"...The Sound Barrier begins with Peel’s Spitfire above the English Channel at Dover. It ends with a glimpse of the distant heavens. These bracketing images define the metaphysical trajectory of the story, very much in the mode per aspera ad astra. Lean conveys the idea that technical progress itself accelerates by the simple expedient of sequencing the types. The Attacker, a jet fighter for the Royal Navy first flown in 1946, incorporated the laminar-flow wing originally intended by Supermarine for its piston-engine successor to the Spitfire, the Spiteful. The twin-boomed DeHavilland Vampire followed into service Britain’s first jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, the only allied jet aircraft to serve operationally during World War Two. The Vampire (below), which like the Attacker was a straight-wing airplane, only just missed the war. In the 1950s it flew with dozens of air forces around the world.
In two extended flying sequences the Attacker, despite its conventional planform, looks swift and agile. Cameraman Jack Hildyard (1908-1990) – he would work with Lean again on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) – captures the three-dimensional aerobatics in what is arguably the best flight-related footage ever filmed.
The Sound Barrier is not a war movie although it is a story of conflicts. Hildyard’s aerobatic sequences, synchronized perfectly in finished form with Arnold’s deft score, emphasize the solitude and lyricism of airframe testing. Another acoustic element of the film deserves mention: The sound of the jet engines – which the Foley artist on Lean’s post-production team makes to resemble now an equine whinny, now the rolling thunder, and now the screech of the banshee, with many subtle shadings in between – belongs to the galvanizing sensory reality of reaction propulsion. Arnold orchestrates with his usual canniness, showcasing instruments of high register, like the flutes and piccolos, in the fabric of whose intertwining timbres the voice of the engines fits like one of the family.
Two actual aviation events dogged The Sound Barrier in the year of its release. The Americans had broken the proverbial “barrier” in level flight in 1947 with the Bell X-1 rocket plane, but the United States Air Force kept the feat secret until five years later, when the British were still only diving their aircraft past Mach One. The American revelation, coming when the film debuted, stole some of Lean’s thunder. Then at Farnborough in 1952, test pilot John D. Derry’s DeHavilland DH.110 fighter plane (below) – a swept wing evolution of the Vampire – broke up in flight killing Derry and co-pilot observer Anthony Richards. [Clip] Seconds before the disaster Derry had dived his machine through Mach One.
Twenty-nine spectators also perished when heavy debris from the mid-air disintegration smashed down on the crowd. Fellow test pilot Neville Duke almost immediately took to the air in a prototype Hawker Hunter, flying in which he exceeded Mach One in a dive. Speaking of supersonic flight regimes in the early days, the dean of British test pilots Eric Brown once said in an interview, “We realized that this was going to be a very costly field.”
Death in the air belongs to the thematics of Lean’s film, which references the DH.110 crash at Farnborough. On the day after their nuptials the newlywed Garthwaites witness the death of Susan’s diffident younger brother Christopher (Denholm Elliot) when he tries to fly solo, under pressure from his father, in a light plane. The daughter holds her brother’s death against the father whom she comes to regard as heartless and cold. Christopher’s plane need not have caught fire on hitting the ground, Ridgefield remarks to Tony after the funeral, “if only he had switched off.” The death was pilot error, the parent implies. Susan glares silently. Garthwaite becomes the substitute son, bonding closely with Ridgefield, whose laconic determination he respects and comes increasingly to share. He shrugs off danger with the casual words, “Piece of cake.” Susan’s worries put a strain on the marriage, especially when she learns that she is pregnant.
The Sound Barrier realistically shows the sexual division in these matters. In their pioneering ambition and unsentimental commitment to technical challenge men willingly risk their lives in extreme situations. The uxor, averse to the hard metallic world of the machines, lives moodily, jealous of the man’s preoccupation, and always expecting the worst.
Lean leads viewers on for some time into seeing it from Susan’s viewpoint. (She has a viewpoint, the feminine one, after all.) Even Ridgefield’s chief engineer Will Sparks (Joseph Tomelty) begins to think his boss inhuman. Aided immensely by Richardson’s representation, however, the director gradually reveals Ridgefield, the industrialist, as a hero in his own right – a necessary man seeing to a necessary job. Garthwaite asks Sparks, “Seriously, apart from the buffeting, and the heavy controls, and the wanging and banging, and other little problems, what does happen to an aeroplane at the speed of sound?” Sparks replies, “I don’t know, and shall I tell you something, Tony – no one else does either.” Ridgefield tells Susan that there is “a whole new world with speeds of fifteen hundred and two thousand miles per hour within the grasp of man.” He regards his son-in-law as the fellow who will grasp that world.
Garthwaite will “buy it” flying in the “Prometheus,” actually the Supermarine Swift. Even more than the Attacker sequences, the “Prometheus” sequences constitute the scenic highpoint of The Sound Barrier. Whereas the Attacker wears its Royal Navy livery, Lean puts the Swift in clean metal finish, giving accent to its pleasing lines. The Swift belongs to the beautiful late-1940s generation of jet fighters. Like its contemporaries the North American F-86 Sabre Jet (below left) and the Hawker Hunter (below right), the Swift possessed elegance of shape regrettably not achieved in the later generations of fighter aircraft. In the “Prometheus” sequences, too, Lean exploits the seeming contrast between the technical sophistication of the machine and the rustic beauty of the English countryside. For Lean, the machine is not inimical to the natural surroundings. A farmer’s acre is already an alteration of nature, indeed. Viewers also see the tiny silver fleck of the Swift against mountainous clouds in a vast sky, a reminder that nature still towers over man. "
Upon reading this part of Bertonneau's column, I was reminded of that famous late nineteenth century aviator pioneer, Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896), of whom I read a lot as a boy. The name suggests he was a German, and indeed he became one, but he was actually born a Prussian in Anklam, a town in Pomerania, a region close to the Baltic. German he only became after that other Otto, the Bismarck one, unified Germany.
Lilienthal was a necessary link in the chain of aviation pioneers that led to the Wilbur brothers' succes in 1903. Indeed, Wilbur and Orville Wright considered him their most significant predecessor. Lilienthal, who was himself indebted much to Sir George Cayley, devised many gliders and made numerous flights. Perhaps it was the fact that Pomerania is part of the Great European Lowland that forced him to erect his own artificial hill whence he made his gliding sorties:
How goes the saying? Faith moves mountains? Lilienthal did it. Try to explain that to today's ecowussies, sensitivity managers and political correctness apparatchiks.
Otto Lilienthal was killed when the top wing of a novel biplane glider design broke off. He fell from a height of 17 meters. His last words were "Kleine Opfer muessen gebracht werden" ("Small sacrifices must be made"). Hello again, androgynous wimps?
Now on to one of my early jet age favorites. The Hawker Hunter. Designed by that magnificent character Sydney Camm, who was also the father of the Hawker Hurricane.
Back to Bertonneau, more precisely to a money quote at the end of his article:
"...I also owe a good deal of what I know about flight and airplanes to my older brother, Dan (born 1936) – an aerospace engineer with stints at Lockheed, where he redesigned the ejection seat of the F-104, and at North American, where he worked on the J-5 engine of the Saturn V Moon Rocket at the managerial level.
My male students at SUNY Oswego, where I teach in the English Department, know almost nothing about flight or airplanes. They have never read Pylon (1935) by William Faulkner or Pilote de Guerre (1942) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and they have never heard of Flying Aces or the Supermarine Swift or the Sabre Jet. This deficiency belongs to their general spiritual emasculation in a world dominated by sensitivity, emotions, free-association, “smiley faces,” “fairness,” “comfort food,” soccer leagues for girls, “women’s studies,” “bad hair days,” “offense” and other specifically female institutions, conspiracies, and phenomena. In a Spenglerian mood, I say that fathers should instill in their sons careful appreciation for powerful, dangerous, and extravagant machines..."
DAMN. RIGHT. If you are so lucky to be the father of a young son, and you catch him watching crap from James Cameron with blue apes in it, switch off the dvd player. Make him see something like...
... well, this may be a good start:
You might then try to make him watch The Bridges at Toko-Ri, with William Holden:
I can't say it's a thousand times better than Avatar, because when I was wearing short pants they taught me mathematics instead of cultural awareness, and one of the things we learned was that 1,000 times zero is still zero.
Now, to wisen your son up completely, and make him foster REAL AND DESERVED RESPECT, not the "respect" they teach us we should have for an insane paedophile worshipper cult which instills into its followers the desire to fly beautiful planes in skyscrapers...
... let him read, as soon as his reading skills allow it, Such Men as These, by David Sears.
Ignore Outlaw Mike's good advice at your own peril.