Among the celebrated pantheon of British director David Lean’s body of work, The Sound Barrier is oft-forgotten. Next to the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago, this black-and-white entry from the middle of his career is little known today – despite both box office and awards success upon its release in 1952. This smart restoration by the BFI and Studiocanal hopes to do something about that, and reintroduce audiences to a film that’s still capable of astonishment, more than 60 years on.
A fictional account of the British aviation industry’s attempts to break the sound barrier – flying at supersonic speeds – in the years shortly after the First World War, The Sound Barrier is in many ways a typical man vs. nature account of determination, obsession, and sacrifice. While the film plays loosely with the truth – the first officially recorded supersonic flight was actually by American pilot Chuck Yeager – Lean’s meticulously detailed research adds to the film an air of realism, lending gravitas and fascination to a scientific breakthrough that was at the time still very recent.
Acclaimed thespian Ralph Richardson is in many ways the driving force of the picture as John Ridgefield, the owner of the fictional aircraft factory pushing supersonic research forwards. But the film’s heart lies with its test pilots and their wives, the men risking their lives in pursuit of what may be an impossible dream, the women struggling to understand what might drive them to do so.
The viewer will have few such doubts though, as Lean’s stunning aerial photography is an awe-inspiring tribute to aviation. It’s thrilling to watch even now, in an age when flight is more associated with cramped legs and screaming toddlers than derring-do, and The Sound Barrier is at its most compelling when it’s in the air. From birds-eye shots of the cliffs of Dover or the heart of France to cramped cockpit shots, Lean captures both the majesty and the danger of the early decades of the industry. Every now and then he’ll hold a static shot, allowing a plane to arc through the frame, occasionally dropping almost vertically in a daring dive. It’s impossible to watch without the breath catching in your throat.
This is an attractive restoration, with good picture quality throughout. Extras are sparse – there’s a charming 10-minute BFI interview with Lean himself from 1959, and a much longer interview with the biographer of screenwriter Terence Rattigan – only for devotees.
Words by Dominic Preston