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The Sound Barrier (1952)

Approved | | Adventure, Drama, Romance | 21 December 1952 (USA)
Fictionalized story of British aerospace engineers solving the problem of supersonic flight.


David Lean


Terence Rattigan (story), Terence Rattigan (screenplay)
Won 1 Oscar. Another 8 wins & 5 nominations. See more awards »




Complete credited cast:
Ralph Richardson ... J.R.
Ann Todd ... Susan Garthwaite
Nigel Patrick ... Tony
John Justin ... Philip
Dinah Sheridan ... Jess
Joseph Tomelty ... Will
Denholm Elliott ... Chris
Jack Allen ... 'Windy'
Ralph Michael Ralph Michael ... Fletcher


Tony successful fighter pilot during World War II marries into the family of a wealthy oil magnate who also designs airplanes. The movie traces the company's attempt to break the sound barrier, as well as tensions between father and daughter. Lots of footage of early 50s jet aviation in Great Britain as well as shots of the Comet airliner, world's first jet passenger plane. Written by Henry Brugsch <henry@g0gku.demon.co.uk>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Jet Packed Showmanship See more »


Approved | See all certifications »

Did You Know?


Ralph Richardson and Ann Todd were cast as father and daughter, despite the fact that in reality there was little more than four years between them. See more »


When Susan tells her husband she is pregnant, she tells him the baby is due around Christmas, but when the child is born, the weather is warm and sunny, suggesting the child is anything but a December baby. See more »


Philip Peel: I'll not stick the nose on the tail.
Will Sparks: I'll stick your nose in your tail.
See more »

Crazy Credits

In the opening credits, immediately after the human actors, are listed four British aircraft: The de Havilland COMET The Vickers-Supermarine ATTACKER The de Havilland VAMPIRE 113 The Vickers-Supermarine SWIFT Rolls-Royce 'Avon' Engine See more »


Referenced in The Bit Part (1988) See more »


Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me a Bow-Wow
Written by Joseph Tabrar
See more »

User Reviews

" ...the real point is, it's just got to be done...."
15 December 2018 | by Brucey_DSee all my reviews

A young RAF pilot test's his father-in-law's prototype supersonic aircraft to the limit, at a time of intense development activity in the field of aviation, just as commercial jet airliners are about to come into service.

This is one of David Lean's less well-known films, in which some of the development milestones and incidents in contemporary UK aviation were put into a dramatic context. It should be mentioned that the aero industry was probably the UK's largest single industry by the end of WWII; it is thought that approximately 25% of the entire UK economy was devoted to aircraft manufacturing and allied industries; for four long years air power had been Britain's main means of striking back at Germany. Although activities were somewhat reduced in peacetime, the UK lead the way in several key aviation fields in the late 1940s and early 1950s; there was a new Cold War to be fought.

Now, lot of reviews here assume that the events portrayed were completely fictional (a la U571); whilst no film is beyond reproach in this respect in point of fact in this case nothing could be further from the truth; this film used no fewer than eight of the UK's most experienced test pilots as consultants. One of the eight, John Derry, reached supersonic speeds on 9th september 1948, whilst in a shallow dive in the third DH108 prototype.

The phenomenon of 'control reversal' at transonic speeds can and does occur with some wing designs; essentially at very high speeds the angle of attack of the wing is dramatically altered (because the control surface loads twist the wing essentially) and thus the intended effect of the controls can be reversed. This phenomenon is known to have afflicted aircraft such as early marks of spitfire, and this could limit the safe speed in a dive until a (torsionally stiffer) revised wing was introduced. It is just one of the many things that can occur in or near the transonic regime, and was probably chosen for the film because it is both simple and dramatic, and by then fairly well-known.

Flying military jet aircraft at that time was incredibly dangerous even without being shot at; peacetime training accidents were numerous. On some types an aircraft would be lost for every 1000 hours flying time and in a little under half of those losses the pilot was killed too. Test pilots had it worse than that; one of the eight test pilots who was consultant on this film was credited posthumously; he passed away between when the film was shot and released. Indeed the film refers to the loss of Geoffrey de Havilland (which in reality occured in 1946) again in a DH108 prototype. It is sobering to note that there are no surviving DH108 prototypes because they were all lost in (fatal) crashes.

In this film the human drama is played well enough with fine ating and good production values, but all this definitely takes second place to the aircraft and the flying. We see (apparently) a wartime spitfire in a high speed dive, Supermarine Attacker WA485, De Havilland Comet G-ALYR, a De Havilland Vampire and a Supermarine Swift.

In one magical sequence they have breakfast in the UK, fly to Cairo for lunch whilst delivering an aircraft, and then cadge a ride home on a Comet undergoing evaluation testing for BOAC. All at high altitude, high speed, jet-smooth, way above the clouds; something airline passengers of the time could only imagine until the Comet entered service during 1952.

Comet G-ALYR (one of the first batch of production Comet Mk 1 aircraft) was badly damaged in a taxi-ing accident a year or so after this film was made. Nonetheless it had already flown about 750 times and the fuselage was eventually used for water-tank fatigue testing, the lessons of which were learned from world-wide and are still relevant to this day.

This film isn't technically perfect but it is by no means as flawed as others would have you believe. It is stronger as a film about flying than a drama, but it is by no means bad in either respect. It gets a solid 8/10 from me.

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Release Date:

21 December 1952 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Breaking Through the Sound Barrier See more »


Box Office


GBP250,000 (estimated)
See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Mono (Western Electric Recording)| Mono (Sound Recording of the breaking of the sound barrier made by John W. Davies - afterwards known in the industry as Jack Sound.)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See full technical specs »

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