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The Sound Barrier

The Sound Barrier(1952)

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teaser The Sound Barrier (1952)

On October 14, 1947, American pilot Chuck Yeager officially broke the sound barrier, something no other pilot had ever done. He's not mentioned, of course, in Breaking the Sound Barrier (1952), the excellent and fictionalized account of British aviators doing the same but that's understandable. The movie's not about science or record breaking feats of aviation but familial conflict and romance. Directed by the great David Lean, the movie naturally succeeds on every level, even if aviators would disagree about the specifics.

The movie begins with John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson) looking to test his ever challenging new technologies in aviation, specifically, his new jet which he hopes will break the sound barrier, the Prometheus. To test it, he employs Tony Garthwaite (Nigel Patrick), a test pilot who will take the risk in return for the glory, much like the real test pilots that were doing the real thing in the real world of military testing. The problem is, Ridgefield's daughter, Susan (Ann Todd), is married to Garthwaite and she worries that Ridgefield's designs will get her husband killed. A worry temporarily put to rest by having Susan accompany Tony on a test flight of a de Havilland Vampire, a real jet that was put into service by the British during World War II. Still, the danger of smashing into the sound barrier as the jets go faster and faster remains.

The dangers of the sound barrier were quite real in the world of aviation after World War II. The sound barrier is the point between sub-sonic flight and super-sonic flight, where the aircraft goes from travelling slower than or at the speed of sound to beyond it. As the aircraft breaks through this barrier, the tell-tale sonic boom occurs when the pressure waves surrounding the aircraft compress and trail the aircraft, which is now moving in front of them. As the pressure waves compress, the air around the craft is unstable and in early testing, it was the length of time in this unstable environment that caused problems, and many crashes, with tests. At the climax of the movie, the test pilot comes up with a unique solution to the problem, involving a reversal of controls, that seems believable. Believable because David Lean was behind the camera. In real life, Chuck Yeager himself said it wouldn't have worked. According to the man who broke the sound barrier himself, if you reverse the controls during the pressure wave compression, all you'll succeed in doing is killing yourself.

Well, one doesn't watch Breaking the Sound Barrier for aviation realism, one watches for the drama and the effects are done well enough that to anyone but a pilot, the whole thing comes off as absolutely real. As with any film, the cast play a large part in determining whether or not the story succeeds and in lead Ralph Richardson, director Lean had one of the greatest of all stage and screen actors, if only the Oscars had known it. You see, for the year 1952, the year it was released statewide, Ralph Richardson won the New York Film Critics award but failed to garner even a nomination from the Academy. It was the first time that had ever happened. Alas, Richardson wasn't as well known in the states as Laurence Olivier and that probably had as much to do with his non-nomination as anything. In Britain, though, the film took the British Academy Award for Best Film from any Country, Best British Film, and Best Actor (Richardson).

For a director whose work up to that point had dealt with British society, family, and tradition, from his Dickens classics to Brief Encounter to This Happy Breed, the story of Breaking the Sound Barrier (simply The Sound Barrier in Britain) was a familiar assured study of British family and spousal dynamics. But from the action side it was a different thing altogether. The revelation that Lean excelled at screen action surely had some influence on his later epic works, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. Breaking the Sound Barrier remains one of Lean's most underseen films and it shouldn't be. In a career as magnificent as Lean's, it's saying something to declare that one of his movies is among his best, but with Breaking the Sound Barrier, that is indeed the case.

By Greg Ferrara

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