Film - The Sound Barrier


Tony Cross aims for Mach 1 as he watches the classic The Sound Barrier, out now on DVD and Blu-ray...

For a film that doesn’t seem to sit high in the list of ‘great British films’ this has heavy duty pedigree. It’s written by Terence Rattigan, a playwright of some reputation in the 1950s (a reputation that has fallen and risen again) and directed by David Lean, which isn’t a bad combination to begin with.

This is only Lean’s third film but he seems to be more focused on the environment than the actors. In Lawrence of Arabia the desert is one of the stars of the film. In The Sound Barrier it is the sky. It begins with a Spitfire wheeling through a wartime sky, its Merlin engine roaring. It reminded me of the beginning of the Powell & Pressburger film, A Canterbury Tale.

Throughout the film it is the flight sequences that impress. And not just the flight sequences. We get several glimpses of the stars. Of the universe as a whole. In a way this film is about man’s battle against the universe, which makes it sound so much bigger than the other way you can read this film: as the story of a driven man who looks like he’s going to drive his family away, which makes it sound like something of a cliché. Except somehow it isn’t.

Ralph Richardson plays John Ridgefield, the wealthy owner of an aircraft factory. We’re introduced to him after we’ve met his daughter, Susan (Ann Todd) and her husband, Tony Garthwaite (Nigel Patrick) and Ridgefield’s presence looms over the early sequences. When Susan brings Tony home to meet her family, we discover that her brother Christopher (Denholm Elliott) is preparing to join the RAF, even though he doesn’t want to. He’s not a pilot. He feels forced into doing it by his father’s looming reputation. It is doomed to not end well.

Richardson is astonishingly good in this. There’s a fantastic sequence towards the end of the film when Susan, who is on the verge of being utterly estranged from her father, is sitting in her father’s office. They’re trying to have a conversation about schools for his grandson but meanwhile a test flight is going on, broadcast into the office. This test flight – like a lot of test flights – is dangerous. Other pilots have died. It is this scene that shows Susan what her father has actually been going through. How alone he is. It is Richardson’s performance that makes the scene so strong.


If you’ve seen Rattigan’s plays you can see his approach in the screenplay. There’s a bit of that British theatrical acting that sometimes makes British films made before the 1960s seems so alien to us now but I find that kind of old-school British emotional reticence is often more heart-breaking than some of the full on emotional explosions. Having said that – again towards the end – when test pilot Philip Peel (John Justin,) having survived a dangerous but successful flight, is bustled by his wife Jess (Dinah Sheridan) about a domestic issue. She rushes off and he utterly breaks down which is unusual for a British film of the time. There’s no hysteria though.

Lean’s direction throughout is superb, even if the flight sequences (which are astonishing) were directed by the second unit apparently. In fact, Lean was apparently incredibly proud of this film technically, which isn’t surprising when you’ve watched it.

The other thing about this film that makes it so good is that it is one of those films where science is made to be genuinely exciting. It reminds me a little of The Dambusters in terms of the mix of ideas and action. There’s a real feeling here that, once the British have broken the sound barrier, then the next step would be out into space. The final shot of the film really seems to bring that home. Man is meant to break out into an uncaring universe.

In the real world though it would be an American, Chuck Yeagar, who became the first man to break the sound barrier. It would be American test pilots who made up a large chunk of the first astronauts (which is a story told in Tom Wolfe’s brilliant book, The Right Stuff. Indeed, in The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe tells the story of Chuck Yeagar’s response to The Sound Barrier after he’d attended the Première. It’s a small world.) It would be the Americans and Russians, not the British, who ventured first into space. The British were now too poor to push on out into the Universe. But this feels, despite the family issues inside it, like one of the last films to be so gloriously optimistic about what Britain could achieve. And about the future.

There’s a scene, when Tony & Susan fly to Cairo in a Vampire jet and they fly over various places on the way. The flight over Athens seems explicitly – cutting as it does to the ruins and statues of the past and then to the gleaming modern jet – to be the past being put in its place. Susan at some point during this sequence says that the world seems to becoming a smaller place and she’s not sure if she likes it. Susan is, in many ways, always the voice of doubt in the film. Is all this risk worth it she seems to be asking – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.

So The Sound Barrier is a film I feel should be nudged up a little higher in the list of great British films. Perhaps it would be better perceived if all the acting was up to the level of Ralph Richardson’s performance. It’s not bad acting, it’s just that some of it is obvious acting. But, like the fact that The Cruel Sea isn’t just a great war film but genuinely one of the best British films of all time; The Sound Barrier is much more than just a film about planes.

Definitely worth watching.

Images - Studiocanal