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poster “The Man in the White Suit” is not so much a science-fiction movie as it is a cautionary tale about technical progress and the relationship between science and society. Viewed through a different lens, it’s a comedy about industrial relations and class conflict. Viewed on any level, however, it’s a movie that has held up well over the years.

The protagonist, Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness), is a chemist obsessed with the goal of creating an indestructible, dirt-resistant fabric. He is a social misfit, out of place both with the laborers he works with and the mill owners he deals with.

Stratton is the movie’s tragic hero who has the potential for greatness but is doomed to failure out of hubris. When the movie opens, the ambitious owner of a textile mill is touring his facilities with an investor. When the tour leads them to a mystery experiment in the mill’s research lab, the owner is appalled when he finds out how expensive the experiment is, including £4,000 for heavy hydrogen. Eventually, Stratton is exposed as the culprit and is fired—as he has been six times previously.

Stratton, however, is undaunted by his recurring dismissals: “At Cambridge, they gave me a first and a fellowship,” he proclaims in front of a mirror. “I would be there still if they hadn’t been so shortsighted. Just as you are and all the others I’ve worked for. One day there will be someone with real vision. I shall have a laboratory given to me, a proper laboratory with really modern equipment and assistants of my own … It’s small minds like yours that stand in the way of progress.”

True to form, Stratton uses a case of mistaken identity to set up shop in the lab of yet another mill, where he remains covert thanks to help from the owner’s daughter, Daphne. Here, he finally achieves his goal: a material that repels dirt, is so strong it has to be cut with a blowtorch, and can’t hold dye so it remains luminously white. Daphne tells him what probably every scientist wants to hear: “Millions of people all over the world are living lives of drudgery, fighting an endless, losing battle against shabbiness and dirt. You’ve won that battle for them. You’ve set them free. The world’s going to bless you.”

Well, not quite. Despite his best intentions, Stratton is pursued by both the workers and the mill owners, who want to suppress his invention because it will make them obsolete. The two groups end up forming an unlikely alliance—capital and labor, hand in hand—to prevent Stratton from alerting the press to his invention.

Stratton’s eyes are finally opened to the consequences of what he’s done when his landlady asks, “Why can’t you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing when there’s no washing to do?” However noble his goal, Stratton’s miracle would eliminate her income.

From its comic beginnings to the climactic final scene, “White Suit” centers on the anxiety caused by new technology: Who benefits and who does not? Stratton, in his naïveté, believes he has created something that is a boon to all mankind. The workers and the mill owners fear the new technology will destroy their livelihood. Progress, it seems, is a double-edged sword.

There is no great science spectacle in the film aside from a few explosions, which gradually turn the laboratory into a sandbagged bunker. The science content in the movie is believably presented and the laboratory setting is convincing—although the burbling sounds emanating from Stratton’s experiment are more for effect than verisimilitude. The attention to scientific detail is evident the first time Stratton explains his work to Daphne when he describes “polymerizing amino acid residues” and long-chain molecules, although many chemists will recognize when the dialogue mixes genuine chemistry with made-up science.

This movie has “the highest quotient of ‘chemistry per screen time’ of any feature film,” according to one chemist viewer. In the postwar era when the movie was released, the general public was interested in technological advances, such as so-called miracle fibers. The movie evokes parallels with the invention of nylon in the 1930s and the tense relationship between Wallace Hume Carothers, a pure-science idealist, and DuPont.

The film is also notable for not showing Stratton in a negative light, even though his invention is received negatively. Unlike other movie scientists, Stratton is not a madman or villain but well intentioned and misguided. Stratton is an outsider, an eccentric, and a loner, who is different from “regular” society. Because he feels his genius is hampered by conservatism and he can’t get his work funded through conventional means, Stratton’s ambition compels him to find work surreptitiously in textile mills.

His idealism, though, is a bit more ambiguous: Is his pursuit of basic research to be admired, because it might result in something of value, or is it to be criticized, because he fails to consider the consequences? Is he selfless or selfish? The nonscientist who views the movie may sympathize with Stratton while the scientist may arrive at a different conclusion.