David Lean directs this fictionalised tale of the early attempts to break the sound barrier. It follows the head of an aviation company, John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson) and his daughter Susan (Ann Todd), who is somewhat sceptical of the value of his pursuit after losing her brother (Denholm Elliot) in a flying accident.
It’s a bit like A Matter of Life and Death, but instead of soul-searching metaphysics it’s about regular physics i.e. the mechanics of flight. It does have some interesting themes: the debate about how much it’s acceptable to sacrifice in the name of human progress is the strongest. But this isn’t enough to make it entirely engaging.
The film’s dramatic elements, in particular the central conflict between father and daughter, is harder to buy into than in Hobson’s Choice. Also, the value of breaking the sound barrier before another company is not entirely clear, except in commercial terms. Vague promises are made about two hour flights to New York, but it doesn’t feel like a major step in human progress, like, say putting a man on the moon.
There’s a supposed leap into the unknown in the fact nobody knows what happens to the plane or pilot when travelling faster than the speed of sound. But in an age when we all know that it’s perfectly possible to do this safely this doesn’t lend it suspense. The first official breaking of the sound barrier occurred in 1948, four year’s before this film’s release.
The extensive flight sequences do look spectacular, however, with exterior stunt flying seamlessly mixed with studio-shot rear projection which still looks great. So like the events it portrays it represents a technical accomplishment, if not one of storytelling.