aka The Tunnel
Director – Maurice Elvey, Screenplay – L. du Garde Peach, Screen Story – Kurt Siodmak, Additional Dialogue – Clemence Dane, Based on the Novel The Tunnel by B. Kellermann, Producer – Michael Balcon, Photography (b&w) – G. Krampf, Music Director – Louis Levy, Art Direction – E. Metzner. Production Company – GB Pictures.
Richard Dix (Richard McAllan), Madge Evans (Ruth McAllan), Leslie Banks (Frederick ‘Robbie’ Robbins), Helen Vinson (Varlia Lloyd), C. Aubrey Smith (Lloyd), Basil Sydney (Mostyn), Henry Oscar (Grellier), Jimmy Hanley (Geoffrey McAllan), George Arliss (Prime Minister of England), Walter Huston (President of the United States)
The billionaire Lloyd brings together a group of wealthy industrialists to hear a proposal. Before the group, Engineer Richard McAllan puts forward his plans to build a tunnel under The Atlantic linking Britain and the USA. The industrialists are persuaded to finance the plan. As years drags on in the drilling and construction, McAllan’s wife Ruth feels neglected in his single-minded dedication to the job. She volunteers as a nurse working on the project to be near him, only to be blinded by Tunnel Fever. She then makes the decision to leave him, taking their son. McAllan fights on, battling against gas explosions, backers seeking to dump shares to buy up control and the discovery that the route of the tunnel takes them directly into the path of a volcano.
Der Tunnel (1913) was a popular novel by German author Bernhard Kellermann depicting a massive engineering scheme to build a transatlantic tunnel between Britain and the US. There was a silent German film version of this made with The Tunnel (1915) – this was believed lost for many years until a version was restored in 2010. Trans-Atlantic Tunnel was one of three versions of the book made during the early sound era. Back in these days, the idea of dubbing or subtitling seemed to be unheard of so producers would shoot multiple versions of the same film for different language audiences using different casts. This happened with the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931), which had a Spanish-language version shot at the same time with Dracula (1931) and other films of the era such as F.P. 1 Does Not Answer (1932), L’Atlantide (1932) and The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933). Trans-Atlantic Tunnel originally started as Der Tunnel (1933), a German-made adaptation of the book, which was shot alongside Le Tunnel (1933), a French version with the same script but different casts, both versions being directed by Curtis Bernhardt. This was a third version shot for English-speaking audiences. The IMDB insists that the title for this version is The Tunnel, although it was actually released as Trans-Atlantic Tunnel.
Trans-Atlantic Tunnel comes from British director Maurice Elvey. Elvey had a career that lasted from the 1910s to the 1950s during which he made some 196 films. These included High Treason (1929), the first British science fiction film of the sound era; the sound remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1932); and The Clairvoyant (1935) with Claude Rains as a psychic. The film also features one of the earliest screen stories from Kurt/Curt Siodmak, a German expatriate writer who wrote numerous screenplays including The Wolf Man (1941) and the multiply filmed novel Donovan’s Brain (1943), among a great many others.
The 1930s were an amazing time of technological change. In the later 1920s, the first skyscrapers were being built, while the development of motorcars, commercial planes and luxury liners was taking off on a massive scale. On screens, the way ahead had been heralded by Metropolis (1927). Metropolis was a gloomy prediction of industrialism but subsequent German films of the sound era such as Woman in the Moon (1929), F.P. 1 Does Not Answer and Gold (1934) were excited about the possibilities of engineering schemes and scientific discovery. Der Tunnel sits among these, imagining an epic-sized engineering project that dwarfs what we have even done today. The three versions of the film reused sets and effects scenes and common to all three are some of the vast images of drilling machines in operation, huge multi-levelled sets and vehicles buzzing up and down the length of the tunnel. The film also makes the assumption that we are automatically in a future setting – this is a world where there are giant broadcast television sets in common use (although it interestingly assumes that all of these would be in public places and the idea of the home tv set has not occurred to it). The one thing I don’t fully understand though is when it is explained how the building of the tunnel will prevent war from happening – the script never gives any idea why this would occur.
You have to complement Trans-Atlantic Tunnel for its epic vision. At direct to contrast to this, it is also a slow and talky film. A large part of this is that it was being made only a few years into the sound era where cameras essentially became static because the primitive recording equipment was too bulky to move around. Many of the early sound films opted for dialogue-heavy scenes as opposed to visual and dramatic ones because the novelty for the audiences of the day was in seeing actors sitting around talking. A perfect example of this here are the scenes involving people catching a disease known as Tunnel Fever (which blinds McAllan’s wife Madge Evans) and others about the skulduggery amongst the contributing partners of the tunnel board to gain control, where these are all dramas that we are told about boilerplate but where crucially we never see or are engaged in watching anything dramatic occurring.
The one point the film does pick up from all this dreary exposition is in the last twenty minutes. There is great drama – and something that looks impressively massive in scale – during the scenes where Richard Dix has to make the decision to close the blast doors off to prevent the eruption from the volcano, which also means locking his own son inside with a group of miners to face their deaths. There is also an intensively driven piece of drama during the final scenes where Richard Dix leads the push to drive the drilling machine through the last sections to complete the tunnel against the intense heat that causes every other person aboard to collapse. It is good drama, alas not enough to save the rest of the film.