#7 in my ranking of David Lean’s films.
David Lean apparently did a mountain of research before handing everything over to his screenwriter, Terence Rattigan, and Chuck Yeager still thought it was technical nonsense, chuckling that the final move of the pilot would have killed him not saved him. And yet, there’s still an air of authority over this film despite it convincing the world for a time that it was the British who broke the sound barrier instead of Yeager, the American Air Force pilot of The Right Stuff. First and foremost, though, The Sound Barrier (or, as they released it in America, Breaking the Sound Barrier) is a drama about a pilot, his wife, and her father.
During World War II Tony marries Susan, the daughter of an airplane engineer and man of some wealth, J.R. We get our taste of the dangers of flight early when, just after their marriage, Tony and Susan witness her younger brother’s death on his first solo flight in training for a combat pilot position. That sort of haunting feeling is always around Susan as she moves beyond the war and watches her husband begin working with her father in developing jet engines and the effort to push an airplane past the sound barrier.
There’s a common motif and question that pops up through this movie that points to the drive of the men who go out and risk their lives for such things. Susan asks it directly, and the answers she gets she simply doesn’t understand. It’s there doesn’t seem like a good enough explanation. It’s also manifested in J.R.’s telescope which he uses to peer up into the night sky to wonder what else is out there. There’s a drive among these sorts of men to simply see beyond, to reach further than anyone else, and Susan must deal with that drive quietly as the wife of a test pilot.
It’s Tony who drives most of the first hour or so of the film, though. He’s the one flying, working with J.R., and testing new planes. He even takes Susan on a quick jet ride from England to Egypt just to meet a friend, a fellow pilot who later joins the company as another test pilot, Philip. She has to fly back commercial, though, relegated to second class when sorting out the priorities of Tony’s life with work and the planes coming first. When Tony dies chasing the sound barrier, losing control in a dive that ends in a crash, Susan is left alone, and the movie almost seems lost. However, it’s doing something rather intelligent.
Up until this point, it really seems like Tony is the main character, but with another half hour to go, everything else that plays out is from Susan’s perspective. We discover that she’s always been the main character, and it becomes tragic. She tries to cut off J.R. from his grandchild, and she gives him as little attention as possible, blaming him for her husband’s death. Yet she still can’t get away. When she goes to his office to tell him that she’s taking little John to London away from him, it happens to occur the very night that Philip goes up to make his own attempt at the sound barrier (it works better in the film than writing it out which feels arbitrary). She listens as Philip manages to do what her husband failed to do, and she’s met with such conflicting feelings.
It’s not a great film, but it’s a handsomely produced, well-acted one. Ann Todd is good as Susan, but it’s Ralph Richardson as J.R. who is best, carrying a complex character through several bouts of emotion that he, as a proper Englishman, must hide until he finally breaks down late. The quiet understanding that Susan would never tell anyone about J.R.’s break in decorum is a touching one and a nice way for them to begin to repair their relationship. It’s a solid entertainment with an almost tricky focus that ends up working out quite well. Probably one of Lean’s most underrated films.