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The Sound Barrier

This article is about the 1952 film. For other uses of the term "sound barrier", see Sound barrier (disambiguation).

The Sound Barrier
Directed by David Lean
Produced by David Lean
Written by Terence Rattigan
Starring Ralph Richardson
Ann Todd
Nigel Patrick
John Justin
Denholm Elliott
Music by Malcolm Arnold
Cinematography Jack Hildyard
Edited by Geoffrey Foot
Distributed by London Films
British Lion Films
United Artists
Release dates
  • 22 July 1952 (1952-07-22)
Running time
118 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget £250,000[1]
Box office £227,978 (UK)[2]

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.[3]


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):[4]

Actor Role
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
Vincent Holman Factor
Ralph Michael Fletcher
Douglas Muir Controller
Leslie Phillips Controller


The strong relationship to aviation history in The Sound Barrier has led to its being characterised as a "semi-documentary".[5] 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.[6] [7]

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.[8] 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.[9][10]

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.[14] [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.[16] [17][18]

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.[20] 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,[21] 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. [22][Note 5]

Malcolm Arnold (later Sir Malcolm Arnold) composed the music score, his first of three films with David Lean.[24] The two other collaborations were Hobson's Choice (1954) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).[25]


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."[26]

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."[20]

The Sound Barrier was the 12th most popular movie at the British box office in 1952,[27] and also did well in the United States, making a comfortable profit.[1] Later releases in both VHS and DVD home versions have taken place.


Academy Awards

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.

BAFTA Awards

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)



  1. ^ Drawing on ancient mythology, Ridgefield notes that "... Prometheus ... stole fire from the gods."
  2. ^ 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,[11] but the U.S. reneged on the agreement and no data was forthcoming in return.[12][13]
  3. ^ 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.[15]
  4. ^ The film crew had a near-tragic episode on the Lancaster bomber as they suffered from hypoxia when their oxygen system failed.[19]
  5. ^ Following the opening credits, a list of the aircraft appearing in the film, was shown.[23]


  1. ^ a b Kulik 1990, p. 316.
  2. ^ Porter 2000, p. 498.
  3. ^ Pratley 19874, p. 106.
  4. ^ "The Sound Barrier full credits", IMDb. Retrieved: 30 April 2015.
  5. ^ Paris 1995, pp. 173–174.
  6. ^ Pendo 1985, p. 137.
  7. ^ Hardwick and Schnepf 1989, p. 69.
  8. ^ Pendo 1985, pp. 133, 135.
  9. ^ Davenport-Hines, Richard. "Havilland, Sir Geoffrey de (1882–1965)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  10. ^ de Havilland 1999, pp. 169–170.
  11. ^ Wood 1975, p. 36.
  12. ^ Bancroft, Dennis. "Faster Than Sound." NOVA Transcripts, PBS, air date: 14 October 1997. Retrieved: 26 April 2009.
  13. ^ Brown 2012, p. 87.
  14. ^ Carlson 2012, p. 212.
  15. ^ Yeager et al. 1997, p. 97.
  16. ^ Yeager and Janos 1986, pp. 206–207.
  17. ^ Brown 2008, p. 212.
  18. ^ "Faster Than Sound" (transcript). PBS, Airdate: 14 October 1997. Retrieved: 28 April 2015.
  19. ^ Carlson 2012, pp. 211–212.
  20. ^ a b Pendo 1985, p. 135.
  21. ^ Davies and Birtles 1999, p. 15.
  22. ^ Winchester 2005, pp. 312–313.
  23. ^ Hamilton-Paterson 2010, p. 46.
  24. ^ "Malcolm Arnold." Music Sales Classical, 2014. Retrieved: 30 April 2015.
  25. ^ "The Film Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold, Vol. 1." Retrieved: 30 April 2015.
  26. ^ Crowther, Bosely. "Breaking the Sound Barrier (1952); The Screen: A quality British import; ' Breaking Through the Sound Barrier,' based on Rattigan story, at the Victoria; Ralph Richardson, Ann Todd and Nigel Patrick head cast of film on jet airplanes." The New York Times, 7 November 1952.
  27. ^ "Comedian tops film poll." The Sunday Herald, p. 4 via National Library of Australia, 28 December 1952. Retrieved: 24 April 2012.
  28. ^ "The 25th Academy Awards (1953) Nominees and Winners." Retrieved: 20 August 2011.


  • Brown, Eric. The Miles M.52: Gateway to Supersonic Flight. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: The History Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-7524-7014-6.
  • Brown, Eric. Wings on my Sleeve. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006. ISBN 978-0-297-84565-2.
  • Carlson, Mark. Flying on Film: A Century of Aviation in the Movies, 1912–2012. Duncan, Oklahoma: BearManor Media, 2012. ISBN 978-1-59393-219-0.
  • Davies, R.E.G. and Philip J. Birtles. Comet: The World's First Jet Airliner. McLean, Virginia: Paladwr Press, 1999. ISBN 1-888962-14-3.
  • de Havilland, Geoffrey. Sky Fever: The Autobiography of Sir Geoffrey De Havilland. Ramsbury, Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK: Crowood Press Ltd., 1999. ISBN 1-84037-148-X.
  • Hamilton-Paterson, James. Empire of the Clouds: When Britain's Aircraft Ruled the World. London: Faber & Faber, 2010. ISBN 978-0-5712-4795-0.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies." The Making of the Great Aviation Films. General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Kulik, Karol. Alexander Korda: The Man Who Could Work Miracles. London: Virgin, 1990. ISBN 978-0-86369-446-2.
  • Paris, Michael. From the Wright Brothers to Top gun: Aviation, Nationalism, and Popular Cinema. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-7190-4074-0.
  • Pendo, Stephen. Aviation in the Cinema. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1985. ISBN 0-8-1081-746-2.
  • Porter, Vincent. "The Robert Clark Account." Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 20 No. 4, 2000.
  • 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.
  • Wood, Derek. Project Cancelled. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc., 1975. ISBN 0-672-52166-0.
  • 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.

External links