Friday, 20 September 2013

Mid-Century Movie - Sound Barrier 1952

movie poster - the sound barrier, 1952

The Sound Barrier is a British film released in 1952, directed by David Lean and starring (Sir) Ralph Richardson, Nigel Patrick, and Lean's wife of the time, Ann Todd. 

David Lean, director c. 1950s
David Lean in Italy, 1950s
The Sound Barrier was a great box-office success, 12th highest grossing movie of the year, but it is now one of the least-known of Lean's films. I was lucky enough to see it on television last weekend, but it is available on DVD and you can find excerpts on YouTube.

De Havilland Vampire FB.52, c. 1950s
De Havilland Vampire FB.52, c. 1950s
After his 1940s romantic movies including Great Expectations and Brief Encounter, Lean wrestled with an idea for an adventure film for 18 months, tossing out ideas about Livingstone and Malory and Everest, that had already been done, in favour of a new mystery - that of breaking the speed of sound. Lean was inspired by reading about real-life aircraft designer Geoffrey de Havilland and his test-pilot son who died attempting to fly faster than sound in 1946 -  after WWII Britain actually were among the leaders in aircraft design.  Lean asked famed screen-play writer Terrence Rattigan to write the script, and as it's based on real-life events the movie has a sort of semi-documentary feel to it.

Jet plane explodes, the sound barrier, 1952

American Chuck Yeager actually broke the sound barrier in 1947, so much of the film is pure fiction, but even if you are not the least interested in aviation and jets, the film is never dated or boring, with strong characters, wonderful actors a good score and beautiful black and white photography.

Tony inspecting the jet model with owner JR, the sound barrier, 1952
Tony inspecting the jet model with owner JR
.JR, the owner (Ralph Richardson) of an aircraft company is determined to break the sound barrier. To this end, despite the trepidation from his daughter Susan (Ann Todd, wife of David Lean), he recruits his new son in law and ex-WWII fighter pilot, Tony Garthwaite  (Nigel Patrick) as a test pilot for his program in spite of the dangers.  Tony's proposal at the start of the movie is one of nice lighthearted moments of the movie.

The sound barrier, 1952 animated gif

The film gives you a good understanding of the excitement that those pilots and aircraft engineers must have felt during the transition from propeller planes to jet travel - I mean can you imagine -  as well as the trepidation of the waiting wives, and company owner.  In an attempt to break the sound barrier, Garthwaite crashes and is killed.  His pregnant wife is not only shocked at the death of her husband, but is upset by her father's heartless approach to the dangers his test pilots face. "There are evil visions, as well as goo ones father" she tells JR as she walks out on him, taking her baby son with her.

In the end the sound barrier is broken, and both Susan and her father are listening to the pilot on the radio while he is flying.  The camera angles here are intense and clever - great directing. (These are my first attempts at animated gifs by the way!)

breaking the sound barrier animated gif 

Susan finally accepts that her father did care about those whose lives were lost in tests.  She brings her young son with her back to home and her father, and the final scene sees JR looking through his telescope at t he moon - and you just know where his thoughts are headed now!

Richardson won the New York Film Critics award for best actor for his role, but wan't nominated for an Oscar (Humphery Bogart won in 1952). Today it's probably one of Lean's least seen films - his major movies being  The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and A Passage to India (1984).

I give this 8/10 - watch it if you can.


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