Ranking: #20/111

Director: David Lean (Britain)

Genre: Social Drama

The Sound Barrier, like The Rocking Horse Winner, is a seriously underrated film. David Lean’s aviation masterpiece could even be Britain’s finest ever film. For one thing, it’s a great human drama, conveying lots of thematic meaning and depth. For another, it’s prescient about how an obsession with technological advancement, especially when allied to the capitalist profit motive, has the potential to undermine the very humanity of society. The seductive power of technology is shown throughout the film. Finally, it brings a fine, powerfully acted narrative fully alive with film’s finest artistic expressiveness, especially with its fine aviation cinematography and an incredible soundscape. There are several stunning aerial perspectives captured on the film. We can get “sky fever” just watching them!

I regard this film as a work of cinematic genius.

A beautiful opening shot of seagulls at the cliffs of Dover, followed by a spitfire in flight, sets the right poetic tone for a movie about universal themes, as the sheer beauty of flight is accentuated. This opening sequence gives the viewer the very sensation and joy of flight. It’s vital to show how beguiling the lure of flight is to humans – has been since the dawn of humanity – because the film, on one level, is about an obsession with aviation that gets out of control and ends up becoming sinister in its intensity.

It’s a fictionalised story about British aerospace engineers and jet pilots breaking the sound barrier to inaugurate the era of supersonic flight. Even though it was actually an American flying ace, Brigadier General “Chuck” Yeager, who became the first pilot in history to exceed the speed of sound in flight, this fact doesn’t affect the impact and importance of The Sound Barrier. For Lean, the sound barrier is clearly a metaphor for human progress itself, and he is concerned about the price it often exacts on those living at the cutting edge of advancing technology.

John Ridgefield, whose character is totally incarnated by Ralph Richardson in what may be his finest ever performance, is an aviation tycoon who dreams of breaking the sound barrier in one of his experimental jets, the Prometheus. Lean portrays this quest as nothing less than a primordial “battle of the elements”, pitting mankind’s science against Nature’s overwhelming forces. It is also a battle to the death. No matter how many pilots may die in the great collective effort to conquer the speed of sound, the quest will continue, as long as the fanatical Ridgefield is at the helm, that is.  He embodies one of the main themes of the film, which is the sin of excessive, unbridled ambition.

His visionary obsessiveness starts to impact his family life, leading to deep tensions between him and his daughter, Susan, who, at one point, tells him, “There are evil visions as well as good ones.” Ridgefield’s son, Chris, is killed making his first solo flight and Susan blames her father for his untimely death.

She marries test pilot, Tony Garthwaite, a successful, self-assured wartime fighter pilot, and her father persuades his son-in-law to be his new chief test pilot. He wants him to test fly his company’s latest jet-powered aircraft.

Later, Susan and Tony fly together to Cairo, Egypt, and once again, the majestic photography shows the viewer just how magical aviation can be. Even the Alps look small from up where they are flying!

But, it’s also a dangerous field of human endeavour, especially when the boundaries are being pushed to the limits. The sound barrier is characterised at one point as “a great wall in the sky strong enough to smash a plane to pieces.”

Attempting to go through the sound barrier, Garthwaite crashes and is killed. Susan is shocked at the callousness of her father, who has now lost a son and a son-in-law in the pursuit of his dream. Now pregnant, she moves out of home and goes to live with her friends, Jess and Philip Peel. There, she gives birth to a son.

Peel is another one of Ridgefield’s test pilots. Although much humbler than Tony was, he does have the “right stuff”, possessing the character, the resolve and the imagination to do something never achieved before. As he approaches the speed of sound, Peel performs a counterintuitive action which enables him to push the aircraft beyond the sound barrier while maintaining control. Later that day, after his triumph, the quiet man weeps, revealing the tensions he endured in his epic flight into the Unknown. From the start of the film until this moment no one really knew what would happen to a plane and its pilot when reaching such phenomenal speeds.

Lean respects this Unknown as a source of fear and uncertainty and demonstrates in his narrative how much courage is needed to breach any of its thresholds. The director also brings in the future as part of the Unknown, as those pushing the boundaries seek ways, like H.G. Wells, to “look into the future” and to keep progress, “the process of continuous creation”, going.

The Sound Barrier is a very moving, nuanced Promethean tale.

When we hear the huge sonic boom after Peel has breached the barrier we hear the monstrous bang of progress, because Lean has shown us all sides of progress, the brave, the foolhardy, the sinful, the ambitious, the adventurous and the noble, all bundled into one, ongoing assault on the Unknown. And the next hurdle on the other side of the sound barrier is indicated to be the exploration of Outer Space.

In a touching ending, Susan forgives her father, who has since been knighted for his contributions to the advancement of aviation. She finds a core of caring inside him, deep beneath his aloof, even haughty, demeanour. She and her son go to live with him so that he won’t spend his final years in isolation. In the spirit of the true artist, Lean leaves it up to each viewer how they wish to see Sir John, as a hero or a villain, or a bit of both. This wonderful movie covers the whole gamut of human emotion and imagination.