fantastic tagline ‘They lived and loved, like the jets they flew – fast and dangerous!’, Tony turns out to be a bit of a charisma-free zone. So stiff is his upper lip that we never really learn what he feels about taking off in his father in-law’s increasingly experimental flying machines. In doing so, Patrick hands the emotional core to Todd, whilst Richardson walks off with the acting chops as the driven, apparently detached Ridgefield.
The Sound Barrier’s first half passes largely without incident. Signs of the tension between Susan and her father are teased at, whilst Ridgefield and Tony look at engines, marvelling at the loud noises they make as the latter becomes the kind of son he clearly doesn’t believe has much much of in Christopher. It’s only following Christopher’s inevitable death that the narrative begins to show any sign of flagging into life. Whilst Susan grieves, the utter lack of emotional involvement shown by Ridgefield is astonishing. The deaths don’t seem to matter, even now. All that does is the science, pushing the limits. In a couple of symbolically obvious but neat scenes, Ridgefield can be found late at night in his home observatory, his telescope fixed on distant galaxies as a reflection of his restless, limitless imagination.
Elsewhere, we get to see why several planes earned credits of their own in the title sequence. Lean and cinematographer Jack Hildyard were clearly briefed to turn their shoot into a love affair with air travel. Shots linger over fuselage in a way they rarely do for Todd, the director’s wife at the time. Far more impressive is the in-air shooting, some of which includes archive footage but from which it’s possible to get a sense of the speed even those pre-supersonic jets possessed. Loveliest of all are the distance shots of planes rising, gliding and diving through the clouds, the perspective making them appear to be the tiny bugs fighting nature that they no doubt in reality were.
The Academy recognised The Sound Barrier’s sound recording achievement, handing over the Oscar for a series of engine roars that hint at the raw power being dealt with. The sonic boom, when it comes, is a moment of real triumph. By this stage, however, it feels like the reward at the end of an endurance test. Perhaps there was something here for lovers of air technology, the camera’s fetish with all the body work and power that – whilst not as obvious as Top Gun – detracts from the plot. Not that there is much of a story, such elements playing distinct second fiddle to the planes, which are clearly the real stars here. A shame also that none of comes close to the truth.