In October 1947 an American WWII combat ace became the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound; his name was Charles “Chuck” Yeager. But let’s not worry about that. We’ll make like Terence Rattigan and David Lean, who were still in post-production for The Sound Barrier when they found out what Yeager had done, and who tried and failed to slip in a line acknowledging him (“We broke the sound barrier, not the damned British! And I’m the guy who did it!!” Yeager burst out to a fellow American when he was invited to the film’s British premiere); and for the rest of the review we’ll pretend it didn’t happen. A British pilot, John Derry, had broken the sound barrier in September 1948, while the Americans were still keeping Yeager’s feat a secret (it’s complicated, and explained here) and Derry is one of the pilots you see in The Sound Barrier’s spectacular flight sequences. For David Lean, it was more of a symbol, a frontier, for his film about obsession. “I’d always wanted to make an adventure film about man’s exploration of the unknown,” he said. “Now here was this ‘sound barrier’ – invisible, yet able to tear an airplane to pieces. Man’s assault on this treacherous mass of air seemed to me the great modern adventure story.”
But he got Terence Rattigan to write it. When you think about Rattigan you think about drawing rooms and difficult love affairs and matters of honour, but he’d also been an RAF pilot and had written about that in The Way To The Stars. At first, he didn’t want to write The Sound Barrier. He didn’t know enough about jet planes. He was persuaded by David Lean and producer Alexander Korda when they took him to the Farnborough Air Exhibition and introduced him to test pilots, and then he wrote a screenplay about jet planes and drawing rooms and difficult love affairs and matters of honour. His inspiration was a true story, that of pioneering aircraft engineer Geoffrey de Havilland, who lost both of his sons in test flights. Rattigan was persuaded, by Korda again, to turn one of the sons into a daughter in their fictionalised version, because that would enable him to cast Ann Todd as the lead, and he thought it would be good publicity if Lean directed his wife in their third picture together. Lean thought it gimmicky and didn’t like the idea. But Korda was very persuasive…
The drawing room in The Sound Barrier is large and vulgar and its owner might refer to it as a lounge. Dashing fighter pilot Tony Garthwaite (Nigel Patrick) has married the daughter of millionaire jet engineer John Ridgefield. Ralph Richardson plays Ridgefield as a blunt, unsympathetic Yorkshireman (I guess those adjectives are redundant) with an incompetent, thrillingly inconsistent accent, to emphasise his self-made origins, just as his gothic-tudor house and libraries of false books that all hide drinks cabinets remind us money can’t buy taste. It can buy you posh children, though: his son and daughter, Chris and Sue, are played with cut-glass accents by Denholm Elliot and Ann Todd. Elliot’s Chris is subtle and complicated and he shines in his small role. Ann Todd, who I’ve never been aware of before, though I’ve seen a few of her films, is quite horrible. It’s impossible to tell whether she’s bad at acting, or unkindly directed by her husband, David Lean, or shaken by the break-up of her marriage, which was happening while the film was being made, or even just given ropey lines to read. Her role is to plead with her father to stop killing the people she loves by putting them in aeroplanes they can’t handle. Ridgefield replies that he has to. He has a vision. Your vision is evil, father, Sue says. Can a vision be evil, Susan? asks Ridgefield. Given that one of the first images in the film is a swastika, I think Sue could come up with a punchier answer, but by the end of the film she’s reached the conclusion that it’s the job of men of vision to follow their obsessions, and the job of women to understand them.
I found it hard to feel for anyone except Denholm Elliot in these stiff, unnatural scenes and the film failed where I expected it to soar, but it was popular and critically acclaimed, winning Oscar nominations and the Bafta for Best British Film. Both Rattigan and Lean were very proud of their work, according to a very enjoyable interview with Rattigan’s biographer Geoffrey Wansall (which is one of the extras on this disc; the other is a 1959 BFI interview with David Lean, in which he flirts a little with the lady who asks the questions). But the success is by no means baffling. The flight sequences, shot by Antony Squire, the film’s second unit director, are tense and exhilarating. In one scene, Susan and Tony fly to Cairo for lunch and the Greek and Egyptian treasures they zip past seem to be watching them. To an audience who had only seen propeller planes and perhaps never flown, the images of heavenly clouds filmed from above and shimmering silver passenger planes must have looked like a science-fiction future – while for the viewer today, John Ridgefield’s creation of an aeroplane that takes us to New York in two hours represents a glamorous, impossible past. It is full of technical inaccuracies that I won’t go into, because, like I understand them, but it’s my hunch that the people who’ll be most infuriated by those blunders are the people who’ll get the most from this strange, half–dead, half-alive film.
The Sound Barrier is out on DVD and Blu-ray from STUDIOCANAL.