Friday, May 23, 2014


Considering it will have taken 22 years by the time the New York's Second Avenue Subway is completed, the idea of a tunnel running from England to the USA seems something of a fool's commute. The idea has actually been discussed from time to time, but Gaumont British Pictures got there in 1935 with the art-deco sci-fi epic Transatlantic Tunnel. If the Second Avenue Subway contains as much melodrama and intrigue as this movie -- marital problems,  blindness, double-crossing, murder, a disease called "tunnel sickness," underwater volcanoes -- those poor sandhogs are in for a hell of a time.

How many people were decapitated opening
the trunk?
It's a credit to the British filmmakers' honesty that the character behind the tunnel, Richard McAllen, is an American. Apparently, Brits weren't forward-thinking (or foolhardy) enough to come up with such an insane idea. As with all sci-fi movies, Transatlantic Tunnel takes place in the future -- that is, the 1940s and beyond. This allows the filmmakers to show off all kind of jim-dandy inventions, including television, wall-installed Skypes called televisors, trains and cars shaped like torpedoes, and private planes that resemble badly-made scones. Doesn't life today seem dull by comparison?

"How many times do I have to tell you? I'm on the
phone, not hiding behind the wall!"
None of these material things, of course, prevents human drama from taking its toll. Gossip rags hint that McAllen is having an affair with British debutante Varlia Lloyd. His wife Ruth, having gone blind working in the tunnel as a nurse, walks out on him, taking their son with her. McAllen's friendship with his associate, Robbie, is stretched almost to the breaking point. A couple of the moneymen financing the project plan to dump their shares, and, in the resulting panic, buy up the rest to control the whole thing. (One of the financiers is murdered when he backs out of the deal.) McAllen's son Geoffrey, now a young man, is killed in a tunnel explosion, joining hundreds of other fatalities that have already incurred. All this to prevent climate change from airplanes zooming over the Atlantic? No thanks, bub, I'll take my chances with the melting icebergs.

You'd think by then, they'd have invented
an iPhone instead of having to use
pencil and paper.
You may be wondering by now if the tunnel is even worth this heartache. The world leaders, deciding if they're willing to back the project, aren't so sure. When one declares the tunnel will provide only "useless employment," another says, "That's the kind they prefer." (Hey, how did Harry Reid get in here?)  But the overriding reason for the tunnel's construction, as repeated over and over, is to bring about world peace. But nobody ever explains how! They should have paid attention to the French representative, an arms manufacturer, who admits, "When your tunnel is built, all of the other nations will come to me for guns to blow it up." Merci, mon ami. (His line echoes a similar sentiment during an equally-cynical scene in The Man Who Reclaimed his Head.)

The wonderful world of alanite steel.
You may be wondering, too, just how a transatlantic tunnel can possibly be built. Well, I guess you weren't counting on radium drills and alanite steel. That's the cool thing about science-fiction -- if something is impossible, just make up stuff to defy it. Another side-effect of living in the future, by Transatlantic Tunnel's sights, is that apparently nobody ages over time except McAllen's son -- and he's killed on his first day on the job. That'll teach you non-aging little whippersnapper!

Richard Dix and Leslie Banks discover just
how hot it can get drilling through a
Richard Dix, nearing the end of his leading-man days, was probably hired to play Richard McAllen because he looks and sounded to Brits like the typical American -- part genius, part caveman, not quite handsome but someone who can fill out a tux.  British actor Leslie Banks -- perhaps best known for the original UK version of The Man who Knew Too Much -- plays McAllen's friend Robbie with his usual flair, even as he spends most of the time with his
Even this UK promotional card
for the movie kept Leslie Banks
in right profile.
right profile to the camera, the left side having been paralyzed during service in World War I. (I bet you thought I was going to make a crack about him being a two-faced actor. Never.) George Arliss and Walter Huston -- "classy" actors from the UK and US -- make guest appearances as the British Prime Minister and American President respectively. Arliss fans will be happy to know that he continues his time-honored technique of dramatically pointing his finger in the air while giving speeches. Why doesn't anybody do this anymore?

My wife would love this staring down at her
in the living room every day.
A fascinating film, Transatlantic Tunnel wouldn't appeal today to the average movie fan, if only because its soft, faded image and occasionally muffled audio cry out for a restoration that is unlikely to come. Yet some of its "farfetched" ideas have already come true. McAllen, we learn early on, has already built the English Channel tunnel, although his other tunnel, linking the Bahamas to Miami, remains unrealized, to the grateful thanks of the anti-immigration crowd.

 Transatlantic Tunnel is actually a remake of the German movie Der Tunnel, and one from France entitled -- you'll never guess -- Le Tunnel. In England, it seems to have premiered as -- hold on to your hats -- The Tunnel before taking on its final title in America. The release in Spain, as El Tunel Transatlantico, also provided its most bizarre poster, one I would use my kid's college savings to purchase. I'd say it's worth its weight in alanite steel. 


Richard Dix didn't always play such noble characters, as he proved quite well in The Ghost Ship.

Can't get enough of profiteering world leaders dragging their nations into war?  Read about The Man Who Reclaimed His Head.

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