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SOUND BARRIER, THE (aka: BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER) (director: David Lean; screenwriter: Terence Rattigan; cinematographer: Jack Hildyard; editor: ; music: Malcolm Arnold; cast: Ralph Richardson (J.R. Ridgefield), Ann Todd (Sue Ridgefield Garthwaite), Nigel Patrick (Tony Garthwaite), John Justin (Philip Peel), Joseph Tomelty (Will Scott), Denholm Elliott (Christopher Ridgefield), Dinah Sheridan (Jess Peel); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: David Lean; Lionsgate; 1952-UK)
It’s both Lean’s technical know-how and his ability to make the melodrama moving that makes this a superior film of this ilk.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

David Lean(“Lawrence of Arabia”/”Dr. Zhivago”/”Blithe Spirit”)directs this curio black and white visionary Jet Age film about test pilots trying to break the sound barrier by using cutting edge jet technology. The film can possibly be classified as a work of science fiction (since it concerns a scientific breakthrough). It’s filled with good British aerial footage from the 1950s and also features the comet airliner, the world’s first jet passenger plane. The taut and literate screenplay is by Terence Rattigan, who mixes in some domestic upset into his fictional heroic flying story. It’s both Lean’s technical know-how and his ability to make the melodrama moving that makes this a superior film of this ilk. It’s only loosely based on the true story of Geoffrey De Havilland, a test pilot and aircraft designer and manufacturer who advocated jets.

Tony Garthwaite (Nigel Patrick) is an ace RAF fighter pilot during World War II. He marries Sue Ridgefield (Ann Todd, the director’s wife). Her wealthy oil magnate father, J.R. Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson), also designs and manufactures airplanes. The tycoon obsesses over building the first jet to break the sound barrier, as he’s wrapped up in patriotic and egocentric desires to succeed. Tony volunteers to test those experimental jets, but Sue becomes increasingly frightened that her ambitious driven father takes too many risks and cares more about breaking the record and making history than the human cargo. Already dad’s first son was killed on his first solo attempt. Sue will become estranged from dad when Tony crashes and dad seems more interested in what’s wrong with the jet.

It’s upper-crust stiff upper-lip Brit stuff, but it more or less transfers well into contemporary times (the elite use “gosh” in their speak too often for moderns) and maintains an excitement even as a peacetime film. Also, the acting is top-flight.

Of note, the sound barrier had been broken five years earlier in October, 1947 by the American Chuck Yeager–something the pic chooses to ignore for its own purposes.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”