Monday, February 20, 2017
The Sound Barrier
Directed by David Lean and written by Terence Rattigan, The Sound Barrier is the story of a test pilot who takes part in an experiment with aircraft designers to try and break the sound barrier where its owner is hoping for the experiment to succeed. The film is a mixture of drama mixed in with documentary footage about the attempts to break the sound barrier in the aftermath of World War II. Starring Ralph Richardson, Ann Todd, Nigel Patrick, John Justin, and Denholm Elliott. The Sound Barrier is a riveting film from David Lean.
The film follows the son-in-law of a wealthy aircraft design company owner who becomes a test pilot as they embark on breaking the sound barrier. It’s a film with a simple premise yet it is more about a man’s obsession with wanting to do the impossible just as World War II is about to end as he sees that his daughter’s new husband might be the right person to break the sound barrier. Terence Rattigan’s screenplay explore the sense of ambition as well as the desire to do something new and see if the impossible can be overcome. Yet, there is also some conflict over these ambitions where the protagonist in the owner John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson) who is looking into the future as he is already on board on the emerging jet engine at the time.
Though he had plans for his son Chris (Denholm Elliott) to be the test pilot, it would be his new son-in-law Tony Garthwaite (Nigel Patrick) that would take on the role but becomes conflicted as he has just started a blissful life with Ridgefield’s daughter Susan (Ann Todd). The heart of the film is this conflict between Susan and her father as the former disapproves of her father’s ambitions just as she and Tony are making a life of their own with a child on the way. Tony is caught in the middle of this conflict as he wants to do the things as a test pilot but is also aware of the risks when he reads about a test pilot’s death in the second act. Even as the events in the third act where Susan and her father become estranged due to the former’s disdain for what her father wants showcase some of the fallacies of ambition despite Ridgefield’s good intentions.
David Lean’s direction is definitely stylish in some respects where it has some gorgeous compositions for the dramatic moments in the film while the aerial scenes are exquisite in its mixture of documentary footage and in re-created fashion. Much of the film is shot at Shepperton Studios with some of it shot on various locations in the British countryside near airfields as the scenes set in the ground have an intimacy in its close-ups and medium shots in how some look into the way planes are being flown as well as the meetings between the family. Especially in scenes where there is tension looming between Susan and Ridgefield as it play into this conflict of Susan wanting something where men in her family don’t have to live under the shadow of her father which is something Chris struggles with. The aerial scenes definitely have this vast look where Lean would use not just documentary footage of Britain’s own experiment with jet engines but also try and create moments where it could happen as some of it is inspired by actual events. Notably the film’s climax where a test pilot would try to break the sound barrier as it proves into what could be done. Overall, Lean crafts an engaging yet thrilling film about an aircraft owner’s desire to see the sound barrier broken.
Cinematographer Jack Hildyard does brilliant work with the film‘s black-and-white photography for the gorgeous look of some of the aerial scenes including the shots overlooking some of the locations as well as some of the interior scenes set at night along with the exterior nighttime scenes. Editor Geoffrey Foot does excellent work with the editing as it is straightforward with some intricate rhythmic cutting for some of the aerial sequences. Art director Joseph Bato does amazing work with the look of the airfield including Ridgefield‘s office and his home which is quite lavish as it play into his big personality. Costume designer Elizabeth Hennings does nice work with the costumes from the air force uniforms and suits as well as the clothes that Susan wears. The sound work of John Cox and sound editor Winston Ryder is incredible for the way jet engine sounds as well as some of the sparse moments at the homes of some of the characters. The film’s music by Malcolm Arnold is superb for its orchestral score that is bombastic with its string arrangements as well as in some of the somber moments for the dramatic aspects of the film.
The film’s wonderful cast include some notable small roles from Joseph Tomelty as aircraft designer Will Sparks, Dinah Sheridan as one of the test pilot’s wife in Jess Peel, John Justin as an inventive test pilot in Philip Peel, and Denholm Elliott as Susan’s brother Christopher who is reluctant to be his father’s premier test pilot. Nigel Patrick is excellent as Tony Garthwaite as an accomplished war pilot who is hoping for a great life with his new bride Susan while given the chance to do the impossible where he isn’t sure about taking such a grand risk. Ann Todd is brilliant as Susan as the daughter of an aircraft design mogul who is eager to start a new life with her husband while coping with the massive expectations and ambitions of her father as it relates to her husband and brother. Finally, there’s Ralph Richardson in a phenomenal performance as John Ridgefield as an aircraft design mogul who is eager to look into the future as he hopes he can give the British air force something new as well as break the speed barrier unaware of his faults in his thirst to see the impossible become possible.
The Sound Barrier is a remarkable film from David Lean. Featuring a great cast, exhilarating aerial sequences, and a compelling story of ambition and glory. It’s a film that explore the emergence of the modern world as well as man’s desire to do make the impossible possible. In the end, The Sound Barrier is a sensational film from David Lean.
David Lean Films: In Which We Serve - (This Happy Breed) - Blithe Spirit - Brief Encounter - Great Expectations (1946 film) - Oliver Twist (1948 film) - The Passionate Friends - Madeleine (1950 film) - Hobson's Choice - (Summertime) - The Bridge on the River Kwai - Lawrence of Arabia - Doctor Zhivago - Ryan's Daughter - (Lost and Found: The Story of Cook’s Anchor) - A Passage to India - (The Auteurs #70: David Lean)
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