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The Speed of Passion: Close-Up on David Lean’s "Breaking the Sound Barrier"

A post-war endorsement of British ingenuity and determination, and an emotional, blazing depiction of sacrifice and scientific achievement.
Jeremy Carr
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. David Lean's Breaking the Sound Barrier (1952) is playing October 14 - November 13, 2017 on MUBI in the United States.
John (J.R.) Ridgefield is a man possessed. The wealthy and influential aircraft industrialist is consumed by his desire to manufacture a plane capable of penetrating the inscrutable sound barrier. This supersonic obsession is a blessing and a curse for the Ridgefield family, providing their ample fortune and triggering largely latent rifts in their ancestral relations. It’s an opposition at the heart and soul of David Lean’s 1952 film The Sound Barrier, a post-war endorsement of British ingenuity and determination, and an emotional, blazing depiction of sacrifice and scientific achievement. 
The opening of The Sound Barrier (also known as Sound Barrier and Breaking the Sound Barrier), spotlights Philip Peel (John Justin), one of the film’s principal test pilots. In just under two minutes, the pre-credits scene conveys the joyous buoyancy of aviation, as well as its systematic frailties. As Philip revels in the height and speed, he is also fully cognizant of the inherent vulnerability. Attempting to pull out of a rapid descent, he cuts the maneuver close and the plane lets him know; it shakes and rattles, gauges crack, the engines whine. There is throughout the film an emphatic, symbiotic relationship between man and machine, one built on cohesive harmonization. And for the characters central to the story—Tony Garthwaite (Nigel Patrick), another genial test pilot and former RAF officer, his new bride, Susan (Ann Todd), J.R.’s beaming daughter, J.R.’s son, Chris (Denholm Elliott), a budding pilot, and the patriarch Ridgefield, played by Ralph Richardson—aviation is their life and their livelihood. But that devotion weighs heavily on those under its influence. Susan and Chris are forever in the shadow of the Ridgefield family’s legacy, and while Tony is confident to stand on his own in the presence of such domination (he is himself, in Susan’s estimation, “one of the great geniuses of the air”), brother Chris is rather less assured. He isn’t cut out for flying, and he shirks at the inherited responsibility. When a tragic accident permanently releases him of the pressure, one wonders if the plane itself caused his breakdown, as an eternal symbol of familial oppression, or if was the other way around, as a perhaps subconsciously suicidal reprieve.  
The venerated planes of The Sound Barrier are essential to all that transpires in the film, and their exalted existence is to a certain extent what sets the picture apart. Having done extensive research into the subject, Lean devotes considerable attention to the structural and technical aspects of the assorted aircraft, and the effects produced by these vessels, their noises and imperfections, their painstaking genesis, what makes them work, and what brings them perilously close to destruction. Lean’s attentiveness mirrors that of the characters, particularly J.R. and Tony, the latter of whom marvels at an enticing “top secret” buzz emanating from a warehouse, later calling the clamor the most exciting sound he has ever heard. It’s the “aircraft engine of the future,” according to J.R., one built on the concept of jet propulsion. The aesthetics of aviation are bolstered by Jack Hildyard’s cinematography: poised, crisp and clear, elevating the planes and those who assume command. Lean and Hildyard, both eventual Oscar winners for their respective work on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1958), take off from a serene starting point, with the tranquil aerodome and nearby natural pitch, but then the aviators busily prepare for flight, there’s a shift in tone, Geoffrey Foot’s editing gets sharper, and the adjacent wheat field, shot so beautifully like a Powell-Pressburger countryside, is shuddered in the wake of the explosive jet energy. The crescendo comes in some of the finest non-combatant aerial footage to this point in film history, most of which was under the direction of Anthony Squire, who managed the on-craft cameramen from below. Triumphant cues from composer Malcolm Arnold (also Academy awarded for his musical contribution to The Bridge on the River Kwai) underscore the intricate movements of the plane, while the invasive sounds of the craft generate a pre-Dunkirk impression of forceful mechanic strain (The Sound Barrier’s sole Oscar win was for its sound).
According to eminent Lean biographer Kevin Brownlow, the romance and technology of air travel captivated the director, and in preparing for The Sound Barrier, Lean visited factories, spoke with pilots, and kept a copious diary of observations. It was on the basis of this journal, which also included ideas for scenes and shots, that screenwriter Terence Rattigan joined the production (his script received the film’s other Oscar nomination). Despite this research, as well as the film’s real-life impetus—inspired by aircraft designer Geoffrey de Havilland, whose pilot son died in 1946—the expert consensus on The Sound Barrier was that the movie was entertaining, but not terribly accurate. For starters, America’s Chuck Yeager had already accomplished the supersonic feat in 1947, soaring in a rocket-powered Bell X-1 (for a time, however, that act was kept classified, so some degree of international ignorance is excusable); secondly, the principal plane featured in the film, dubbed the “Prometheus,” was not itself a model able to reach Mach speeds. Nevertheless, such is the mastery of David Lean’s storytelling and character construction, that these inaccuracies (and apparently there are many others), scarcely impact the film’s dramatic gratification. As one sees in the best of Lean’s early work (This Happy Breed [1944], Brief Encounter [1945]), these spirited characters breathe vigorous life into the picture, which in this case is vital for those less riveted by the intricacies of aviation (also for the uninitiated, Rattigan delivers a reasonable dose of edification concerning what exactly the speed of sound is: “A mere matter of acoustics,” Tony quips). 
As the dashing lead, Tony possesses an easy-going, humble appeal, parting his hair for that “intellectual” look and merrily charming Susan with his “Oh, gosh” graciousness. As others have pointed out, his giddy optimism (repeatedly accepting a challenge as a “piece of cake”) prefigures Lawrence’s adventurous enthusiasm in Lean’s 1962 epic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia. Susan, meanwhile, is a beautiful blonde jewel, with an embracing smile and irresistible giggle (The Sound Barrier was Lean’s third film with Todd, his wife at the time). Yet the highpoint of her performance comes when she is met with imminent anxiety, haunted by foreboding newspaper headlines and nervously seeking shelter from the surrounding sounds of airborne intensity. She can’t fathom Tony’s preoccupation, his composure and comfort and willingness to put himself at such obvious risk. To partly alleviate her fears, Tony takes Susan along on a flight from England to Cairo, lovingly tucked in a two-seater, she on his arm as he points out the sites and countries that drift beneath them or stretch out on the horizon. Still, even this momentary respite is capped by a kiss through their oxygen masks, the film’s most blatant visualization of the aircraft apparatus quite literally coming between them.  
As Lean’s first film for Alexander Korda, after the dissolution of Cineguild, the company he formed with Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan, The Sound Barrier is a patriotic, documentary-style production akin to Lean’s 1942 feature In Which We Serve, which he co-directed with Noël Coward. It’s a valiant portrait of overlooked civilian heroics, but it’s also a poignant illustration of single-minded dedication, the intoxication of passion, and the occasionally heartbreaking consequences. As arguably the film’s only real antagonist (and that in a very loose sense of the word), J.R. Ridgefield is introduced by just one arm holding a door open, Lean adding tension and a slight beat before his full appearance, magnifying his intimidating authority. Played cold and stern by Richardson, Ridgefield is rebuked for his fanatical drive, and when Susan questions his potentially fatal vision, the hitherto unflappable trailblazer does indeed crumble under the torment and the guilt, the psychological bulk tilting the camera and contorting his anguished face. And when the film returns to Philip, so enlivened at the start, he too assesses the value of elation, breaking down after a hazardously successful mission—a thrillingly realized sequence on Lean’s part—to reflect on what was imperiled, and what ultimately matters most.
Though it gradually fell by the wayside of its estimable director’s career, in his Nov. 7, 1952 review of The Sound Barrier, Bosley Crowther wrote it was a film “of pictorial excitement and truly poetic eloquence about man’s scientific imagination and his bold endeavors to move through the air at supersonic speed.…” With allusions to space as the logical next step, The Sound Barrier points toward a never-ending quest for exploration and discovery, further leaps into the unknown, hopefully for the betterment of mankind. These exploits may not be for everyone, and many may question the motives behind such experimentation (certainly, the escalating nuclear age evoked the dangers of discovery), but all of this was something David Lean could most assuredly appreciate. Decades after the film was released, speaking at the Museum of the Moving Image in London, Lean stated: “I’ve always been fascinated by adventure. I always think of the first man who went off in a boat and disappeared over the horizon, not knowing what he was going to find. I suppose I’m a romantic, but I find that frightfully exciting, the fact that we’re still reaching out, trying to discover what we are, what the world is, what the universe is.” 


Close-UpDavid Lean
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