Engineers in the Movies

We’re inching out of lockdown Britain but a night at the movies might be some distance away. Streaming movies, Blu-Rays and DVDs may be our only ways to enjoy a good film for a while yet.

Here is my list of films (not documentaries) that feature engineers as characters to inspire your choice of viewing – and reflect on how engineers are depicted in the media. We don’t get as much coverage as police detectives, lawyers, doctors, or serial criminals, but let’s see if we can add to this list of engineers – fictional or historical drama – in the movies.

Back to the Future – Doc Emmett Brown is the archetypal wacky inventor/ engineer in this time-travelling trilogy.

The Bridge on the River Kwai – Alec Guinness as Lt Col Nicholson whose pride in building the bridge distorts his judgement – until the end. The engineer who designed the Forth Bridge replica built in Sri Lanka for the film set was Keith Best of Sheffield-based consultant Husbands.

The Colditz Story – John Mills plays civil engineer Captain Pat Reid, whose book inspired the film.

Towering Inferno – the real hero was Mr Johnson, structural engineer, who told them to blow up the water tanks.

Iron Man – aka Tony Stark, the engineer and industrialist with a talent for witty one-liners and cool suits.

The Great Escape – Steve McQueen plays Captain Virgil Hilts, a chemical engineer – and biker.

Hidden Figures – three NASA mathematicians in the space race – including aeronautical engineer, Mary Jackson.

The Aviator – Leonardo di Caprio plays the aeronautical engineer/industrialist Howard Hughes who became a recluse in later life.

The Current War – Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Westinghouse battling to light up America. Tesla also appears.

Ridicule – a French engineer seeks Louis XVI approval to drain a swamp but must first acquire court etiquette.

The Flight of the Phoenix – a German aeronautical engineer (Hardy Kruger) conceives a bold rescue plan for survivors of an aircraft crash in the Sahara.

Travelling North – Leo McKern plays an irascible retired civil engineer – familiar?
Army of Shadows – Phillippe Gerbier, a civil engineer, is the main character in this film about the French Resistance in WW2.
Black Panther Shuri
Black Panther – This Marvel movie has a new role model in the form of Princess Shuri, the engineer. Science Museum
Star Trek
Star Trek -“I canna change the laws o’ physics, Cap’n” – Scotty, born 2222 in Linlithgow, and the Chief Engineer of USS Enterprise in the TV series, the accent chosen by actor James Doohan because of the Scots in every ship’s engine room. Doohan transferred the role to the Star Trek movies, followed by Simon Pegg.

In 2000, I wrote about civil engineers in fiction (copies are still available!) and in 2005 I funded a one-off prize for the most favourable representation of a civil engineer in fiction – shared by Robert Harris for his book Pompeii, (though he never claimed it!) and the computer programming team behind Lara Croft, Tomb Raider Legends, who created a woman civil engineer as Lara’s sidekick in the Amazon rainforest. I gave a runners-up prize to David Lindsley for his book ‘Far Point’ and he has continued writing. The premise was that if we had more engineers as characters in books, film, TV drama, sit-coms – any media outlet would do – we’d find it easier to recruit to the profession. It’s still very rare to find an engineer as a fictional character. I’d like to know of others we can add to the list and perhaps we can spread the word.

There’s plenty of scope for conflict, hubris, catharsis, despair and joy in engineering. Budding scriptwriters and authors take note! 

Image credits from Wikimedia: Images of posters, and the copyright for them is most likely owned by either the publisher or the creator of the work depicted. It is believed that the use of scaled-down, low-resolution images of posters

  • to provide critical commentary on the film, event, etc. in question or of the poster itself, not solely for illustration
  • from the English-language Wikipedia, hosted on servers in the United States by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation,

qualifies as fair use under the copyright law of the United States.