The Sound Barrier
|The Sound Barrier|
|Directed by||David Lean|
|Produced by||David Lean|
|Written by||Terence Rattigan|
|Music by||Malcolm Arnold|
|Edited by||Geoffrey Foot|
British Lion Films
|Box office||£227,978 (UK)|
The Sound Barrier (aka in the United States, as Breaking Through the Sound Barrier and Breaking the Sound Barrier) is a British 1952 film directed by David Lean. It is a fictional story about attempts by aircraft designers and test pilots to break the sound barrier. David Lean's third and final film with his wife Ann Todd was also his first for Alexander Korda's London Films, following the break-up of Cineguild. The Sound Barrier stars Ralph Richardson, Ann Todd and Nigel Patrick.
The Sound Barrier was a great box-office success, but it is now rarely seen and has become one of the least-known of Lean's films. Following on In Which We Serve (1942), the film is another of Lean's ventures into a genre of filmmaking where impressions of documentary film are created.
After his aircraft company's groundbreaking work on jet engine technology in the Second World War, John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson), its wealthy owner, employs test pilot Tony Garthwaite (Nigel Patrick), a successful wartime fighter pilot to fly new jet-powered aircraft. Garthwaite is hired by Ridgefield after marrying Ridgefield's daughter, Susan (Ann Todd). Tensions between father and daughter are accentuated by Garthwaite's dangerous job of test flying. In a noteworthy illustration of the new technology, Susan accompanies Garthwaite on a ferrying assignment of a two-seater de Havilland Vampire to Cairo, Egypt, returning later the same day as passengers on the de Havilland Comet.
Ridgefield's hopes for his new jet fighter, "Prometheus",[Note 1] has placed the company in jeopardy. The problems faced by the then-new jet aircraft in encountering the speed of sound, the so-called "sound barrier" are ever present. In an attempt to break the sound barrier, Garthwaite crashes and is killed. Shocked at the death of her husband and her father's single-minded and heartless approach to the dangers his test pilots face, Susan walks out on her father and goes to live with Jess (Dinah Sheridan), the wife of Philip Peel (John Justin), another company test pilot. Ridgefield approaches Peel, encouraging him to continue with the challenge of piloting his test aircraft. In one crucial flight, and at the critical moment, engaging in a counterintuitive action, Peel reverses his flight controls, allowing his aircraft to break the sound barrier.
Accepting that her father cared about those whose lives were lost in tests, Susan changes her plan of moving to London and takes her young son with her back to home and Sir John.
As appearing in screen credits (main roles identified):
|Ralph Richardson||John Ridgefield|
|Ann Todd||Susan Garthwaite|
|Nigel Patrick||Tony Garthwaite|
|John Justin||Philip Peel|
|Denholm Elliott||Christopher Ridgefield|
|Joseph Tomelty||Will Sparks|
|Dinah Sheridan||Jess Peel|
|Jack Allen||Windy Williams|
|Anthony Snell||Peter Makepeace|
|Donald Harron||ATA officer|
The strong relationship to aviation history in The Sound Barrier has led to its being characterised as a "semi-documentary". The film pays tribute to the British effort in the historic advance in aviation of the development and final perfecting of the jet engine by Frank Whittle and Power Jets Ltd and others following. 
David Lean had begun to gather research based on media reports of jet aircraft approaching supersonic speeds, interviewing British aeronautic designers. He even managed to fly with test pilots as he produced a 300-page notebook that he turned over to playwright Terence Rattigan. The subsequent screenplay concentrated on the newly discovered problems of flying at supersonic speeds. The screenplay is also loosely based on the real-life story of aircraft designer Geoffrey de Havilland and the loss of his son (Geoffrey de Havilland, Jr.), the de Havilland company's test pilot who died attempting to fly faster than sound in the DH 108.
Contrary to what is depicted in the film, the first aircraft to break the sound barrier was the rocket-powered Bell X-1 flown by Chuck Yeager of the United States Air Force in 1947. [Note 2] As Yeager, who was present at the U.S. premiere, described in his first biography, The Sound Barrier was entertaining, but not that realistic – and any pilot who attempted to break the sound barrier in the manner portrayed in the film (the one action, forcing the centre stick "forward" to pull "out" of a dive) would have been killed. [Note 3] Nevertheless, because the 1947 Bell X-1 flight had not been widely publicized, many who had seen The Sound Barrier thought it was a true story in which the first supersonic flight is made by British pilots. 
With studio filming at Shepperton Studios, Lean also deployed to Chilbolton Aerodrome, Nether Wallop, Hampshire for the flying sequences under the direction of Anthony Squire. A Vickers Valetta and Avro Lancaster bomber served as camera platforms for the aerial sequences.[Note 4]With the cooperation of the British Aircraft Constructors Association, aircraft that were featured in The Sound Barrier were on loan from Vickers, de Havilland and other British aerospace companies. In addition, footage of early 1950s jet technology in Great Britain used in the film includes scenes of the de Havilland Comet airliner, the world's first jet passenger airliner, the Supermarine Attacker and the de Havilland Vampire. The Supermarine Swift which was featured as the experimental Prometheus jet fighter was one of the Swift prototypes (VV119). Not unlike its screen persona, the Swift was also a particularly troublesome aircraft design that underwent teething development trials. [Note 5]
Malcolm Arnold (later Sir Malcolm Arnold) composed the music score, his first of three films with David Lean. The two other collaborations were Hobson's Choice (1954) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
The Sound Barrier, in its guise as Breaking the Sound Barrier was reviewed by Bosley Crowther in The New York Times. Typical of the many positive reviews, he said, "... this picture, which was directed and produced in England by David Lean from an uncommonly literate and sensitive original script by Terence Rattigan, is a wonderfully beautiful and thrilling comprehension of the power of jet airplanes and of the minds and emotions of the people who are involved with these miraculous machines. And it is played with consummate revelation of subtle and profound characters by a cast headed by Ralph Richardson, Nigel Patrick and Ann Todd."
Film historian Stephen Pendo further described the "... brilliant aerial photography. ... Along with the conventional shot of the aircraft there is some unusual creative camera work. To illustrate the passage of a plane, Lean shows only the wheat in a field being bent by air currents produced by the unseen jet. ... Even the cockpit shots are very good, with the test pilots in G suits and goggles framed by the plexiglass and sky backgrounds."
The Sound Barrier was the 12th most popular movie at the British box office in 1952, and also did well in the United States, making a comfortable profit. Later releases in both VHS and DVD home versions have taken place.
- Winner: Best Sound Recording – London Films
- Nominee: Best story written directly for the screen (Terence Rattigan)
With this film, Ralph Richardson became the first actor to win the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor who did not also go on to win an Oscar nomination.
- Winner Best Film from any Source
- Winner Best British Film
- Winner Best British Actor (Ralph Richardson)
- Nominee Best British Actor (Nigel Patrick)
- Nominee Best British Actress (Ann Todd)
US National Board of Review
- Winner Best Actor (Ralph Richardson)
- Winner Best Director (David Lean)
- Winner Best Foreign Film
- Listed in Top Foreign Films
New York Critics Circle
- Winner Best Actor (Ralph Richardson)
- Drawing on ancient mythology, Ridgefield notes that "... Prometheus ... stole fire from the gods."
- The Bell X-1 was able to achieve supersonic speeds due to an essential British contribution when the Air Ministry signed an agreement with the United States to exchange high-speed aerodynamic research and data. Miles Aircraft Chief Aerodynamicist Dennis Bancroft stated that the Bell Aircraft company was given access to the drawings and research on the M.52, but the U.S. reneged on the agreement and no data was forthcoming in return.
- Control reversal, though applying in this context, is not a legitimate aerodynamic technique: it is actually the result of insufficient tailplane stiffness, the elevators acting as though they were trim tabs twisting the tailplane to produce an aerodynamic effect opposite to that intended.
- The film crew had a near-tragic episode on the Lancaster bomber as they suffered from hypoxia when their oxygen system failed.
- Following the opening credits, a list of the aircraft appearing in the film, was shown.
- Kulik 1990, p. 316.
- Porter 2000, p. 498.
- Pratley 19874, p. 106.
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- Davenport-Hines, Richard. "Havilland, Sir Geoffrey de (1882–1965)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
- de Havilland 1999, pp. 169–170.
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- Bancroft, Dennis. "Faster Than Sound." NOVA Transcripts, PBS, air date: 14 October 1997. Retrieved: 26 April 2009.
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- "Faster Than Sound" (transcript). PBS, Airdate: 14 October 1997. Retrieved: 28 April 2015.
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- "Malcolm Arnold." Music Sales Classical, 2014. Retrieved: 30 April 2015.
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- "Comedian tops film poll." The Sunday Herald, p. 4 via National Library of Australia, 28 December 1952. Retrieved: 24 April 2012.
- "The 25th Academy Awards (1953) Nominees and Winners." oscars.org. Retrieved: 20 August 2011.
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- Pratley, Gerald. The Cinema of David Lean. Aurora, Colorado: Oak Tree Publications, !974. ISBN 978-0-4980-1050-7.
- Winchester, Jim. The World's Worst Aircraft: From Pioneering Failures to Multimillion Dollar Disasters. London: Amber Books Ltd., 2005. ISBN 1-904687-34-2.
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- Yeager, Chuck, Bob Cardenas, Bob Hoover, Jack Russell and James Young. The Quest for Mach One: A First-Person Account of Breaking the Sound Barrier. New York: Penguin Studio, 1997. ISBN 0-670-87460-4.
- Yeager, Chuck and Leo Janos. Yeager: An Autobiography. New York: Bantam Books, 1986. ISBN 0-553-25674-2.
- The Sound Barrier at the Internet Movie Database
- The Sound Barrier at the TCM Movie Database
- Breaking the Sound Barrier at AllMovie