Made in 1935, my father, born in 1924, started telling me about this movie when I was about ten (1967) and so the message rolls down the generations. The film is about a mammoth undertaking to build a transportation tunnel from New York to London. The special effects are stunning and remarkably realistic. The tunnel boring machine used in the film looks identical to the ones that were actually used to dig the Dover-Calais tunnel under the English Channel.My knowledge of the movie was imparted by frequent pantomimes by my father, imitating the contortions of the workers as they struggled to slip out a closing emergency door sealing off a compartment during a cave in. Any watcher of WWII submarine movies will know the drill: a few guys get out, one just barely slips through as the water rises in the flooding room, and the last is left banging on the door in anguish, dying a miserable death. Mon pere was fond of enacting this using the automatic garage door as a stand-in for the tunnel bulkhead.
After hearing and seeing this about 100 times, naturally I lost interest. What a surprise, when one night, in a fit of insomnia, I turned on the TV at about 3am in the morning, and found myself watching a very weird, compelling sci-fi film. It was Transatlantic Tunnel, but my father had left out the strange subtext of sex and politics. As I recall, from my foggy viewing, the wife of the chief engineer, an icy Dietrich figure, suffers from hysterical blindness brought on by anxiety over the fate of her husband as he works in the dangerous undersea construction site. The workers, too, have their anxieties, and at one point, rebel, refusing to go down into the pit. The chief, in a speech worthy of Il Duce, shames them with their cowardice, urges them on with imagery of moral uplift and dreams of glory. The men, lumpen mass, are inspired by the great leader, and go back to work.
Believe it or not, it’s because of stuff like this that I became an engineer.