I talked about David Lean's 1952 film The Sound Barrier on last week's Americarnage (you can link to it here; it's episode 211, in the '3 Points' section early on). What I didn't mention was I actually think I'd seen the film before; when I was 7 or 8 years old, at my uncle's summer camp. I can't be sure: I remember Run Silent Run Deep; The Harlem Globetrotters Story; The Jackie Robinson Story and Jim Thorpe: All American more clearly, but as soon as it started I felt a familiarity, a sense I might have seen it (as I did, perhaps a couple of years later, Pork Chop Hill, in the great hall up there in New Hampshire) but the realization came of how strange it must have been, and, now that I have lived in this country nearly 40 years, how strange the film may seem to a younger generation.
The Sound Barrier has just been re-released on DVD, in a version restored by the BFI National Archive and Studiocanal, with funding from the David Lean Foundation. Watching the modest interview which appears as an extra, I learned this was Lean's personal favourite among his films, which might come as a surprise, given his enduring fame for his early adaptations and later epics. But it was a project he put together himself, out of fascination with the story of trying to break the speed of sound, and its concern echo some of his other films.
I thought first of In Which We Serve, another film I think of as an 'anti-epic', in that it tells an epic story by bringing it down to a personal one, and it emphasises sacrifice rather than triumph. That film was Noel Coward's personal project, and he brought Lean in, much as Lean and Alexander Korda brought in Terrence Rattigan to write the screenplay for The Sound Barrier.
The story's based on the story of Geoffrey DeHavilland, who lost two sons testing his experimental jet, and its early focus is on John Ridgefield, the aircraft manufacturer played by Ralph Richardson, and test pilot Tony Garthwaite, played by Nigel Patrick, who marries Ridgefield's daughter Susan (Ann Todd). Denholm Elliott is the son being pushed to fly, although he's not very good at it, and John Justin is Philip Peel, Tony's wartime buddy who becomes his fellow test pilot.
It's a film about ambition and loss, about obsession and challenge, with the fabric of an almost Learish family dominance about it. Richardson plays that classical motif in a most understated way. He won a BAFTA as best actor, and also the New York Film Critics Award, but became the first actor not to double the New York award at the Oscars. His performance, in its theatricality, puts him at a tangent to the rest of the cast, who are being more natural—but this is English natural in the 1950s, and hence extremely stiff and almost self-conscious, particularly in its concessions to film glamour, particularly the ritual lighting of cigarettes: the contrast makes Richardson's work more powerful. It's a little odd that Joseph Tomelty as Will Sparks, the engineer figure who is the equivalent of Frank Whittle, whose engine design enabled the breaking of the sound barrier, is played with a characteristic Irish comic relief, as if this were a John Ford film.
This is the part of the film modern audiences may not quite get; this stiffness. Justin is like a prototype Peter O'Toole, with none of the animism; Todd, whose marriage to Lean (his third of six) finally broke during this filming, often seems to be suffering more off-stage than on. In contrast, Dinah Sheridan, as Peel's wife Jess, seems the most natural character in the film. There's an odd scene where Patrick takes Todd for lunch in Cairo: it's a travelogue celebrating the wonder of a four-hour trip to Egypt; only after lunch does he remember he has no way to get back to Britain, having delivered the plane he was flying—this leads to a short commercial, as it were, for BOAC. The Cairo scene concludes with Jess (see right) accepting that Peel will soon go back to Britain to join Tony as a test pilot; the flying doesn't seem to have lessened Susan's fear of the air.
The story, of course, is fictionalised, and gets around the ultimate problem that it was Chuck Yeager, in America, who broke the sound barrier (you could look at that portion of The Right Stuff as the more overstated yet underplayed version of this film), but Lean solves that problem in style, because it is the personal challenge which is what finally must be overcome, finding the key to controlling the jet airplane. This allows the movie to triumph even if they never actually say the barrier is broken, and reinforces the film's interior epic concerns.
You might think those an awkward fit with Rattigan, but if anything the family drama is more powerful than the aerial challenge. The somewhat unsung hero here is cinematographer Jack Hildyard, who works in different styles, sometimes suggesting film noir, sometimes a deep-focus trapped feeling, sometimes a tumultuous background. Obviously there's a lot of second unit work which is very good, and there one's lovely visual metaphor that goes unremarked: when Peel watches a swallow diving, as if giving him the clue to piloting; I was sure he would credit his feathered friend for the advice. Malcolm Arnold's score is a mix of sometimes overdone cliché and sometimes wonderful emotional background: there are a number of passages of something sounding like a theremin in which I could hear echoed any number of Sixties British TV dramas.
In Lean's films we are often engrossed by the struggle within being played out on a grander stage, certainly it's the core of Lawrence Of Arabia, Bridge On The River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago, the three epics which took nearly 20 years of his career, where the stage seems to run away with the interior conflicts. In that sense, we might see The Sound Barrier as a bridge between Brief Encounter or the Dickens films and those grander scale movies, and understand well why Lean loved it so much.