Maurice Elvey’s Transatlantic Tunnel (1935) inhabits the forlorn ranks of seldom seen early science fiction films. Is it a masterpiece of the genre? No. Is it worth watching for fans of early sci-fi? Definitely! The production value is remarkable (which surprised me) and a few scenes remain to this day awe-inspiring (the drill!).
However, the cinematography verges on pedestrian which limits the impact and grandeur of the film’s ambitious subject matter. More frustrating is the grating melodrama and overall poor acting of all involved. Transatlantic Tunnel ultimately falters because of contrived attempts to engage the viewer emotionally.
That said, it’s refreshing watching early sci-fi that stays away from the standard alien/robot tropes. Yes, the film seldom deviates from its mono-thematic thrust – man striving (with the aid of grand technological inventions) against all odds and winning in the end.
The film retains a grim level of realism by focusing on the results of one man’s obsessions and fame — the slow collapse of his family. The crumbling microcosm of familial life is paired with the single-minded industry rumbling deep under the Atlantic (only hindered by the lack of funds and gas pockets). The infusion of melodrama is grating and downright silly but does humanizes the stupendous endeavor of constructing a transatlantic tunnel.
Brief Plot Summary
The film is based on a novel Der Tunnel by the German author Bernhard Kellermann (which had previously been adapted for the screen twice by the German director Curtis Bernhardt — who would go on and direct multiple Hollywood features).
Sometime in the future, a group of wealthy British industrialists gather at the house of Mr. Lloyd who reveals a series of new technologies developed by Richard McAllan (our main character) which theoretically will enable a tunnel to be constructed between the United States and Britain. This will enable “world-peace facilitated by English speaking peoples.” Jump ahead three years.
McAllan has become a celebrity called from place to place for photo shoots etc which distrances himself from his wife and son. In frustrating his wife, Ruth, pretends to be a nurse (the reason isn’t exactly clear — perhaps to understand why the tunnel holds such an allur for McAllan). Tragedy strikes and she’s blinded by gas released from the drilling.
Various financial issues crop-up (and stock manipulation shenanigans). McAllan’s son (whom he barely knows) joins the project. And there’s a submarine volcano which releases deadly gases.
One of the most interesting elements of the film was the careful integration of future technologies. For example, a small car which zips along the finished sections of the tunnel to the point of drilling and strategically placed screens. These minor elements give the viewer a nice peek into this technology driven future.
The most disappointing element, as stated above, was the heavy-handed “integration” of melodrama which makes large patches of the film cringe worthy. On the other hand, the potential destructive elements of technology on the family is definitely a thematic highlight of the work (although the method it’s carried out is flawed).
This is an important work of early science fiction which should be seen by any fan of the genre. I hope that the two earlier German films based on Kellermann’s novel will be available soon.