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The Sound Barrier
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Reviews & Ratings for
Breaking the Sound Barrier More at IMDbPro »The Sound Barrier (original title)

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27 out of 29 people found the following review useful:

An evocative look at British inventive genius

Author: mikeguk from london, UK
1 March 1999

This black and white early 50s movie shows crusty Britain at its stiff upper lip best. It is the story of mans obsession with speed, and a ruthless plane makers ambition to succeed in building a supersonic jet. Richardson plays the tycoon whose dream kills his son and son-in-law, but who finally sees the error of his ways and whose daughter returns to the cold family home with his grandson.

The film is also a vehicle to show the world Britain's proud lead in jet technology. There is a classic sequence in the film where the happy daughter and son-in-law deliver a De Havilland Vampire jet fighter to Egypt. They set off at breakfast time in England and hurtle over the English Channel, the Alps, Ancient Greece and the Pyramids before arriving in at the airfield. Of course we take this for granted now, but 47 years ago this was unheard of. The director contrasts the old ruins and remains of our ancient ancestors with the marvel of the modern age: the jet plane.

The film also introduced THE marvel of the early fifties, the De Havilland Comet jet liner. This beautiful but flawed machine was in service SIX years before any other jet liner and for a while, the world rushed to De Havillands, and Britains door. For two years the worldwide fleet gave the travelling of the future.

In every other way this is an eccentrically English film with creaky old houses, cottages with roses around the door and eccentric engineers. Shout in glorious black and white it conveys a sense of wonder and optimism in the future, whilst being thoroughly old fashioned

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28 out of 32 people found the following review useful:

Heralding the false dawn of a New Elizabethan age

Author: ianlouisiana from United Kingdom
29 March 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Imagine the sky,cloudless,deep blue as only at the height of an English summer,stretching from horizon to horizon.A small boy about 12 years old is happily searching rockpools left at low tide on a south coast beach.A shadow flashes across him,followed by a deep roaring sound.He looks up and spots a pencil-slim red jet plane disappearing into the distance followed shortly by the familiar "double boom" that signalled the breaking of the sound barrier.He lowers his fishing net and shields his eyes against the sun as the plane returns for another low-ceiling run over the sea.It could be the pre-title sequence for a movie about the perils of high-speed flight,but,in fact,the small boy was me,and I had just watched one of my heroes(the other one was Stanley Matthews) Squadron Leader Neville Duke regaining the world air speed record. Those were heady days to be a young Briton.The recent coronation of the lovely Queen Elizabeth the second,the climbing of Mount Everest,the end of the war in Korea - all these events combined to create a huge air of optimism.There was even a children's magazine called "The New Elizabethan" with no articles about how to avoid getting pregnant at 12 years of age(without being at all judgemental of course),how to spot dodgy "Ecstasy" tablets or how to get a start in modelling.To us modelling meant making planes from balsa wood.Moss and Campbell meant Stirling and Malcolm,reassuringly British names. No one calls the post 1952 era the Elizabethan age any more.Starting with Macmillan,the era became associated with the names of politicians,culminating with our present Dear Leader.It is becoming increasingly likely that history will remember only one Elizabethan Age,and it won't be this one. But it all could have been so different.The land fit for heroes didn't have to become the land fit for nothing,it just sort of happened without anybody noticing.Courage,self-sacrifice,idealism,patriotism and the pioneering spirit became merely the stuff of "sophisticated" comedy. "The Sound Barrier",demonstrably lauding all these attributes,could never get made in this brave new century. Somehow it has become "racist" to love your country,"elitist" to want to set high goals and achieve them.The men who flew jet lanes in the early post-war years were racist and elitist by modern definition. They had fought in a war(albeit against fascism)which made them post-imperialist dupes at the very least.And(worst sin of all) were mostly middle-class public school/boarding school products. Mr Nigel Patrick and Mr Denholm Elliot very accurately reflect this. A test pilot didn't climb into his cockpit,turn to his groundcrew chief and say"Gawd bless you governor,you've got a lucky fice",he really didn't.If you have a problem with that,then I suggest you watch "Top Gun" or "Officer and a Gentleman" and see how our more egalitarian American allies do things.Then think of what happened to them in Vietnam without a traditional Officer Class to lead their troops. Back in the days when "Flight" and "The Aeroplane" were staple reading for schoolboys,it was taken for granted that "breaking the sound barrier" was an essential first step towards space flight - that panacea-like dream of the 1950s.That proved to be correct and the first astronauts were beholden to men like Chuck Yeager whose courage was recognised in "The Right Stuff",albeit in a post-modern ironic sort of way.The British supersonic flight programme rather petered out in comparison,due possibly to lack of will and vision,but more probably,lack of money."The Sound Barrier" is its filmed legacy. The late Squadron Leader Duke was a man of high courage.A few months before his record breaking flight over the Sussex beaches a ,De Havilland 110,piloted by John Derry who had flown a Mosquito filming aerial views of Paris for "The Sound Barrier" broke up in supersonic flight at the Farnborough Air show,its wreckage causing many casualties in the crowd,which included David Lean and Ann Todd.In the deadly hush that followed,he walked out to his plane and took off.Flying low over the Hampshire hills,he banked round to the aerodrome and began his pass.The Hunter screamed over the runway and climbed rapidly,the resulting sonic boom offering a fitting tribute to his fallen colleagues and all the victims of man's restless urge to leave the confines of the Earth.

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23 out of 26 people found the following review useful:

Excellent film, technically ludicrous

Author: Jim Atkins from Twentynine Palms, CA
7 November 2003

This is an outstanding film about the human cost of progress and obsession. Richardson is great as the aviation mogul willing to pay the necessary price for reaching new realms and new worlds. Historically and technically, the film is so out in left field as to be almost laughable (the plot point about control reversal is apparently the result of a writer hearing a valid aeronautical term and misunderstanding it completely) but in the end, the issues raised and the fine performances make Sound Barrier a winner. The aerial photography is outstanding, and there is one beautifully composed shot from below the nose of the Comet airliner that perfectly emphasizes the sleek lines of that most beautiful jet.

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16 out of 16 people found the following review useful:

Slipped the surly bonds of earth, etc.

Author: Robert J. Maxwell ( from Deming, New Mexico, USA
27 August 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

You can't help comparing this to "The Right Stuff," particularly the sections that deal with Chuck Yeager's exploits. This movie stands up at least as well as the more expensive epic based on Tom Wolf's book, although "Breaking the Sound Barrier" is in black and white, virtually without special effects, and characterized not by arguments and competition, but by stiff upper-lipness and British taciturnity.

Ralph Richardson plays the head of an aircraft manufacturing empire. His effete but game son feels compelled to become a flier because that's what the rigid Richardson seems to expect of him. End of son, played by a surprisingly undebauched looking Denholm Elliot.

Richardson has a daughter too, Ann Todd. She marries a test pilot, Nigel Patrick, "not of your level," who is given a job flying new jets for Richardson's company. She wants them and their baby to have their own place and leave Richardson's house. "You must have noticed the distance between father and me," she confesses. "He's always resented me for not being a son." Patrick hasn't noticed. And at least one viewer (ie., me) had to think over earlier scenes to pick up on the hints. The Brits are like American Southerners, adept at reading others' emotional states from the smallest indications, and women are better at it than men.

The director and writer -- David Lean and Terrence Rattigan -- pull a fast one on us two thirds of the way through. Owing nothing to Hitchcock's "Psycho" they kill off the protagonist and leave us gaping , the way Patrick leaves an untidy hole gaping in what appears to be an astonishingly tidy farm field, a bit of smoking wreckage scattered about.

Patrick's friend and fellow pilot takes over the final mission to crack the sound barrier. The solution to the problem is too simple to be taken seriously but at any rate the pilot survives. An hour later, alone in a room, he begins giggling hysterically and turns to sobbing. Ya'd never see somethin' like that in an American movie like "The Right Stuff." Sobbin' is fer wimmin.

But at least Richardson's humanity and horror and anguish are revealed when his daughter visits him more or less by accident. The final test is in progress and the radio transmissions are being piped into Richardson's office. "Forty-seven thousand now," says the pilot. "I'm taking her down for a final run." Richardson and Todd have had a brief argument and she is about to storm out when he begs her, "Please don't go! Don't leave me alone!" The human feeta clay after all.

I want to emphasize that there are some novel techniques on view here. In 1950, when this was shot, jet propulsion was still something of a novelty. People didn't know what made jet engines go, and they had never heard of a sound barrier. So it comes as a surprise when we see a tiny object in the distance. It is a jet plane and is speeding towards us. But -- there is no SOUND. Its image looms larger on the screen until it is almost overhead and then -- WHOOSH. And we can figure out that there is no noise ahead of the aircraft because it is traveling almost as fast as the noise itself.

There are two plane crashes. In any modern action flick they call for an enormous fireball of an explosion. But not here. One airplane, a fragile biplane, tumbles to earth and comes to rest tail up, seemingly in pretty good shape. The camera stays at a distance as people rush across the field towards the wreck. Then we see a wisp of oily smoke. Then billows of it, and then flame, and we realize that the pilot we thought was safe is now doomed. And Lean cuts from the other pilot to a distant office just before the crash. We not only don't see the crash. We don't even hear it.

There's something else worth mentioning too. "The Right Stuff" at some moments gives us the excitement and the danger of flying but never the exhilarating joy of slipping around noisily in three dimensions. The first opening minutes of "Breaking the Sound Barrier" show us a Spitfire over Dover with a youthful pilot doing aerobatics, and the actor, the director, and the composer let us know exactly how he feels.

Very good movie.

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16 out of 16 people found the following review useful:

A haunting memory

Author: george7096 from United States
6 January 2005

I saw "The Sound Barrier" in 1952 and it had a great impact on this young moviegoer. The opening sequence on an abandoned air base and the theme music have stayed with me for 50 years. Apparently this film is not available in the USA at present, but I hope it will return to our shores. The technical side of the movie may be less relevant now, when men and women fly far beyond the speed of sound and far beyond the earth's atmosphere. But the story of the characters is what I remember best: the closeness of the small band of test pilots and their loved ones, how they are inspired by the promise of supersonic flight, and how they react when things go wrong.

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16 out of 17 people found the following review useful:

"He came to a sticky end, but the world got fire"

Author: Steffi_P from Ruritania
4 April 2008

This mid-period David Lean picture is one of his most unusual – a drama woven out of a story of scientific exploration. Not an easy kind of picture to make, but one held together by Lean's refined direction, a great cast and a surprisingly good script by Terence Rattigan.

Although Lean was to make two small-scale pictures between this and Bridge on the River Kwai, this is perhaps more than any other a transition film between his early intimate dramas and the later massive epics he is now best known for. From the start Lean had always tried to photograph the psychological states of his characters, but The Sound Barrier is the first time he tells a bigger story through the personal experiences of individuals. This is the formula that has made Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia so popular and enduring. Like those later pictures, in the Sound Barrier the narrative switches to carry on the story through the eyes of other characters.

A story like this, concerning test pilots, engineering and scientific breakthroughs, will only work if there is a strong drama underlying it – otherwise it's only going to be of interest to techies. Lean seems totally aware of this and emphasises the human story behind the science. He directs with his editor's eye, composing action sequences with series of still shots, then throwing in the occasional sharp camera move to punctuate an emotional moment. He is moving away a little from the rather obvious expressionistic techniques of his earliest films towards a more straightforward yet effective style.

By the early 50s the golden age of British film was over, but there was still a good crop of acting talent on offer, and there are plenty of names to mention in The Sound Barrier. Ralph Richardson plays (as he often did) the overbearing father-in-law, and lends the film a touch of class. Ann Todd, who was Lean's wife and not an exceptional actress, here gives what is probably her best performance – she has the most difficult part in terms of emoting, but she carries it off brilliantly. This is also a great before-they-were-famous film, featuring a young Denholm Elliott (best known as Marcus Brody from the Indiana Jones films) and Leslie Phillips in his pre-Ding Dong days. The real acting treat here though is the rarely-seen John Justin, who failed to achieve stardom not through lack of talent, but through lack of interest on his part. His poignant final scene is one of the strongest in the whole picture.

Of course, it's not just the plot of The Sound Barrier that is a work of fiction – the science is complete nonsense as well, so don't go thinking that pilots really reverse their controls to get through the sound barrier. In many ways, this film reminds me of Dive Bomber, made ten years earlier with Errol Flynn and Fred MacMurray. That's also a test pilot drama, with a fair few plot similarities. One major difference though is that whereas Dive Bomber deliberately and bluntly disposes of any romantic angle, writing the female characters out of the story halfway through, in The Sound Barrier it is the pressures on the wives and sisters that is pushed to the fore. Ultimately, it is the way The Sound Barrier deals with loss and guilt that make it a strong and satisfying film.

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18 out of 23 people found the following review useful:

Back Toward the Future

Author: skallisjr from Tampa, FL United States
24 March 2004

The opening of the film, when a World War II fighter pilot hit what used to be called "compressibility," was a suspenseful interlude for the audience, particularly since it wasn't explained at the time.

The film was shot in monochrome, and was produced during a time that technology was accelerating, and this was one of the early films outside some of the science-fiction films of the era that was pro-technology. It is interesting that most of the major characters were obsessed with pushing the envelope.

As has been mentioned elsewhere, the "solution" presented to maintaining control of a supersonic aircraft actually is inaccurate. When a reporter asked the person who first actually broke the sound barrier, Gen. Chuck Yaeger, about that "solution," he indicated that doing what was proposed would have ensured the death of the pilot.

The film is well worth watching, if for no other reason than to get a taste of people taking baby steps in the new world of postwar technology.

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14 out of 17 people found the following review useful:

A Great Drama About Men of Vision Using Jet Research as a Vehicle

Author: silverscreen888 from United States
5 October 2008

By many standards, David Lean's production of the film he directed in 1952, "The Sound Barrier" is both unusual and I suggest rewarding. The screenplay by Terence Rattigan I found to be riveting throughout. This I judge stems from the fact that its subject is men of vision, and what they do to about their greed for something unnameable, necessary and sometimes deadly. The author in the film is at pains not to paint such men as glory hunters, nor seekers after excitement alone; in one scene, the central character talks about the fliers of the past, and then suggests the men of the future will need vision even more than flying skills to conquer what awaits us--and the answer to what that is is given as "the stars"--called the final frontier in this film in all but name. There are three fliers we meet in the film at a fictitious industrial empire called Ridgefield. The boss's son who hasn't got what a flier needs, Tony, who marries his daughter and reaches his limit because he lacks the necessary genius, and Philip, who has "the right stuff". What I find extraordinary about this very well-directed cinematic tale is that it is always about the people and the joy and danger of flight at the same time, without the focus ever losing sight of the people. The music for this film was supplied by Malcolm Arnold, and it is extraordinary almost everywhere but I find never intrusive. One sequence involves one of the three pilots taking his new wife for a swift flight to Cairo from England; the scene accomplishes many things at once. She learns because of her journey, what some men see in the serenity of the sky, and even its danger; it introduces us to the third pilot and his wife; and we are given a sense of the camaraderie of the men who flew in those days; another such moment occurs when the French ace Geoffrey de Havilland is killed trying to break the sound barrier ahead of all others. Jack Hildyard and several others supplied the cinematography and aerial scenes; Elizabeth Hemminges did a fine subdued job on the costumes; Vincent Korda is credited with the Art Department's superb work while Muir Matheson is acknowledged as music director. Among the smallish cast, the pilots are all beautifully played. bright Nigel Patrick is likable ace Tony, young Denholm Elliot stands out as the boss's son, and John Justin is just right as the third of the trio, Philip. Joseph Tomelty is admirable as Will Sparks, the designer tormented by his own part in causing test pilots to risk their lives; Ann Todd is good as the tormented Susan, wife to Tony and daughter of the boss of Ridgefield. Dinah Sheridan is also lovely as Philip's brave wife; but it is Ralph Richardson's powerful realization of John Ridgefield, former pilot, towering presence and inspiring and dangerous leader of men who along with Justin gives the film its unusual dimension of mind and purpose. One may quarrel with the motivations attributed to Richardson in the last scenes; but he has been so alone in his vision and at such a cost, he may be forgiven for asking at last to be understood. The ending I find to be most satisfying, the film's climax tremendously moving. This is a great film, which has never been appreciated as it should have been. It is B/W film-making at its dramatic best for my money. Its science may not be perfect, but its depiction of human merit and what happens when that quality is lacking in a man is powerful indeed. Not to be missed.

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14 out of 17 people found the following review useful:

Crash of one of the aircraft in this film

Author: paulj-murphy from London
1 January 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Although many people will naturally think the claim that Britain broke the sound barrier before the Americans is its most obvious flaw, the really serious mistake in this film is the death of Denholm Elliott as a student pilot whilst making his first solo. The aircraft concerned was a De Havilland Tiger Moth. Not only is this easier to fly than any modern light aircraft, but no student pilot in history - to my knowledge - has ever died on a first solo, and certainly not in a Tiger Moth! No aircraft could possibly be more pleasant to fly, as any ex-Tiger pilot will tell you...

If you want proof of this, shortly before he died, I spoke to John Justin, who played the pilot who broke the sound barrier in this film. He told me that he learned to fly in Argentina aged 12. He was taught on a Moth, and his instructor wanted to send him solo. However, the authorities found out he was only 12, and refused permission...

I hope readers enjoy this anecdote!

Paul Murphy (ex Tiger Moth pilot).

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12 out of 14 people found the following review useful:

A great movie - very understated but captures the era well

Author: davep-15 from Hereford, England
17 January 2001

The movie really does capture a sense of time and the tremendous bravery of those involved in the breaking of the sound barrier.The cast is excellent and as usual Denholm Elliot steals every scene he's involved in. I feel this film is under-rated and is typical of much of the good work of British Cinema in the 50's

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