The Sound Barrier, one of David Lean’s lesser-known entries into his proud catalogue, is coming to Blu-ray on 11 April thanks to a joint effort from the BFI National Archive, StudioCanal and the David Lean Foundation.
The transfer looks great, old fans of the film will be very pleased with its high-definition sheen. However, those who enter this film after seeing Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia will probably be disappointed because of its poor characterisation and reliance on aerial spectacle, which has inevitably aged after 64 years.
Set in mid-to-late 1940s, the film follows John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson), a wealthy pioneer of aviation who believes the sound barrier can and should be broken. His pursuit is egotistical and uncompassionate, for he considers the project’s fatal danger to be par for the course and justifies the endeavour by comparing himself to Prometheus, the Titan of Greek mythology who ‘came to a sticky end… but gave the world fire.’ The problem with that is it won’t be John who comes to a sticky end, but the brave pilots who are willing to become his guinea pigs.
Caught up in the grand experiment is Tony (Nigel Patrick), John’s son-in-law who eventually serves as his chief test pilot; Susan (Ann Todd), Tony’s concerned wife and John’s somewhat estranged daughter; and Christopher (Denholm Elliot), John’s son, apprehensive heir and doomed first test pilot.
The most interesting element of the film is its historical context; it comes from a time of great innovation and interest in both aviation and science. After the enormous RAF campaigns of the Second World War, aviation had become Britain’s largest industry, and Clement Attlee’s newly elected Labour government realised the importance of maintaining it. Britain’s planes and pilots became a glamorous, jet-powered departure from the bleak post-war austerity, drawing envious world leaders and many thousands of observers to the annual Farnborough air show.
There are parts of The Sound Barrier that revel in this prideful excitement. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the film is Tony and Susan’s romantic adventure to Egypt in a de Hallivand Vampire, gleefully observing Paris, the Alps and the Mediterranean as they cut through the sky. Once the aircraft has been ferried to the right people, Tony and Susan enjoy lunch with friends in sun kissed Cairo. Later that evening, the pair anachronistically set off as passengers in a DH Comet (it wouldn’t have its first flight for another two years), returning to stormy London ‘in only 5 hours!’.
The dominant theme, however, is about the potential immorality of science, about whether there should be limits on scientific endeavour, which was a particularly pertinent question in the years following Hiroshima.
The film may concern a lesser danger than nuclear weaponry, but the danger it depicts was very real – between 1945 and 1951, test pilots were dying almost every month. The most notable of these deaths, and the one that inspired the film’s premise, was Geoffrey de Havilland Jr., whose DH108 broke up over the Thames estuary on 27 September 1946. Unfortunately, just two months after the film’s release, a DH 110 piloted by John Derry and Anthony Richards broke apart after passing the sound barrier at the Farnborough Air Show, killing them both and crushing 28 spectators. Lean’s cautionary tale had turned out to be something of a prophecy.
However, the film’s compelling central theme is spoilt, perhaps even ruined, by a slew of terribly underdeveloped characters that elicit not even a modicum of pathos.
Within about five minutes, Tony and Susan are married without any detail given to their personalities or their relationship. No chemistry develops between them because they generally express their love for each other with either theatrical embraces or risibly corny smooches.
Similarly, the relationship between John and Christopher receives no expansion. John is the distant, domineering patriarch who has given Christopher nothing but a massive trust fund and an even bigger inferiority complex. This dynamic could have simmered and eventually boiled over to much dramatic effect, but it is cut fatally short when Christopher dies in a plane crash just minutes after he is introduced, which is hard to care about when you know so little about him.
The performances are generally competent but decidedly forgettable. Nigel Patrick makes for a dashing leading man, speaking with an eloquent received pronunciation that was typical of the age. Incidentally, Patrick is reminiscent of Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List, albeit a shorter, less commanding version.
Ralph Richardson, the prolific stage actor who shared the limelight with Olivier and Gielgud, delivers an appropriately callous performance as the Ridgefield patriarch. However, his steely facade is seldom tested, we never get beneath the surface. After an altercation with his daughter towards the film’s end, he questions himself only briefly, asking Susan ‘Can a vision be evil?’ Alas, it’s too little, too late.
Ann Todd delivers the worst performance. She’s fine in ordinary conversation and adequately conveys Susan’s concern for her husband’s safety, but Todd fails to deliver when given dramatic range, which cannot be discussed for fear of revealing spoilers.
Perhaps the most accomplished characters are the numerous elegant aircraft.Their awesome power and grace is captured very well for the time, audiences must have been thrilled by the spectacle of these machines being pushed to their perilous, uncharted limits. Although the passage of time has obviously taken its toll on the aerial photography, it certainly remains respectable to the modern viewer.
The Sound Barrier is about an interesting period in Britain’s history and the Blu-Ray release has been well transferred, but the stiff, dull characters quickly explain why it has got lost in the deep, dark shadow of Lean’s masterpieces.
Dir: David Lean
Scr: Terence Rattigan
Cast: Ralph Richardson, Nigel Patrick, Ann Todd
Prd: David Lean
DOP: Jack Hildyard
Music: Malcolm Arnold
Run time: 118 minutes