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?