The Sound Barrier (1952, aka Breaking the Sound Barrier)


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

Reaction & Thoughts:

“At the speed of sound, Philip, anything’s possible…”

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 (for 1952) help the viewer stay engaged.

The Sound Barrier was the first film director David Lean made under his exclusive contract with producer Alexander Korda (The Private Life of Henry the VIII). Lean had been with Cineguild Studios for almost ten years, and after back-to-back financial failures, he made a conscious decision to start from scratch somewhere else.

Producer 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).

The Sound Barrier is also the last of three films Lean made with then-wife Anne Todd (The Passionate Friends and Madeleine are the other two). The marriage deteriorated during the shooting, and by the time the film wrapped production, the director had ended ties with his muse (they remained legally married until 1957).

That’s too bad because Todd was to Lean what Grace Kelly was to Alfred Hitchcock: she was a perfect fit for Lean’s style. The still underrated Todd is terrific here. Sir Ralph Richardson is also wonderful as Todd’s aloof father — Richardson’s Ridgefield is both hero and villain, and that’s an extremely hard trick to pull off.  The role won the actor the prestigious and coveted New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor.  

The unsung heroes of the film are second unit director Anthony Squire and test pilot John Derry — together they shot the awesome flying sequences. The rest of the film was shot by Jack Hildyard (55 Days at Peking and Lion of the Desert). Oscar-winning English composer Malcolm Arnold (The Bridge on the River Kwai) wrote a fine music score. The film won a well-deserved Oscar for its sound design.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

It is too bad that The Sound Barrier isn’t as well-known as other David Lean movies. Never mind that, it’s a little gem. The cast also includes Joseph Tomelty (A Night to Remember), John Justin (Island in the Sun), Dinah Sheridan (The Mirror Crack’d) and beloved British character actor Denholm Elliott (best known as Marcus in the Indiana Jones movies). Highly recommended! B&W, 109 minutes, Not Rated.

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