Friday, August 06, 2010


Set in the futuristic 1940's after the building of a tunnel under the English Channel (which in reality took another 50 years to come to fruition), the film is the story of an engineer (Richard Dix) who is obsessed with building an undersea tunnel from England to America. This dream is viewed with skepticism by many, but others believe it would somehow contribute to a lasting world peace--though how is never explained. Dix gets a team of engineers and workers going on the project, but the funding remains a constant problem; some of his backers have their own agendas and don't care much about Dix's dreams or world peace. Dix's obsession causes family problems; his neglected wife (Madge Evans) takes a job as a tunnel nurse but gets infected with "tunnel sickness" and goes blind. Without telling him what's happened, she leaves him, letting him think it's because of his neglect, rather than have him feel guilty over her illness. Dix eventually comes to think that his best friend and co-leader of the project (Leslie Banks) is having an affair with her, causing a temporary rupture between the two. Years later, as the British workers are about to complete the tunnel by connecting up with the Americans, Dix's grown son (Jimmy Hanley) joins the workers just in time to get caught in a tunnel cave-in caused by an undersea volcano, a tragedy which threatens to bring the whole project to a halt.

There's a lot going on here: explosions, crowds, a love triangle, a murder (by poisoned cigarette, I think), videophones, and the cool special effect of a huge "Radium Drill" the men use under the sea floor, but still the movie manages to be more interesting than engrossing. The narrative is an uneasy mix of SF speculation, romance, and melodrama, all in the service of expressing a kind of Ayn Randian philosophy of monomaniacal obsession. A huge chunk of Dix's life winds up being devoted to this goal which he never gives up on, even though we're given only nebulous reasons as to why it's worth doing. Dix, often a stodgy, wooden actor, is good here, as is Banks, whom I'm more familiar with as a villain (THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME). Evans can't do much with the pining wife role, though Helen Vinson is her usual interesting self as the American heiress who falls in love with Dix and isn't above literally selling herself to a slimy financier in order to assure continued support for the tunnel. The effects are fine given the era, but the make-up winds up being a problem; none of the adults age a bit over the 15-20 year span of the narrative. Walter Huston and George Arliss have very small cameos as the American President and the British Prime Minster. [TCM]

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