BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER is an engrossing, excellently acted 1952 drama from Britain, written by Terence Rattigan, produced and directed by David Lean. It’s about the men who designed and tested the early supersonic aircraft. If that sounds like a yawning way to spend 118 minutes, don’t shrug this aside, as the aced directing, writing and acting make the personal problems gripping and sensibly real, and the aerial photography (thanks to Jack Hildyard and Anthony Squire) is still pretty neat after all the years of improvement in movie effects.
While based on real people, notably Geoffrey de Havilland, it’s a fictional take, and Chuck Yeager, among others (really, do you need ‘among others’ when Yeager is on deck?) had some quibbles with the realism, but Ralph Richardson and Nigel Patrick carry the banner for Stiff Upper Lipdom with assurance and dignity. Successful in the States as well as back in England, it won an Oscar for Sound (go figure) and was nominated for its screenplay. Box-office came to $2,500,000. With Ann Todd, John Justin, Dinah Sheridan and Denholm Elliott.
Yeager: “It was a good… action picture. They used a Spitfire to break the sound barrier, which was amusing because that airplane wouldn’t go faster than .75 Mach in a power dive. When the actor discovered that his stick froze at Mach 1, instead of pulling back, he pushed the stick forward…any pilot who tried that stunt would have drilled himself into the ground, but it worked as a dramatic moment…and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I heard one guy (in the audience) say to his wife ‘Where in hell is Uncle Sam?’ I said to him ‘WE broke the sound barrier, not the damned British–and I’m the guy who did it.’ I might have saved my breath.”
Lean: “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.” Quite.