Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1952, aka Breaking the Sound Barrier)

David Lean's The Sound Barrier (1952, aka Breaking the Sound Barrier)


British magnate, Sir John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson, Doctor Zhivago) is determined to break the sound barrier. Ridgefield has already lost his son to his dream, and his daughter, Susan (Ann Todd, Madeleine), who blames her father for the death of the brother, resents her father even more after he chooses Susan’s husband (Nigel Patrick, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman) to be one of the test pilots.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Today, alongside Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983), The Sound Barrier (aka Breaking the Sound Barrier), is rightly considered one of the best aviation films ever made. Yes, it’s not historically correct — American Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947 — and the science in the film can’t be trusted. Fortunately, Terence Rattigan’s script has a stimulating psychological edge, and the superb cast and impressive technical elements (it won a well-deserved Oscar for its sound design) help the viewer stay engaged.

The Sound Barrier was the first film director Lean made under his exclusive contract with producer Alexander Korda (The Private Life of Henry the VIII). Lean had been with Cineguild for almost ten years, and after back-to-back financial failures, he made a conscious decision to start from scratch somewhere else. Korda was a charismatic movie mogul who went for big stories. Korda’s influence on Lean is indisputable. The Sound Barrier is the first film in which Lean attempts to tell a big story through the eyes of characters. It paves the way for his epic period, which began with The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

This is also the last of the three film Lean made with wife Anne Todd. The marriage gradually deteriorated during shooting, and by the time the film wrapped production, the director had ended ties with his muse. It’s too bad because Todd was to Lean what Grace Kelly was to Hitchcock — she was a perfect fit for Lean’s style. In the end, the separation affected Todd’s career more than it did Lean’s — she made only seven more films before her death in 1993.

Richardson, who won the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle Awards for his performance, is terrific in a difficult part. I’m a big fan of the actor so perhaps I’m a bit biased, but I thought he was simply wonderful. Richardson’s Ridgefield is both hero and villain, and that’s a hard trick to pull off. Richardson was Korda’s choice, not Lean’s. The director quickly became a huge fan of Richardson and the two forged a long-lasting friendship.

The unsung heroes of the film are second unit director Anthony Squire and test pilot John Derry — together they shot the fantastic flying sequences. The rest of the film was shot by Jack Hildyard (Summertime). Malcolm Arnold wrote the fine music score.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Sadly, The Sound Barrier isn’t as well-known as other Lean movies — never mind that, it’s a gem. With Leslie Phillips, Dinah Sheridan, and Denholm Elliott (best known as Marcus in the Indiana Jones movies). B&W, 109 minutes, Not Rated.


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