Sound Barrier, The (London 1952 with Ralph Richardson and Ann Todd)

UK / London Films / 118 minutes / 1952 black and white

Writer: Terence Rattigan / Cinematography: Jack Hildyard / Music: Malcolm Arnold / Producer and Director: David Lean

Cast: Ralph Richardson, Ann Todd, Nigel Patrick, John Justin, Dinah Sheridan, Joseph Tomelty, Denholm Elliott

US title: Breaking the Sound Barrier

David Lean’s fascination with supersonic flight was the inspiration for making The Sound Barrier. He was also the producer of the film and did extensive research on the subject – consisting of more than 300 pages of notes – which he passed onto the writer Terence Rattigan. But both Lean and Rattigan were keen that the audience wasn’t bombarded with technical information, concentrating instead on the human side of the story.

John Ridgefield (RALPH RICHARDSON) is a self-made aircraft factory owner who’s determined to make a plane that can break the sound barrier. But he meets with objections from his daughter Susan Garthwaite (ANN TODD), who blames him for the death of her brother Christopher (DENHOLM ELLIOTT). Her fears are compounded when her husband Tony Garthwaite (NIGEL PATRICK) takes a job as test pilot for her father.

David Lean followed this film with a string of critically-acclaimed features, but The Sound Barrier presented him with a chance to display his skill for shooting remarkably exhilarating action sequences. The film provides a measure of Lean’s genius for storytelling as well as offering a wonderful snapshot of 50s Britain, caught in the past and poised on the edge of significant change. The Guardian said, “The great merit of this film is that it attempts to deal seriously with one of the great subjects – at once scientific and dramatic – of our times.”