There’s a lot to The Sound Barrier. Outside the truly magnificent aerial photography, not much of it has to do with the film itself. Other than director Lean and writer Terence Rattigan rewriting actual history to make it so a private British aircraft company “broke” the sound barrier some five years after Chuck Yeager did it for the United States Air Force. And Rattigan and Lean didn’t keep it technically accurate? I guess… anglo-pride or something.
So the gross historical inaccuracies aside, Sound Barrier adds up to being about why toxic masculinity is wonderful and women–like de facto lead Ann Todd–are silly for doubting men in their heartless pursuits. See, Todd’s dad is the owner of the private aircraft company–Ralph Richardson in a performance far better than the film needs or deserves–and he’s willing to sacrifice anyone to break that sound barrier.
Five years after it actually happened. But whatever.
I mean, even if the film’s set in 1947 or whatever–one of the events portrayed happened in 1946–it should’ve been technically accurate. Lean goes out of his way to use that amazing aerial photography of the test flights and so on, why not have an accurate script. But there’s also the problem of John Justin, who’s got kids presumably born after the war ended and they’re not three or four.
The film starts during the war–another weird thing about Sound Barrier is how assured everyone is the war’s end is imminent even when, you know, it’s not–with Todd marrying flier Nigel Patrick. Patrick and Justin are pals. Todd brings Patrick home to meet dad Richardson and brother Denholm Elliot. Elliot’s the best thing in the movie, though Justin’s all right too. Rattigan and Lean don’t have much use for Elliot, however, because he’s not the real man flier Richardson wants him to be. Thank goodness Todd married one in Patrick.
After the war, Patrick starts test piloting jets for Richardson. They’re going to break that sound barrier, even though the whole thing traumatizes Todd. She goes off to the movies during his flights so she doesn’t have to hear it. She’s just a silly woman, however. Patrick tells her so, Richardson tells her so, and by the end of the movie, The Sound Barrier tells her so.
The film’s a melodrama without much in the way of melodramatics. Todd’s performance is flat, ditto Patrick’s. Patrick at least seems like he should be superficial and (not maliciously) insensitive, but Todd is ostensibly the heart of the film. Not so, because she’s not a man. And only men, it turns out, can really experience things. Women are too busy worrying about winter coats and trying to one up the Joneses. Dinah Sheridan, as Justin’s wife, has the entirely thankless role of exemplifying how Todd’s worry-warting is so dumb.
And even though Richardson is awesome, he’s utterly devoid of any humanity. The film revels in it.
There’s no tension, there’s no suspense (the ending is forecast from literally the first scene), there’s no romance. Todd and Patrick do manage to have some chemistry, but it’s only because they’re being held prisoner by controlling Richardson. Silly Patrick even thinks Todd might be right about Richardson being bad news. Thank goodness he comes around; so the film’s not just great fodder for toxic masculinity discussions, there’s also the exceptional patriarchal bent.
Lean’s direction is competent. Rattigan’s script is exceptionally boring. Maybe at the time, if you were a British moviegoer who really hated Americans and willfully ignored recent history, you could get jingoistic about it. But not really, because it’s not about British ingenuity or anything, it’s about Richardson being awesome because he’s a bastard and Todd better come around to realizing it and embracing it. It’s about Todd realizing she’s a silly woman who just needs to listen to the man. It’s all very yucky.
Great photography from Jack Hildyard.
The Sound Barrier is never good. It’s never compelling. It’s absurdly lacking in any kind of insight, whether into its paper thin characters or its made up flight science. It’s not even interested in technical minutiae, which–for a while–seemed like it would be. But it’s never anywhere near as bad as the third act turns out to be. Maybe having a full stop false ending in the second act hurt. It doesn’t matter. The third act and then the finale crash harder than the jet planes do and they make these huge holes in the ground.
Not even plane designer Joseph Tomelty, who’s lovable from five minutes in, can survive that last act.
The Sound Barrier’s bunk.
Produced and directed by David Lean; written by Terence Rattigan; director of photography, Jack Hildyard; edited by Geoffrey Foot; music by Malcolm Arnold; released by British Lion Film Corporation.
Starring Ann Todd (Susan), Nigel Patrick (Tony), Ralph Richardson (J.R.), John Justin (Philip), Denholm Elliott (Chris), Dinah Sheridan (Jess), and Joseph Tomelty (Will).