Spitfire (The First Of The Few) (1942)

The Spitfire is my all-time favourite aircraft. So it’s not surprising that Spitfire (which was also known as The First Of The Few) is one of my favourite films. It is the story of how R.J. Mitchell (Leslie Howard) came to design the Spit.

The film starts out with Spitfires returning from a mission in the early days of WWII. On the ground, pilots speculate about the aircraft’s designer. Is he living in Scotland? In Canada? ‘Surely, he must be dead!’ ‘Anyway, he designed the Spitfire. I heard he designed the whole thing in two hours!’ Mitchell’s friend and test pilot, now flying for the RAF, Geoffrey Crisp (David Niven) begins to tell the tail in flashback. (A bit of fiction here, as ‘Geoffrey Crisp’ did not win the Schneider Trophy or test the first Spitfire.)

It’s the 1920s and Supermarine are vying for the Schneider Cup, a prize for winning three races in five years. The seaplanes were biplanes, but Mitchell had a better idea: a monoplane with fuel carried in the pontoons. The Powers That Be scoff at Mitchell’s idea. Mitchell, convinced his design is the winner, resigns from the company.

Skipping a bunch, Mitchell winds up in Germany where Willie Messerschmitt (Erik Freund) boasts that German has more than the mere gliders Mitchell and the world have seen. Mitchell understands that war is coming, and he must design a new fighter for the defence of England. He works tirelessly on his design, facing problems as they arise to eventually come up with the prototype. Along the way he faces shortages of funds, lack of suitable engines, and a serious illness.

Being released in 1942, this is obviously a bit of a propaganda film. And some history is glossed over or changed. (e.g., the fictional – I believe – Geoffrey Crisp, the Schneider Cup races, that Hurricanes were just as important – or moreso – than the Spitfire during The Battle Of Britain, etc.) Usually I’m a stickler for accuracy in historical films; but this one is fantastic even with the inaccuracies. The acting is good, but I have yet to find a copy of this film with very good audio. My current copy was put out by rareaviation.com and the audio is better than my VHS copy. The DVD also contains a bonus Spitfire manual, but I haven’t looked at it yet. Unfortunately the image is a bit jittery in places. I don’t know if this is a bad transfer, or if it exists on all of the discs. Could be my DVD player, too. I’ll have to try it on my computer.

If you’re as big a fan of the Spitfire as I am, you must see this film. It’s also a classic WWII aviation film in general.

This was Leslie Howard’s last on-screen appearance. (His voice was in In Which We Serve (1942), and he narrated War In The Mediterranean (1943) and The Gentle Sex (1943).) His plane was shot down by the Luftwaffe over the Bay of Biscay 1 June 1943. Was it because Winston Churchill had been in Algiers and it was a case of mistaken identity? (Howard’s manager resembled Churchill, and Howard resembled Churchill’s body guard.) Or were the Germans upset at Howard’s propaganda activities, including the success of The First Of the Few?

Thank you, Johnny, for the recommendation.

I am a huge fan of warbirds and aviation in general, and I will try to get this one.

To recriprocate, have you read “Reach For The Sky” by Paul somebody, sorry about Douglas Bader, the WWII fighter pilot who lost both of his legs? A fantastic, inspiring read.

I haven’t read that book, but I read about Bader in one of my Ballantine’s Illustrated History books. Didn’t they call him ‘Dog’s Body’? Is he the one who filled his artificial legs with ping pong balls, and thought he was taking fire when they started to burst at altitude? I’ll have to dig out that book!

I have The High And The Mighty, Always (I wonder if I have A Guy Named Joe on DVD? I have it on VHS, but it’s packed away.), 633 Squadron, and Top Gun waiting to be viewed and reviewed. (Yeah, I’ve seen them all many times; but I want a fresh viewing before writing.) Once those are done I’ll post an ‘Airplane Movie Thread’ thread with links. I’ve got the post sitting in Notebook waiting for URLs.

Of course, anyone else can review those movies (or other airplane movies). I can put the links in the AMT thread and it will save me starting the review threads for them. :wink:

I believe at the time RAF pilots were identified by phonetics of their initials, and the callsign for his plane therefore DogsBody - I don’t recollect any such ping-pong incident, but it’s a very long time since I read the somewhat hagiographic Reach for the Sky - cracking good book provided you remember to apply a pinch of salt to some of the passages relating to infighting over politics and strategy within Fighter Command.

I remember being in Southampton ( Eastleigh) airport in the mid 70’s . This was before the place was modernised and they were still using some of the original buildings for the terminal. There was a brass plate on the wall of the terminal saying that the very first Spitfires were built there.

As to Douglas Bader , I have read several reports that he wasn’t a very nice person to know , in spite of his courage in overcoming the loss of his legs. During the Battle Of Britain he tried to go over the heads of his commanders and talk directly to Churchill because he believed he was right and everyone else was wrong regarding tactics.

When he was in Colditz he was a pain in the arse not only to to Germans, but to his fellow prisoners. Once again he thought he knew best , refused to submit escape plans to be vetted by the escape committee and thus jeopardized other peoples escape attempts. He also went in for excessive “goon baiting” even at times when the rest of the prisoners wanted to keep their relationship with the Germans on a much better footing so that they would be left alone . This was so they could get on with their escape attempts without the Germans carrying out searches and calling snap parades every five minutes.

A British airman was shot down and captured by the Germans. He was horribly injured in the crash, and the Germans had to amputate a leg.

‘Please,’ he said, ‘On your next mission over England, won’t you please take my leg along and drop it over my home country?’

The Germans agreed to his request. But gangrene had set in and his other leg had to be amputated. Again he made his request, and again his request was granted. His arms were injured too, and upon losing one of them the same request was made and granted.

Alas! His remaining arm could not be saved! Once again he asked that his appendage be dropped over England.

‘Nein!’ said the German officer. ‘Zis vee cannot do!’

‘Why not?’ asked the Brit.

‘Vee sink,’ said the German, ‘you are trying to escape!’

The author is Paul Brickhill who also wrote The Great Escape and The Dam Busters and who was also a POW in Stalag Luft III.

Reach For The Sky was made into a film in 1956. I have not seen it, but the IMDb page shows 6/10 stars as the lowest rating by people who have commented upon it.