The Transatlantic Tunnel (dir. Maurice Elvey): film of ambition and sacrifice let down by plot, acting and narrow vision

Maurice Elvey, “The Transatlantic Tunnel” (1935)

A visually handsome if very flawed science fiction film, “The Transatlantic Tunnel” is one of three films made in the 1930s that were based on a German novel “Der Tunnel” by Bernhard Kellerman. Two of the films were in French and German (the latter reviewed elsewhere on this blog) and the film under review is a British one. (There was a fourth film made in Germany in 1915.)  The film is very basic in plot: it revolves around a grand project to build a tunnel beneath the Atlantic Ocean from the United Kingdom to the United States and the dreadful toll the construction exacts from the people involved, most of all the main character “Mack” McAllan (Richard Dix) whose marriage breaks up and whose wife Ruth (Madge Evans) suffers terribly when she tries to involve herself as a nurse ministering to the workers in the project. Technically the film is excellent as long as its focus remains on the tunnel construction and the more futuristic aspects of the plot and some of the plot details; once it strays from the tunnel itself, the special effects and the pyrotechnic displays and strays into the human interest dimension, the film fails dismally and what should have been a very good and inventive sci-fi film ends up dull, narrow in vision and one-dimensional.

Engineer Mack McAllan’s dream of building a tunnel that unites the English-speaking peoples on both sides of the pond starts to take on flesh once a group of wealthy shareholders agree to finance its construction. Years pass, McAllan’s wife feels isolated from her husband who lives and breathes and sleeps the tunnel and she takes up a job as a nurse in the project. An unfortunate accident leaves her blind and she leaves her husband, taking their son Geoffrey with her. McAllan ploughs on with the project through various crises, both within the tunnel and without: the shareholders’s faith in McAllan’s ability to run the project flags from time to time; McAllan’s family and friends end up alienated from him; the public confidence sometimes turns against the project and McAllan must consent to PR stunts to maintain public support for his baby; industrial accidents cause huge fatalities; and the entire project nearly comes undone when the tunnellers hit an active volcano in their path.

The film intends to show the heroism and patriotism of the people involved in the project as they deal with the problems they encounter. The unity of the English-speaking peoples across the Atlantic Ocean is deemed important enough to continue the project even though the explosion of the volcano in the tunnel’s path results in the loss of hundreds of workers’ lives, including the life of McAllan’s adult son Geoffrey. Apart from this, the human angle is woeful and comes over as artificial: the stiff upper-lipped acting ranges from histrionic to woeful and back again, especially in scenes of intimacy and strong emotion. Richard Dix and Madge Evans as the couple at the centre of the story try valiantly to work with what the script gives them: Evans comes off the better of the two as a sensitive if rather glamorous trophy wife who suffers a double tragedy; Dix drums up what emotion he can and it’s to his credit that his character ends up resembling a human being, albeit a workaholic one who sacrifices everything he has and then some for his dream.

What saves the film and makes it worthwhile watching is the futuristic set designs and the film-makers’ ideas of what Earth will look like by 1940, five years after the film was made: people not only have TV, they communicate by prototype Skype, have teleconferencing and videoconferencing, and use large primitive computers with knobs, buttons and TV screens. The camerawork and lighting are also excellent and show off the sets and their streamlined functional lines to their advantage.  A scene of a sleek rail-car gliding along a track is used several times in the movie. Because of the emphasis on clean futuristic design, those parts of the film that focus on the tunnel actually still look very good and one might have said the film had been made in the 1950s or even early 1960s; away from these scenes though and the film looks just like any other cheap British flick featuring upper class toffs made in the 1930s. Social and gender stereotypes abound and the workers in the film obviously have never heard of democracy and equal rights for all, let alone the trendy socioeconomic philosophies and ideologies of the time like Marxism and Leninism.

If Alfred Hitchcock had been persuaded to direct this film, he might have improved on the plot and characters and probably even introduced a few technical filming innovations that would have suited the movie. As it is, “The Transatlantic Tunnel” is mainly of interest to film buffs curious about Britain’s history of science fiction movies and TV shows. Even within the narrow parameters where the film works, there should have been a theme of self-sacrifice, blind ambition leading to fall, self-knowledgement and enlightenment, and a changed morality in the main characters, and an acknowledgement of how idealistic dreams, no matter how well-meaning they are, can lead to suffering, tragedy and even evil.

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