Breaking the Sound Barrier (1952)
Director: David Lean
Writer: Terence Rattigan
Producer: David Lean
Cinematographer: Jack Hildyard
by Jon Cvack
The Sound Barrier is a film most comparable to The Right Stuff (1983), The Spirt of St. Louis (1957), Hidden Agenda (1990), or First Man; following the collaboration of great scientific minds as they work toward achieving a technological goal. The genre contains specific tropes - some die during its pursuit; the technology seems insurmountable, then achieved; and once achieved, the technology often has another problem which could lead to mortal consequences. I struggle to think of more films that’d fit the description, leading me to believe that David Lean might have been the first to explore the idea.
Released in 1952, the story takes place at a jet laboratory run by its owner John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson) who’s determined to be the first to break the sound barrier at any cost, knowing the wealth it could create. His son Christopher Ridgefield (Denholm Elliott) is crazed with achieving the feat, though more for recognition by his father than any record. To combat the liability, John then brings on his daughter, Susan’s (Ann Todd) husband as an additional pilot, Tony Garthwaite (Nigel Patrick), who John takes an immediate liking to; treating him like the son Christopher could never be.
Lean’s ability is far more through the power of blocking and suggestion than any specific line or melodramatic action. Like all the great directors, he packs an emotional punch into each and every scene. Later, John takes Tony to see what he made the journey out for; showing him the jet engine testing facility and providing one of our first glimpses at the sheer power being created. Keep in mind, Mach 2 wasn’t even broken until a year after this film’s release. What we were witnessing was history in the making; a story exploring a problem, knowing it’d soon get resolved.
Tony attempts to achieve Mach 2 the same way others have tried: flying as high as possible and then entering into a nosedive, attempting to break through before crashing into the ground. During one test flight, Tony tries the maneuver. Filming actual planes, both on the land and the ground by flying the camera through the air, we watch as Tony flies up and speeds down, failing to hit speed and in a horrifying shot, crashes into the ground. I struggle to think of any film from the era +/- 20 years that so effectively used a model airplane for such a sequence. Lean doesn’t dwell on it, perfectly framing the vessel in a long shot, providing us nothing more than a straight crash onto the ground, cutting away to the others who watch, and back to show the plane exploding.
Susan is horrified by the loss of her brother, but her father continues the mission, finishing up their latest jet design - named “Prometheus” - with company engineer Fletcher (Ralph Michael) who starts to doubt the mission, given the cost its bearing on all those involved. Nevertheless, Tony steps up, attempting to fly the new jet and break the barrier. In a series of shots throughout the town, we watch as the plane rips through the sky overhead; looking as real as anything I’ve seen.
After numerous attempts, Tony again flies to 40,000 feet and races down, inching toward Mach 2 until finally breaking it; the boom heard through the town, though he too fails to escape before crashing into Earth; sacrificing himself for, at best, the science and at worst, his pride in being the first to achieve the record. It’s an inner struggle best compared to First Man where we watch as Neil Armstrong’s narcissistic pursuit of being the first person to land on the moon; sacrificing all those around him for, at best, the name of science, though what is arguably his own selfish pursuit to achieve immortality; ignoring all those who love and worry about him.
However, counter to Chazelle’s movie, Tony never seemed entirely self-centered, so much as realizing that his mission would go on to assist the world as it battled greater evils. To have John die as well as Tony was a bold move; as being fictional, it could have been so easy to just have him eject and survive. Lean portrays the great sacrifice, shot only six years after Britain continued to recover from the horrors of WWII. There’s great honor in what they achieve, though perhaps it's by showing the complexity of human emotion. From John’s detachment, equally as driven as Christopher but failing to make the sacrifice; to showing Susan deal with the direct consequences; to what drove Tony and Christopher to sacrifice so much. It’s a movie as great as any of Lean’s greatest works, and being the last film available from what I can find, further proves he’s one of cinema’s greatest and most versatile directors; maximizing images and character to tell an already engaging story.
BELOW: Lean does it all
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