Somehow, when I first heard of this one, it sounded remarkably like the series of German SF films of the Thirties, which started with F.P. 1.
Like them, we have the big, near term science fictional invention – in this case a prototype aircraft – a Thirties modern research facility, and at the heart of the story, a personal drama involving the scientific hero.
But this is, in fact, a very British film, and really doesn’t resemble those films as much as it seems. Nor is it too much like the 1937 Hitchcockian SF- tinged thriller, Non-Stop New York. Instead, it is far more like the dramas and spy thrillers made in England during the Fifties.
But however you might chose to file this one – or whether you chose to call it SF or not – this is a solid, nicely entertaining film with an impressive cast, including a young and handsome Herbert Lom, Hammer stalwart James Donald (who would save the Earth a few years later in Quatermass and the Pit), and Maurice Denham.
However, the M7 is particularly well done: the model may look like a model most of the time, but the shots of it climbing rapidly or taking off from the water are striking. Perhaps the best shot is when it passes overhead during takeoff, from the perspective of the ground crew. It seems so real that one suspects that the effects crew may have spent quite a bit of time at a military airbase or perhaps an airport, studying how a large aircraft in flight actually behaved.
One interesting technical detail stands out: the year before, a similar British film, Breaking the Sound Barrier, left a lot of people believing that the British had been the ones who first exceeded the speed of sound (an urban myth which may have outlived any memory of the film). Most previous (real life) attempts had failed because of the incredible turbulence just before reaching the speed of sound, so the British film shows the pilot successfully passing the barrier by reversing the controls (an actual suggested solution): for years afterwards people believed that Chuck Yaeger had done this, much to his annoyance (he usually pointed out that he would have crashed if he had). So it is interesting to see, in a film made just a year later, that they got that right. As in real life, the M7 fights increasing turbulence, but they break through it, using the controls the right way, and find calmer air on the other side.
Another, almost prescient, detail is that the designer sees the hypersonic M7 as the first step towards Space, and that it will provide the data he needs to build its successor, a true Space Plane, the M8. This mirrors the future X-15 program, whose actual goal was to design its successor, the X-15 B, and put the first man into space.
That, of course, was before we got in a hurry and decided we’d stick a man in a tincan with a giant firecracker under it if that’s what it took the beat the Russians.
It’s a lovely little film, made with great care, and well-worth seeing. It seems a shame that it is so hard to find right now.
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