An absolutely fascinating true-life story, to be sure...but the doc has some major drag issues. Shelter Island has released Whittle: The Jet Pioneer, the 2010 documentary about Sir Frank Whittle, the young English aviator and engineer who invented the turbojet and ushered in the modern jet age. With events involving disastrous miscalculations on the part of the British government and military, and a timeline involving beating the Nazis to the punch for air superiority during WWII, Whittle: The Jet Pioneer should play out like a thriller, complete with a hero who paid dearly for his herculean efforts to keep England in the vanguard of jet propulsion. Unfortunately, Whittle: The Jet Pioneer stalls when it comes to important details like...who exactly was Sir Frank Whittle. A few small extras help in this okay-looking widescreen transfer.
A very brief rundown of Sir Frank Whittle's life is in order here, for those who may only know the name. Born in Coventry, England, in 1907, young Whittle followed in his engineer/mechanic father's footsteps, developing a passion for tinkering while supplementing his schoolwork with long hours at the local library, reading up on advanced aeronautics, physics, and engineering. Entering the RAF Cranwell apprentice school under an assumed name (after flunking the physical), Whittle began a three year training program as an aircraft mechanic, eventually receiving a recommendation from his superior officer to attend officer training at Cranwell proper in 1926. There, he became one of the RAF's best (and riskiest) pilots, while at the same time authoring a thesis about future propulsion systems. Becoming a RAF flight instructor in 1930, Whittle's evolving theory on a turbine gas engine resulted in a patent application...and a pass by British Air Ministry, who declared the idea unsound. Promoted to Flying Officer, Whittle aced through a required engineering course and was offered the chance to attend Cambridge, where he graduated with a First in Mechanical Science in 1936. That same year, two retired RAF servicemen, Rolf Dudley-Williams and James Collingwood Tinling approached Whittle with the idea of creating a company, supported by private funds, to develop Whittle's engine: Power Jets Ltd..
With the manufacturing support of steam turbine specialists British Thomson-Houston, Whittle's prototype was built. Repeated indifference on the part of the Air Ministry, and a relatively paltry amount of development money offered once they did sign on, further delayed Whittle's engine. Meanwhile, in Nazi Germany, engineer Hans von Ohain had started work by 1935 on his own prototype turbine engine, receiving the full support of the Nazi government. Finally, by 1939, the British Air Ministry placed an order for Whittle's engines. Production problems due to governmental meddling forced Whittle to scrounge old parts to secure his own flyable version of the engine, which took off in an Gloster E.28/39, on December 14th, 1940. Quality control issues with rival company Rover (who were allowed on Power Jets Ltd.'s turf by the government) slowed production, until Rolls Royce became involved, while Whittle, on orders from the RAF, flew to America to help General Electric's engine program. In 1943, Whittle, tired of the squabbling and inefficiency caused by the British government allowing other private companies to become involved in jet engine production, offered to give up his shares in Power Jets Ltd. and have it and the other companies nationalized to render fair compensation for everyone involved. Instead, the government nationalized Power Jets Ltd. only, paying a nominal fee for it, and bought off Whittle for an equally insulting sum. Whittle resigned from the company in 1946 after suffering another nervous breakdown. In 1948, he was awarded a one-time government fee of £100,000 in recognition of his work on the jet engine, before another breakdown forced him to retire from the RAF. For the remainder of his life, he worked as a consultant in various fields, eventually emigrating to the United States (where his place in aviation history was recognized far more enthusiastically). He died in 1996.
A pretty fascinating story, right? And one I was completely unaware of until I saw this documentary. And I suppose for that, Whittle: The Jet Pioneer gets a nod for introducing viewers to this pioneering 20th century inventor. Unlike its subject, however, Whittle: The Jet Pioneer doesn't break any new ground in how it's constructed and presented. It utilizes the standard documentary format of filmed interviews (including the central one with Sir Whittle himself), broken up by archival and newsreel footage, maps, graphs, and diagrams (particularly helpful when explaining just how a jet engine works), and linked by a narrator filling in the holes. In every way, it's thoroughly ordinary in conception and execution.
...and that would be fine...if the subject matter was at least treated with the energy and excitement it deserves. After all, we've got a thriller here in Whittle's biography. This is the story of a man who almost single-handedly "shrunk the world," forever changing how we live on this planet. His story involved a life-and-death race against time with a mortal enemy of civilization (the Nazis), as well as an agonizing, frustrating game of cat and mouse with his own adversarial government and military that seems an all-too common story coming out of 20th-century England. As for Whittle himself―at least from what I've briefly read about him―he seems an intriguingly complex man, driven to reckless folly when he was an aviator, and to several nervous breakdowns during his quest for England's superiority in jet propulsion. Shouldn't this documentary fairly crackle with excitement, given that material?
Alas, it doesn't. Anytime Whittle: The Jet Pioneer has Sir Frank Whittle speaking, it's quite compelling. He's soft-spoken but direct, a good storyteller, and he has that wonderful English quality of understatement that's quite amusing (when discussing his acing his school tests, he states, "I got 30 out of 30...which I thought was quite satisfactory."). However, the doc doesn't even bother to tell us or label when this interview took place (that's Documentary Filmmaking 101), so it's hard to place it in the context of his life (he's older here...but how much older?). Little details like that seem picky, but when you add in how relatively superficial the scope of the doc's investigation is, everything magnifies for the increasingly unsatisfied viewer. This first hit me when I heard Sir Whittle mention that, as a "commoner," the world at Cranwell was entirely different for him, what with all those "public school" boys and officers. Now, most people know that in England, "public school" means a private institution, usually reserved (at least back then) for the titled or the gentry or at the very least, the sons of the nouveau riche merchant class. And with Whittle's humble origins, I would suspect that divergence in class structure from his classmates caused some friction. Yet, the documentary goes no further with this intriguing tangent. It's not just an isolated element, either. Further on in the doc, Sir Whittle mentions that initially his ideas weren't accepted because he didn't have a public school degree; that Rover didn't initially take him seriously because they had a superior attitude about engineering (no doubt fueled by their public schooled execs); and that once in America―the land of exceptionalism that used to put a premium on those that succeeded by their own efforts...until about four years ago―he was not only accepted but enthusiastically lauded for his efforts. In other words: England's debilitating class system in action. Why wasn't this pursued in Whittle: The Jet Pioneer? Surely this is a valid theme to explore, considering how it impacted Whittle's life? And yet...we hear nothing about it.
Nor is there any detailed discussion of why there was so much reticence on the British government's and military's part in financing Whittle's invention. Since that reluctance to help Whittle may have indeed lengthened the war, and certainly contributed to his own breakdowns, couldn't the filmmakers have taken five minutes to explore that quality in the British mindset of the time a little more thoroughly? Even more distressing for the viewer, we never really get a feel for who Sir Frank Whittle was, for what made him tick. We get most of the facts of his life here, but others are left out. I had to watch one of the bonus features to sort of get the idea that he had at least two wives, and maybe a companion inbetween those two marriages (from his son Ian's eulogy). I had to read on the internet that he was a lifelong socialist...until he turned conservative when he experienced first-hand exactly what nationalizing socialist governments do to the creators and makers in this world (the doc never touches his personal politics). Most worrying, the filmmakers refuse to discuss his mental state, when obviously this was a crucial factor in his life's work. Was the dichotomy of this studious, First-level mathematical genius morphing into a reckless, daredevil pilot who frequently wrecked planes an indication of the numerous nervous breakdowns to come? And what of those nervous breakdowns? To what extent were they work-related? What of his failed marriage? Too often, Whittle: The Jet Pioneer puts out a vibe of being so respectful, so hands-off the more complex aspects of Whittle and his career, that the viewer in the end feels he knows the timeline of this fascinating man's life well enough...but not the man himself.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.