Impressive special effects, large set pieces, and a keen eye for future technology are the highlights of this entertaining film from 1935.
A transatlantic tunnel is an idea that has been toyed with for over a century, but Transatlantic Tunnel (based on the 1913 German novel Der Tunnel, itself a forward-thinking novel) may be one of the best representations of the idea. In the film, a scientist approaches a group of well-to-do investors from a variety of industries. He pitches them the idea of a transatlantic tunnel that, should they invest in the initial construction, will net them a healthy profit. As expected, things don’t go as planned: as the loss of life, financial costs, and tunneling difficulties continuing to grow, the investors start dropping out one by one. With the project in its twilight years and its creator a broken shell of a man, the tunnel’s future becomes unclear.
While it isn’t necessarily a major focus in terms of screen time, the actual business behind the tunnel is a central theme to the plot. From trading shares to conspiracy theories to shell corporations, Transatlantic Tunnel is as much a business drama as it is a construction movie. Double-crosses and backroom deals abound, and are usually hidden from the audience until certain characters in the film are made aware of them. This gives the film a rollercoaster effect, keeping the audience on their toes and teaching them to trust no one.
The effect the project has on the builders also serves as a central plot device. The tunnel project destroys families, kills workers, and drives siblings apart. It’s a poignant examination of a world-changing construction project: sacrifices must be made, but at what point do those sacrifices outweigh the benefits of the project itself?
Transatlantic Tunnel’s greatest strength, however, is its focus on future technology. Considering this film was released in 1935, it was quite forward-thinking. Television, an interconnected network of data sharing (i.e. a VERY rudimentary version of the Internet), massive tunnel drillers, teleconferencing, advanced metallurgy, and more all make an appearance. Best of all, these technologies aren’t presented as the kind of “future tech” you would expect to see in the ‘30s. Rather, it all looks like something that belongs in a movie from the 50’s or possibly even 60’s. This applies to everything from operational complexity to overall visual style (although there’s the obligatory 1920s/1930s art deco influence here too.)
In addition to the forward-thinking approach to technology, the film moves at an unbridled pace, something that’s relatively uncommon for movies from the 30’s. While the total number of years the film takes place over isn’t explicitly mentioned, one can assume that anywhere from 18-25 years passes between the beginning and the end. This is calculated based on how much one of the main character’s children grow up; since they’re conceived a couple of years into the plot, and are eventually “old enough” to work on the tunnel, 18-25 years of total time elapsed is a safe bet. The film is also purposely vague as to when the film actually starts, although they do make mention of a massive tunnel that was finished in 1940, placing it in the “near future” category relative to its original release. I took this to mean it starts anywhere from 1945 to 1950, which would put it 10-15 years in the future from its date of release. This means that, going with our other assumptions, the movie ENDS anywhere from 1963 to as late as 1975. Assuming the earlier end of that estimate, 1963 is actually a REALLY good guess from a technological standpoint. At the end of the film, common technology is roughly equivalent to what existed around the mid-60’s (sans a transatlantic tunnel, natch.)
That means this film is one of the most “future technology” accurate films ever produced. This alone would be impressive enough, but considering the film is from the mid-30’s, it’s almost impossible to believe! Granted, there are earlier films that were eerily accurate in their portrayal of future technology (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis comes to mind), but this one still does a bang-up job of it.
Transatlantic Tunnel is currently available on Netflix Instant, VHS, and DVD, so it should be quite easy for you to find. I highly recommend that you do: even if you aren’t a fan of classic cinema, Transatlantic Tunnel is a brightly shining gem that deserves far more attention than it’s been given.
EDIT: If you don’t mind watching a blurry print of it, the full movie is actually available on Youtube. Give it a watch!