During World War II, pilot Philip Peel (John Justin) was flying his spitfire over the White Cliffs of Dover when he decided to see how fast he could go; it was a very swift aircraft, and as he went into a dive he almost lost control of his plane, noting he nearly was forced to push the joystick in the opposite direction to that which his instincts had told him, all to get his bearings once again and right the machine. But once the war was over, the research into manned flight continued apace, as the next big achievement was to travel faster than the speed of sound, something that had thus far eluded the pilots and designers alike. The aerospace company led by John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson) was at the forefront of this technology...
Except it was not, as there was no such company, in director David Lean's presentation of creating a scientific and human milestone. If ever there was proof that bad history did not necessarily make bad films, it was The Sound Barrier, which though based on the endeavours of the United Kingdom's lauded De Havilland family, the people at the forefront of such investigations that knew tragedy as well as triumph, was more or less made up. The actual breaker of the barrier was the legendary American pilot Chuck Yeager, who already had a grudge against the Brits for perceived slights in how they treated him when he was stationed there as a pilot; you can imagine how he felt when this hit movie claimed his success as their own.
In truth, Lean and his team were not aware that Yeager had made this breakthrough until they were halfway through production as it was still top secret at the time, but ploughed ahead anyway as they reasoned this was not a documentary they were crafting, and the film was more than a dry historical tract from recent headlines. Certainly Lean made sure to include the newspaper report of pilot Geoffrey De Havilland's fatal accident, where it was rumoured he managed to travel faster than the speed of sound before he died in the process, since that was what had spurred his imagination to make the film in the first place, but anything American was never mentioned. There could have been a simple motive for that, however.
Which was Britain was leading the way in flight technology, and in the nation's popular imagination it had replaced the endeavours and heroics of the war as a subject they could all get behind; no longer did little boys dream of being a steam train driver, they wanted to be pilots for, as the film points out, the sky would be the limit. Go faster than sound and you could use jets to travel around the planet at incredible velocity, then you could eventually escape the gravity and proceed into orbit, then the moon, then the rest of the solar system and beyond; the possibilities for exploration were quickly turning into a matter of tremendous excitement, and it was all here in this tale, ably scripted by noted playwright of the day Terence Rattigan. Yet along with that anticipation, there was danger as well, as exemplified by the character of Ridgefield's daughter, Susan (Ann Todd, Lean's wife at the time).
Susan is the worrier, the one who sees this research as fraught with potentially deadly peril, and little wonder when early in the movie she sees her brother (Denholm Elliott) die in a fiery plane crash. This haunts the rest of the story, and even comes back stronger than ever for Susan, that in spite of her pilot husband Tony Garthwaite (Nigel Patrick, the picture of urbanity as ever) taking her on a trip to Cairo with him in his aircraft where the pay a visit to Philip and his family (including wife Dinah Sheridan) and setting him thinking that he could return to Britain and resume his duties as a test pilot himself, thus setting up a remarkably tense final act. The point was that dream was very close to delusion, and one man's vision for a better world is another man's nightmare of unnecessary tragedy; this resonated throughout every scene Richardson was in, and he made sure to stamp his character's unyielding personality on every scene, even those he was not appearing in. Yes, everyone was terribly posh and polite, but the compassion the film felt for them all was genuinely affecting, whether they were correct in their drive to succeed or not, so forget the real story for a couple of hours and appreciate this meditation on what that meant. Music by Malcolm Arnold.