Richard Dix and Leslie Banks are engineers in this ’30s futuristic sci-fi movie about making a tunnel under the Atlantic connecting London and New York City. Dix is Richard McAllan, Marge Evans plays his wife Ruth, and Jimmy Handley, their son, Geoffrey. Banks is Frederick Robbins.
Then there’s the Lloyd’s, Varlia (Helen Vinson and her father, C. Aubrey Smith), who are wealthy backers of the enterprise. An interesting couple of roles here: the President of the U.S (Walter Huston) and the Prime Minister of Great Britain (George Arliss). The plot needs these dudes on board to promote and approve the project .
This movie is known for cool special effects; all the more so, since, 85 years ago, everything had to be physically modelled or otherwise created. Another notable aspect is that, given the nature of the project, the drama plays out over a twenty-year period. So, there’s an entire new world out there, and not just under the sea.
As we might expect this super-tunnel (beats the Chunnel by 3,000 miles) concept has a relatively long history, going back to a German novel from 1915, followed by a few silent film versions.
We open at a concert.”It’s Beethoven, he’s dead.” All the lead characters are present. Richard and Ruth discuss the tunnel project; this is really a prelude to a business meeting, concerning funding. Apparently, we’re already in the future, as Richard (‘Mac’) is credited with having engineered the Channel Tunnel in 1940.
His presentation, though, is greeted with absolute silence. Ruth tells him “the world needs the tunnel.” Fortunately, the subsequent discussion is more appreciative: Grellier (Henry Oscar) and Mostyn (Basil Sydney) are in, so are the Lloyds.
We then find ourselves three years on–excellent transitions move us along, with just enough narration–we see the tunnel in-process on TV, no less. Then we’re on-site with ‘Robbie’ (Robbins), who’s the hands-on guy; the passenger railcars have an art-deco streamliner look. The control rooms are very impressive, with rows of wheels, dials, and video monitors. This stuff would’ve still looked futuristic if the movie had been made in the ’50s.
Leaving modelling and simulations aside, we see that Ruth drives a Stout Scarab–one of three prototype fully streamlined cars of the era. Then,- what’s this? A gyroplane (a helicopter/airplane hybrid, probably a model here). Avante-garde stuff. The gyroplane lands on top of a skyscraper.
That’s all good, but, backstage at Mac’s press conference, Robbie tells Ruth he’s in love with her. Anyway, Lloyd tells Mac he has to hype the tunnel to the media; funding’s drying up. So he and Varlia head for the States for a bunch of photo-ops.
Well, Ruth is sidling up to Robbie “I’ve lost him (Mac).” The romantic quadrangle (to include a possible Mac/Varlia liason) isn’t too interesting, but does impact the main plot. At a meeting with Lloyd, Robbie agrees to throw in with him in an attempt to pry the tunnel company from Mac; ok, Robbie’s dalliance with Ruth now gives him the motive to mess with her husband.
Back at the tunnel site, Ruth seems to be going blind, a result of exposure to some underground gas. Mac is coming back to England; we see this thanks to a video monitor that folds up from a living room console. Ruth sobs in Robbie’s arms; when Mac arrives, he learns from his friend that she’s left him.
Finally, we’re back to the drill site. A showdown: Robbie says he’s done with the tunnel. Remember, he’s got two aces up his sleeve–Ruth and the financial scheme. Still, he’s persuaded to stay. We learn that fifty people have died from the gas.
In Parliament, the Prime Minister gives a is that stirring speech: the tunnel is nearly finished. There’s a video hook-up with the President, who agrees with what the P.M. said. Plus an odd hint that the project will promote peace–through increased commerce?
Since time flies here, Mac and Ruth’s son is grown up; Robbie comes calling there to shoot the breeze, and check out Ruth, in the rose garden. Back on site, a new crisis: an underground/undersea volcano impinges on the tunnel, literally heating things up.
One cue, an eruption bursts through an inspection plate. What they have to do is detour around the volcano. Since this means more time, the investors want to pull out. Mac tells them the obvious; unless they avoid the volcano the whole tunnel will be destroyed by it.
Varlia tries to commiserate with Mac “The tunnel: it’s broken you, as it’s broken me.” She upbraids her father for giving up. Lloyd repeats the mantra that the tunnel, if completed, would bring “world peace.” Between two countries, maybe. Now, from her dad and Mostyn, she learns about the stock scam fouling things up. They bargain. That is, she trades herself “a spectacular self-sacrifice” for his investment. Ok, more than a triangle, or quadrangle, now it’s a love polygon.
Now Mac’s trying to literally rally the workers–forget the gas, let’s just bypass the volcano–well, he’s a convincing guy. Back with the toney set, Grellier feels betrayed by Mostyn; no more stock scam? Hey, what’s up with that, old boy?
Out on the street with another Scarab, there’s what looks like the Phantom Corsair, another legendary ’30s streamliner prototype. A family detail: Mac’s son is now working in the tunnel. The drill crew goes on with its work; a redundant confrontation of Robbie, Mac, and his son. The kid says “I hope it’s good and dangerous!” So he can be a he-man too, I guess.
One result of that stuff is that Robbie and Mac reconcile. Varlia comes to talk to Ruth (really blind now), about…divorcing Mac. They both love him, how could Ruth do it (supposedly ruin Mac)? “Are you blind?” Varlia clamors, meaning, blind to the truth. Yes, but don’t take that the wrong way, blind lady.
The tunnel. A scribbled note: the lava is just 400′ away. Actually, it’s…right here, in our laps, and it’s hot! Freaking out everywhere down there. Do they shut the dangerous sector, stopping the lava, but sealing off those guys’ escape route? Have to, but hundreds die.
Here’s the P.M. announcing that the tunnel must go on. In a sort of premonition, eerily similar to a Churchill speech, he insists that we have to continue construction because the “Eastern Federation of Powers” (meaning Germany, and perhaps also the Soviet Union) is poised to “strike” in the West. The president is completely in accord. So, ultimately, the tunnel is a military asset: a communication, logistic, and strategic corridor. That makes sense.
Among the volcano casualties, Jeffrey; Mac has to tell Ruth. Good thing is that the tragedy brings them closer to each other. Mac trots out the “peace” mission of the tunnel. That’s just not holding water. It will help in a war with that nasty “Eastern Federation,” but that’s assuming a war anyway. At most it’s a deterrent, like the French Maginot Line.
We get some great views from the drill–itself a gigantic vehicle, with its own control room. It’s the old heat problem now. Guys on the other side (eastbound from the States) can hear it coming though. Forty-five feet to go and the tunnel will go all the way. A final blast should do it…
Through the rubble, the two sets of workers unite. An announcement from London, then Washington. Both capital cities feature a gigantic tunnel opening. National anthems. We’re done. Well, Mack and Ruth have patched it up; and I guess Varlia has got stuck with Mostyn. Look out Eastern Federation.
Futuristic sci-fi is hard to pull off. Tunnel uses the slick, convincing device of immersing us in the future world; we’re simply there. There’s some narration, but that’s filtered through the unique double perspective of the TV/video monitor. We see futurism through a futuristic (by decades) media. And then, the metaphoric curtain, or literal frame provided by the monitor’s screen, gives way to our direct look at the events just mentioned.
As I’ve pointed out with the vehicles shown, no effort was spared to incorporate the most advanced automotive designs available in 1935 to further embellish the future magic. An exemption is the obvious ’30s roadster that we see while Varlia’s in the U.S. Even so, we only see the windshield and interior, so it doesn’t really register much.
With the exception of official buildings, which haven’t changed much anyway, interior scenes have the same art-deco look as the streamlined cars. The illusion that we’re in the future is not only initiated seamlessly, it’s a look and atmosphere that’s maintained throughout.
The tunnel itself has marvel’s everywhere. From the railcars, to the drill, the control tower, the ‘spacesuits’ for the workers, the volcanic eruption, even the scaffolding in the tunnel, it all looks like what such a project might look like in the time-period covered (mid-’30s to ’50s, presumably).
The political aspect was also engaging, if not quite as plausible. What was prescient, as mentioned, were the assumptions made by the P.M. that Britain and America were in danger of being attacked soon. In retrospect, many people would think that this was more or less obvious; fear of the U.S.S.R. in the West, for example, was at least as great as of Germany and Japan.
But Germany was still quite weak in ’35; there was by no means a certainly that there would be a WWII, or if there was, that Germany would be on the opposite side of the Western Powers. The strategic awareness shown in the speeches, therefore, is fairly remarkable.
What doesn’t add up is the alleged and almost strained emphasis on the tunnel’s ability to supposedly promote peace. Only in the roundabout way I’ve hinted at earlier.
Having built this amount of praise for Tunnel, there’s the significant problem of the romantic entanglements clogging it all up (a tunnel of love is a different sort of project). Other than the great quip that Ruth is “that blind,” this stuff inhabits too many scenes, burdening what otherwise is a nicely-paced script.
The exception would be the tunnel-shares-scam which figures into Robbie’s conflict with Mac over Ruth. If that had been the sole bit of indiscretion, then, ok. But Varlia’s contribution, other than the creepy deal with Mostyn, just eats up time to no real purpose.
All in all, a must see, especially for fans of pre-war sci-fi. Maybe a good follow-up would be to watch another early British futuristic film, 1936’s Things To Come, and compare special effects and political predictions.
Farmermouse was sure it must be Christmas, as such rare cars don’t just drive by everyday. Seven and a half humongous drill bits for Tunnel. 7.5/10.