The Tunnel (The Transatlantic Tunnel) (1935)

The_Transatlantic_Tunnel_(1935)‘The next wonder of the world is the wonder of the movie world’

Engineers plan to build a tunnel under the Atlantic Ocean to link Great Britain and the United States, thus ensuring world peace. After some rather dodgy boardroom politics, the project is placed in the hands of a dedicated engineer and building begins. But public confidence begins to drop as the years pass and he is forced to spend more and more time on public relations commitments with the head financier’s daughter. Eventually, his whole-hearted commitment to the project takes a serious toll on his family life, and leads to tragedy.

Rather stiff British version of a novel by Bernhard Kellerman, which had already been filmed, in both German and French, as ‘Der Tunnel’ (1933). Indeed, some sources claim this is just the English language version of that film, but that’s not the case; it’s an entirely separate production, and betrays a very British sensibility.

There is certainly potential for some big sweeping drama and a striking film here. Unfortunately, with the limited technical resources available at the time, building a big tunnel doesn’t prove to be a particularly cinematic experience, despite some very good production design and model work. So instead we’re thrown back on the ‘human drama’ of the situation, and that turns out to be the dreariest soap opera imaginable.

Engineer Richard Dix is head of the project on the British side, and neglects his wife (Madge Evans) and young child in favour of his obsession with completing it. In order to be close to him, she secretly joins the underground staff as a nurse but is stricken blind when her eyeballs are paralysed by a mysterious, infectious gas. She keeps the truth from him, instead retreating into seclusion to raise their son, while he toils on oblivious. Leslie Banks suppresses his passions for Evans in the most underwritten ‘best friend’ role of all time and lovelorn party girl Helen Vinson gives up Dix when she finds out his wife is blind. None of this ridiculously, treacly melodrama appeared in other versions of the story, and the fact that this film has any entertainment value at all is down to the professional performances of the cast, who grit their teeth, keep straight faces, and give it their best shot.

The_Transatlantic_Tunnel_(1935)

‘Can I come in?’

The idea that linking the U.S. with Great Britain by a tunnel will ensure world peace may seem a little curious today, but has to be placed in the context of the times, with the Nazi regime on the rise in Europe. The script here is by Curt Siodmak, a Jewish writer who had fled from Germany and was making his way to Hollywood, where a distinguished career awaited, including inventing a lot of commonly accepted werewolf ‘folklore’ for ‘The Wolf Man’ (1941).

Here, Siodmak throws in some technological trappings amongst all the treacle, including a ’Videophone’ device. Unfortunately, some shots of this are less than convincing. At one point it looks as if Dix is simply sitting down in a box on the set behind a glass screen. And also the ’mysterious, infectious gas’ that causes Evans to go blind is a highly mechanistic and unconvincing plot device, especially when the problem is resolved soon afterwards with a single throwaway comment at a meeting!

There is a nice touch when the U.K. Prime Minister and the U.S. President are played by veteran film stars George Arliss and Walter Huston, but their speechifying only adds to the general stodginess of the tale. The filmmakers attitude toward the British workforce is emblematic of the times too; they are treated almost as cannon fodder, a formless, shapeless mass quick to turn into an angry mob, and quicker to be quelled by some inspiring words from our hero.

A hopelessly dated, stilted picture, redeemed in part by decent SFX work and design.

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