THE SOUND BARRIER
BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER
The Sound Barrier is a film that is struck with awe at the scientific possibilities offered by the Jet Age. For instance, the models of the planes used in the film are listed right after the names of the actors. There is a long sequence inserted solely to show the sheer amazement of flying from England to Cairo in five hours rather than five days. This was also the first film to use aerial footage of actual jets.
It is interesting to compare The Sound Barrier to Philip Kaufmans film of The Right Stuff (1983). Both are concerned with the breaking of the sound barrier. The Right Stuff is enamoured with the sheer ballsy heroism of the men, their ability to stand above normal fear their having the right stuff. On the other hand, The Sound Barrier regards such a breakthrough as being an enormously risky but that the men are simply ordinary pilots doing their duty. The Right Stuff concerns itself with the human challenge to achieve extraordinary feats; in contrast, The Sound Barrier concerns itself with the question of whether sending men into almost certainly fatal situations is a fair cost of progress. It would have been interesting to see The Right Stuff written from this perspective of the moral doubts the engineers and controllers must have had in not being certain that the pilots would survive in the planes and rockets they designed. In fact, this focus makes The Sound Barrier into a Frankenstein film of sorts and paints the ambition of Ralph Richardsons industrialist as monstrous for so demandingly pushing the people that work for him. Ultimately of course, the sound barrier is broken and the human cost is seen as having been worth it. The film goes out on an end speech, reminiscent of the end of Things to Come (1936), with Ralph Richardson and daughter Ann Todd looking up at the stars and he commenting The universe is so unconscious of our presence, with the implication being that now that they have the courage, vision and engineering know-how, the universe is the next barrier.
Ralph Richardson plays with a determined ruthlessness. It is a bullish performance that dominates the entire film and one that had Richardson receiving a number for awards for the part the BAFTAs, the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle Award. The film itself was nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar and won the BAFTA for Best Picture and the National Board of Review Award for Best Foreign Picture.
The Sound Barrier was one of the films of the celebrated British director David Lean who went onto make the likes of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dr Zhivago (1965), among others. David Lean only ever made one other genre film, the Noel Coward ghost comedy Blithe Spirit (1945).