Transatlantic Tunnel/The Tunnel (1935) *˝
I’m honestly not sure what happened here. As I’ve mentioned before, British, French, and especially German studios in the early 1930’s were even more enthusiastic than their American counterparts in embracing the practice of producing parallel foreign-language versions of their movies for export purposes, with the biggest, most expensive productions normally shot in triplicate to take full advantage of all four of the key markets where synch-sound dialogue recording was the norm. For some reason, though, Vandor Film neglected to make an English-language version when they adapted Bernhard Kellermann’s The Tunnel to the screen in 1933. Maybe the firm’s leadership simply figured that English-speaking audiences weren’t going to give a shit about a picture based on some twenty-year-old German novel about industrial hubris and labor unrest, however big that book’s international popularity had been during the sixteen months before World War I gave Germany and everything associated with it a bad name. If so, they were apparently quite right. Gaumont British attempted to correct Vandor’s oversight with a Tunnel movie of their own in 1935, and despite expatriate screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s conscientious efforts to de-Germanize the story, to cleanse it of Kellerman’s subtextual anti-Semitism, to distance it from the increasingly troublesome and troubling subject of Communist agitation— even to give it a happy ending of sorts!— Transatlantic Tunnel nevertheless met with a lack of giving a shit so universal that it damn near killed off the studio! Of course, Gaumont hadn’t exactly helped their chances of turning a profit on this enormously expensive venture by putting out a film that kind of sucked.
On an evening of unspecified date sometime in the 1940’s, a British tycoon by the name of Lloyd (C. Aubrey Smith, from And Then There Were None and The Phantom of Paris) is throwing a party. Among the guests are six of his fellow captains of industry, representing among other things the steel, oil, and airline businesses; the relatively famous engineers Richard McAllan (Richard Dix, of Seven Keys to Baldpate and The Ghost Ship) and Frederick Robbins (Leslie Banks, from Chamber of Horrors and The Murder Party); and McAllan’s youthful wife, Ruth (The Thirteenth Chair’s Madge Evans). It’s a rather odd combination to say the least, for while the engineers are old friends, neither one of them is exactly in the habit of hanging out with the likes of Lloyd and his cronies. Obviously this is more than just a social gathering, and the ulterior motives begin to come into focus when we learn exactly what the odd men out are known for. McAllan’s notoriety derives from his leading role in designing and building the railway tunnel beneath the English Channel in 1940 (the real-world Channel Tunnel wouldn’t come into service until 1994), while Robbins is most notable as the inventor of a device he calls the radium drill. Lloyd has summoned the other fat cats to his home to hear in person what these two virtuosos of excavation want to do as an encore to their recent triumphs. There was no radium drill yet when McAllan dug his way from Dover to Calais, and with the power of that new instrument at his disposal, he believes it is now possible to run a tunnel all the way across the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, linking Great Britain with the United States of America more directly and permanently than ever before. Obviously such an undertaking would require truckloads of money to reach fruition, but truckloads of money is exactly what Lloyd and his colleagues have. McAllan assumes at first that the stony silence that greets his proposal betokens rejection. However, that’s just because he isn’t attuned to the way things work in these most rarefied strata of the business world. The truth is, all of Lloyd’s guests are as enthusiastic about the project as he is— even Grellier (Henry Oscar, from The Brides of Dracula and The Greed of William Hart) of the International Armaments Corporation, who theoretically stands to lose business from the tightening of international bonds that everyone imagines the completed tunnel will bring about. McAllan gets his funding, and sets to work as soon as he can secure the aid of American arch-engineer Jim Barton (James Carewe, of Phantom Ship and Midnight at Madame Tussaud’s) to handle the dig from the other end.
You know who isn’t enthusiastic about the Transatlantic Tunnel, though? Ruth McAllan. Oh, she was all for it so long as it remained a hypothetical possibility for some cloudy, uncertain future, but after three years of seeing her husband up to his eyeballs in the biggest, most complicated, most insanely demanding public works project in the entire history of mankind, it’s all, “You love that tunnel more than you love me! Wah, wah, wah!” Already by the twenty-minute mark, in other words, we’re beginning to see what’s really wrong with this movie. Despite the unprecedented magnitude of the undertaking at its core, despite the equally unprecedented array of obstacles that stand in the way of its completion, and despite the almost literally infinite scope of possibilities for tragedy and disaster attendant upon the work, Transatlantic Tunnel’s main conflict is going to have nothing to do with any of that, but will instead consist of pure soap opera bullshit. And worse yet, the engine of that soap opera bullshit is going to be the insistence of absolutely everybody with whom McAllan has any dealings whatsoever upon behaving as unreasonably as possible at all times.
Take the occasion of the McAllans’ son’s birthday as a case in point. The plan is for Ruth to bring little Geoffrey with her to pick up Richard and Robbie at the headquarters for the British end of the tunnel project, but Richard gets detained past quitting time just like he does virtually every day. Now it seems to me that McAllan has all the justification in the world for being late to Geoffrey’s party— after all, he’s digging a fucking tunnel underneath the fucking ocean. It’s kind of important, and it’s not hard to see how shit would tend to come up at the last minute pretty much every time there was a last minute. Ruth doesn’t see it that way, though, and she sulks the whole way home when she finds out that her husband is going to be just a little too busy for birthday cake and silly hats for a while longer yet. She also spends the whole ride home drawing invidious comparisons between Richard and Robbie, who is able to drag himself away from work on time, because nobody needs him to decide jack shit so long as the radium drill keeps working. Of course, Ruth’s unreasonableness is nothing beside Lloyd’s. No sooner has McAllan extricated himself from the entanglements keeping him out of the festivities back home than Lloyd calls from his company’s American offices to insist that Richard report to New York at once. As in, now. As in, nevermind Geoffrey’s birthday, nevermind Ruth’s expectations, nevermind one goddamned thing except climbing aboard the company helicopter and flying out to the Big Apple. And you know what the real pisser is? Lloyd refuses to tell McAllan anything at all about this urgent business of his over the video phone— for no better reason, I might add, than that his sidekick, Mostyn (Basil Sydney, from The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and The Hands of Orlac), thinks the engineer could stand to be reminded who the boss is around here— and when the chopper drops Richard off in New York, it turns out that the urgent business is in fact eminently non-urgent. Lloyd has merely decided that the tunnel project needs a higher media profile, to which end he means to start parading his gorgeous and glamorous daughter, Varlia (The Lady and the Monster’s Helen Vinson), in front of the press with McAllan as her escort. And yes, that does indeed mean that Ruth back home will leap immediately to the conclusion that Richard and Varlia are having an affair.
That’s the vein in which the whole rest of the movie mostly proceeds, too. Lloyd or one of his fellow financiers will place some self-serving obstacle in McAllan’s way, Ruth will perversely interpret Richard’s efforts to jump through the latest executive hoop as a personal betrayal, and McAllan will justifiably sink deeper into resentful obsession with getting the fucking dig finished so that it’ll finally stop ruining his life. Even potentially interesting developments like Grellier’s machinations to make himself master of tunnel behind Lloyd’s back, the outbreak of a degenerative nerve disease among the tunnel laborers, and the discovery of a submarine volcano directly in the path of the excavation get pressed into service as mere setups for cheesy interpersonal melodrama. The Grellier subplot does little more than to provide context for a weird, one-sided rivalry between Mostyn and McAllan over Varlia’s affections— Mostyn wants Varlia, but she’s smitten with the engineer (who, as usual, wants nothing to do with any of this, desiring only to be left alone to finish digging his 5000-mile-long hole in the ground). Tunnel Sickness per se ends up taking a back seat to what happens when Ruth comes down with it after secretly signing on as a nurse in the sorely afflicted Section H medical station. When the mysterious illness renders her blind, Ruth inexplicably turns that into a motive for leaving Richard, somehow dragooning Robbie into pretending that she’s running away with him! And the volcano’s main purpose is to burn the now-teenaged Geoffrey McAllan (played as an adolescent by Jimmy Hanley, from Gaslight and The Lost Continent) alive when he goes to work as one of his father’s constructors. With that pattern in place, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised when Transatlantic Tunnel eventually asks us to believe that McAllan and Barton’s real achievement in breaking through to each other beneath the ocean’s midpoint lies in bringing Richard and Ruth back together via the ennobling effect of adversity. To be perfectly frank, though, even that makes more sense than all the blather we’ve heard from McAllan, the Prime Minister (George Arlis), and the President of the United States (Walter Huston, from Dragonwyck and All that Money Can Buy) for the past hour and a half about how the Transatlantic Tunnel is the last, best hope for world peace.
The notion of the Transatlantic Tunnel as a catalyst for peace might have sounded a tad more reasonable in Bernhard Kellermann’s telling, or in either of the two 1933 films, which had the tunnel linking the United States to Continental Europe. If one accepts the dubious proposition that land-based travel somehow inherently brings nations closer together than travel by sea or air, then there’s a certain amount of logic behind the assumption that the cause of international peace would be furthered by encouraging the habits of aloof, isolationist America to rub off on fractious, quarrelsome mainland Europe. (Remember, it was the first half of the 20th century; only wars between white people counted.) With the tunnel’s eastern end opening up in Bristol or Weston-Super-Mare, however, the premise that it’s anything more than a public convenience or a novel source of railroad revenue becomes completely untenable. Admittedly, Britain and the United States had not yet formalized their relationship as Bestest Pals in 1935, and diplomatic rivalries between the two states could still become pretty heated (especially at the arms-limitation conferences that figured so prominently in great power politics between the World Wars), but there had been no serious prospect of actual hostilities for three generations. Transatlantic Tunnel thus inadvertently seems to ratify the views of its more cynical industrialist characters, no matter how loudly and frequently it proclaims the opposite perspective. McAllan, Lloyd, and the rest really are a bunch of deluded do-gooders with an implausible dream that will accomplish little in the end but to make the likes of Mr. Grellier even richer.
There are, however, two points that I can raise in favor of Transatlantic Tunnel. First off, Richard Dix and Leslie Banks between them create a welcome island of dignity in this sea of histrionic tawdriness. Dix gives the more consistently laudable performance, but Banks deserves special credit for bringing such depth and humanity to a role that frequently requires him to be part of the problem. Robbie’s behavior is often just as absurd as Ruth’s, Lloyd’s, Mostyn’s, or Varlia’s, and I still haven’t figured out for sure whether he was intended to be the 1930’s Brit version of a homosexual caricature, or merely an effete upper-class wanker. Banks is so damn good, though, that I constantly found myself wishing the movie would spend more time with him. Transatlantic Tunnel’s other commendable quality is that it’s an extremely attractive film, even despite being seriously undercapitalized in comparison to the two recent Vandor versions. It’s nowhere near as impressive as the contemporary Things to Come, of course, but mere impressiveness doesn’t seem to have been the object here. Instead, Transatlantic Tunnel is notable for the credibility of its futurism. Without World War II to crank up the pace of technological advancement, it’s easy to believe that the late 1940’s would have looked very much like this. (On the other hand, the casting directors, production designers, costumers, and so forth evidently did not consciously recognize just how much time this story encompasses. If we assume for the sake of argument that Lloyd’s party occurs in 1945, then it’s easily 1960 by the final shot, and yet to all appearances the clock has stood perfectly still for everyone and everything save Geoffrey McAllan and the tunnel itself. Hell, the same men even occupy both the White House and 10 Downing Street throughout!) The esthetic allure of Transatlantic Tunnel also extends to the cinematography, which starkly underscores what got lost in the changeover to color film stock as the industry standard. This particular species of resonant moodiness occurs only in monochrome, and I can’t make up my mind whether it’s the movie’s saving grace, or whether it’s the crowning affront that photography of such subtlety and grace was made to serve so clunky and maudlin a picture.