Saturday, May 9, 2009

Under the Sea

Our next movie is one that has some fascinating visuals, but a dull-as-dishwater plot: The Tunnel (also known as Transatlantic Tunnel) overnight at 2:30 AM ET on May 10.

The second title, Transatlantic Tunnel is a near-perfect description of what the movie is about. Released in 1935, Transatlantic Tunnel tells of a time in the distant future (around 2000) when engineers are trying to build a tunnel from England to North America in order to make the two biggest English-speaking regions even closer together than they already are culturally and politically. (Even today, there are people promoting the idea of a strong Anglosphere, if not via physical connections.) Naturally, the tunnel is fraught with all sorts of engineering problems, and seeing the scenes of tunneling equipment, and the problems the builders face, makes Transatlantic Tunnel a very visually interesting movie.

Unfortunately, the movie has a tacked-on domestic plot that's terribly predictable. The lead engineer (Richard Dix) has a wife and young kid, but he's neglecting them because he's so obsessed with completing the tunnel. The son, however, idolizes his father, and wants to work on the tunnel when he grows up, since the project is taking so long. Meanwhile, the strained love between the engineer and his wife turns tragic when she tries to visit him in the tunnel but is overcome by fumes that can blind people. There's also a possibility that father and mother are going to have to sacrifice their son in one of the numerous engineering accidents....

Much more interesting are not only the visuals, but the movie's attempt to look at the future. As I've mentioned before, one of the fun things about watching movies set in the future is seeing how wrong the movie makers get things. In the case of Transatlantic Tunnel, they get much of the engineering and science of the problems of the tunnel project wrong. Nobody really knew about plate tectonics at the time, so there's absolutely nothing about how the movement of the continents is going to make the tunnel an intractable problem -- just wait for the first earthquake. More humorously, there's a suggestion that the engineers here had built a tunnel under the English Channel, and done so much more easily than would later be done in real life. On the other hand, there are some interesting (and not too far-off) depictions of videoconferencing technology. OK, so we don't all have huge screens in our homes for the purpose. But one of the scenes shows a video hookup between the US Capitol and the British Parliament building. It's not only technologically interesting; the US President is played by Walter Huston, while the British Prime Minister is played by George Arliss.

Ultimately, though, Transatlantic Tunnel is a curiosity fraught with as many problems as the engineering project it depicts. Put the plot aside and focus on the technology, and you might have a lot of fun. At the same time, though, it still is a movie that deserves at least one viewing. Transatlantic Tunnel has not been released to DVD, so you'll have to catch TCM's airing if you want to see it.

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