Engineers grouse a lot about how they “don’t get no respect.” They aren’t paid as highly as lawyers and doctors, and no one makes them the heroes of TV shows and movies. T’was not always so!
While studying civil engineering, I did some research on the role of the engineer in American literature, and found that we of this profession were indeed seen as heroic in a bygone day. At the turn of the century, stories often featured engineers, the effect of nearly a century of ‘heroic’ achievement that markedly improved the quality of life: I speak of the lengthened life span of inhabitants of great cities due to improved sanitation and water supply. Thus, I was lured to my present slot in the International Work Machine. I’m not complaining.
Looking at some web forums that addressed the question, “What TV shows or movies show engineers as heroes?”, probably emanating from some undergraduate technical school, I found that most respondents noted only a smattering of recent sci-fi films. It seems to me, however, that older films, particularly British ones, have a different history.
The Dam Busters (1955) is an excellent example of the British engineer-as-hero doing his part for the war effort. Michael Redgrave plays Wallace, a man with a good idea about how to destroy the dams that supply electric power to the Nazi industrial region of the Ruhr Valley. Breaking the dams would cripple their production effort and sow chaos in the regions – good stuff! Problem is that the bombs must fall just up against the dam and must burst at the proper depth under water. They cannot be delivered as air-launched torpedoes because the dams have floating protections against such missiles.
Wallace gets the idea for a bomb that will bounce across the water’s surface (from reading Admiral Nelson’s account of the Battle of the Nile), hit the dam face, sink, and then explode. It requires a specially engineered bomb carried by a squadron of highly trained airmen who can fly very low over water with great precision. The animated GIF below shows how the bomb was delivered.
The movie is very good at building suspense and excitement, although the enemy is never seen, and the actual combat sortie happens at the end. The airmen are coolly professional in the face of death, but the terrible losses attendant on the effort are not glossed over. Of course, they all act with that chipper can-do attitude we associate with the Brits and WWII movies, but Wallace expresses regret: If I’d known it would cost fifty men…
The relationships between the various groups involved are interesting: the officers and the men: the officer and his dog, the death of which evinces more outward emotion than the inevitable deaths of his comrades; the bureaucrats and the engineer; the officer and the engineer. Redgrave plays a bit of an odd duck, the commanding officer comes to deeply respect the man with the idea that is sending him on this dangerous mission. Even Bomber Harris, who rarely saw a bombing plan he didn’t like, tells Wallace after the successful run, “At first I didn’t believe you, but now you could sell me a pink elephant!”
I love those planes!
Celebrating after a successful prototype test – the aftermath of the real thing.
According to Wikipedia, the operation, known as Operation Clandestine, was not as strategically significant as Wallace had hoped. The Germans were able to repair the dam and resume power generation quickly because the Brits did not follow up with conventional bombing raids.
In the film, one of the military refers to the “Back Room Boys,” meaning the engineers who come up with new weapons or related technology. These people are the focus of a fine dark tale I learned of at Film Noir of the Week, The Small Back Room. It’s about one engineer who comes up with ways to defuse German anti-personnel bombs dropped on the UK. Here too, the technical guys are the heroes, and they are presented as complex human beings, with the lead being a struggling alcoholic with an artificial foot that humiliates him, and a pretty girlfriend who tries to help him come to terms with his situation. The suspense generated by his attempts to defuse the German booby-trap bomb is strong, and he is clearly a hero to the uniformed servicemen.
Another Brit movie, this time pre-war, that has an engineer-as-hero is Transatlantic Tunnel, about which I have posted earlier. This film casts the engineer as a hero in the classic mode. He is capitalist, technical master, and mover of men’s souls all in one. Almost Ayn Randian.
No Highway in the Sky pairs Jimmy Stuart, who flew those bombers in WWII, with Marlene Dietrich as passengers on a plane designed by Stuart. He’s convinced it’s going to crash because of a design flaw, but he can’t get them to stop the flight. Marlene takes to him because he’s attractive and has real character, but he’s a tortured hero, beset by doubts.