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The Sound Barrier

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Subject: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia (film), Nigel Patrick, Dr. Strangelove, Jack Hildyard
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The Sound Barrier

The Sound Barrier
Theatrical release poster
Directed by David Lean
Produced by David Lean
Written by Terence Rattigan
Starring Ralph Richardson
Ann Todd
Nigel Patrick
John Justin
Denholm Elliott
Music by Malcolm Arnold
Cinematography Jack Hildyard
Edited by Geoffrey Foot
Distributed by London Films
British Lion Films
United Artists
Release dates
  • 22 July 1952 (1952-07-22)
Running time 118 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget £250,000[1]
Box office £227,978 (UK)[2]

The Sound Barrier is a British 1952 film directed by David Lean. It is a fictional story about attempts by aircraft designers and test pilots to break the sound barrier. In the U.S. it was retitled Breaking the Sound Barrier. David Lean's third and final film with his wife Ann Todd was also his first for Alexander Korda's London Films, following the break-up of Cineguild. The Sound Barrier was a great box-office success, but it is now rarely seen (recently it has been released in both VHS and DVD home versions) and has become one of the least-known of Lean's films. It is also Lean's only venture into this type of genre.


The plot involves John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson), a wealthy owner of an aircraft company. Nigel Patrick plays test pilot Tony Garthwaite, a successful fighter pilot during the Second World War who is employed by Ridgefield after marrying Susan (Ann Todd), Ridgefield's daughter. Tensions between father and daughter are accentuated by Garthwaite's dangerous job of test flying.

The film explores the company's hopes for a new jet fighter, the "Prometheus", and the problems faced by the then-new jet aircraft in encountering the speed of sound, the so-called "sound barrier". In an attempt to break the sound barrier, Garthwaite crashes and is killed. Shocked at the death of her husband and her father's single-minded and heartless approach to the dangers his test pilots face, Susan walks out on her father and goes to live with Jess (Dinah Sheridan), the wife of Philip Peel (John Justin), another company test pilot. Ridgefield approaches Peel with the challenge of piloting his test aircraft. At the critical moment, Peel reverses his flight controls, allowing his plane to break the sound barrier.

Accepting that her father cared about those whose lives were lost in tests, Susan changes her plan of moving to London and takes her young son with her back to home and Sir John.


As appearing in screen credits (main roles identified):[3]
Actor Role
Ralph Richardson John Ridgefield
Ann Todd Susan Garthwaite
Nigel Patrick Tony Garthwaite
John Justin Philip Peel
Denholm Elliott Christopher Ridgefield
Joseph Tomelty Will Sparks
Dinah Sheridan Jess Peel
Jack Allen Windy Williams
Anthony Snell Peter Makepeace
Donald Harron ATA officer
Vincent Holman Factor
Ralph Michael Fletcher
Douglas Muir Controller
Leslie Phillips Controller


The strong relationship to aviation history in The Sound Barrier has led to its being characterised as a "semi-documentary". The screenplay by playwright Terence Rattigan was loosely based on newspaper articles of the time, and bases some of its plotline on the real-life story of aircraft designer Geoffrey de Havilland and the loss of his son (Geoffrey de Havilland, Jr.), the de Havilland company's test pilot who died attempting to fly faster than sound in the DH 108.[4][5]

Contrary to what is depicted in the film, the first aircraft to break the sound barrier was the Bell X-1 flown by Chuck Yeager of the United States Air Force in 1947. However, the Bell X-1 was only able to achieve this thanks to an essential British contribution when the Air Ministry signed an agreement with the United States to exchange high-speed research and data. Miles M.52 Chief Aerodynamicist Dennis Bancroft stated that the Bell Aircraft company was given access to the drawings and research on the M.52,[6] but the U.S. reneged on the agreement and no data was forthcoming in return.[7] As described in his first biography, the film was entertaining, but not that realistic – and any pilot who attempted to break the sound barrier in the manner portrayed in the movie would have been killed. Control reversal, though accurate enough in this context, is not a legitimate aerodynamic technique: it is actually the result of insufficient tailplane stiffness, the elevators acting as though they were trim tabs twisting the tailplane to produce an aerodynamic effect opposite to that intended. Nevertheless, because the 1947 flight had not been widely publicized, many who had seen the film thought it a true story in which the first supersonic flight is made by British pilots.[8] Subsequently although it was not British pilots that first broke the barrier it was British technology that allowed Yeager and the Bell X-1 to pass safely through the sound barrier.[6][9][10][11][12]

Footage of early 1950s jet technology in Great Britain includes scenes of the de Havilland Comet airliner, the world's first jet passenger airliner.[13] At the time the film was made, jet travel was being made available to the public for the first time in the form of the de Havilland Comet. In the film Tony Garthwaite (Patrick) flies Susan (Todd) from England to Egypt in a two-seater de Havilland Vampire, returning later the same day, a graphic illustration of the possibilities of the new jet technology.

The Prometheus jet aircraft that appears in the film was one of the prototypes of the Supermarine Swift (VV119), itself a particularly troublesome aircraft design.[14]


The film was the 12th most popular movie at the British box office in 1952,[15] and also did well in the US, making a comfortable profit.[1]


Academy Awards

With this film, Ralph Richardson became the first actor to win the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actor who did not also go on to win an Oscar nomination.

BAFTA Awards

US National Board of Review

  • Winner Best Actor (Ralph Richardson)
  • Winner Best Director (David Lean)
  • Winner Best Foreign Film
  • Listed in Top Foreign Films

New York Critics Circle

  • Winner Best Actor (Ralph Richardson)



  1. ^ a b Kulik 1990, p. 316.
  2. ^ Porter 2000, p. 498.
  3. ^ "The Sound Barrier full credits", IMDb.
  4. ^ Davenport-Hines, Richard. "Havilland, Sir Geoffrey de (1882–1965)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  5. ^ de Havilland, Geoffrey. Sky Fever: The Autobiography of Sir Geoffrey De Havilland. Ramsbury, Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK: Crowood Press Ltd., 1999. ISBN 1-84037-148-X.
  6. ^ a b Wood 1975, p. 36.
  7. ^ Bancroft, Dennis. "Faster Than Sound", NOVA Transcripts, PBS, air date: 14 October 1997. Retrieved: 26 April 2009.
  8. ^ Yeager and Janos 1986, pp. 206–207.
  9. ^ The Miles M.52: Gateway to Supersonic Flight, Brown 2012, p. 87.
  10. ^ Wings On My Sleeve, Brown 2008, p. 212
  11. ^ 'The X-Planes: X-1 to X-45', Miller, Jay 2001
  12. ^ PBS transcript
  13. ^ Davies and Birtles 1999
  14. ^ Winchester 2005, pp. 312–313.
  15. ^ "Comedian tops film poll", The Sunday Herald (Sydney, NSW: 1949 – 1953), p. 4 via National Library of Australia, 28 December 1952. Retrieved: 24 April 2012
  16. ^ "The 25th Academy Awards (1953) Nominees and Winners", Retrieved: 20 August 2011.


  • Davies, R.E.G. and Philip J. Birtles. Comet: The World's First Jet Airliner. McLean, Virginia: Paladwr Press, 1999. ISBN 1-888962-14-3.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies." The Making of the Great Aviation Films. General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Kulik, Karol. Alexander Korda: The Man Who Could Work Miracles. London: Virgin, 1990. ISBN 978-0-86369-446-2.
  • Porter, Vincent. "The Robert Clark Account." Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 20 No. 4, 2000.
  • Winchester, Jim. The World's Worst Aircraft: From Pioneering Failures to Multimillion Dollar Disasters. London: Amber Books Ltd., 2005. ISBN 1-904687-34-2.
  • Yeager, Chuck and Leo Janos. Yeager: An Autobiography. New York: Bantam Books, 1986. ISBN 0-553-25674-2.

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