Biography / Drama
Biography / Drama
By the late 1920's aircraft designer R.J. Mitchell feels he has achieved all he wants with his revolutionary mono-planes winning trophy after trophy. But a holiday in Germany shortly after Hitler assumes power convinces him that it is vital to design a completely new type of fighter plane and that sooner or later Britain's very survival may depend on what he comes to call the Spitfire.
September 21, 2012 at 5:55 am
fine swansong for Leslie Howard
This movie, a biopic of R.J. Mitchell, inventor of the Spitfire plane, saw the final appearance of that great British actor, Leslie Howard, who died in 1943 when his plane was shot down by the Germans. It was a fitting finale that one of his best roles, as the idealistic dreamer Mitchell, was his last.
Equally good (but perhaps a little young for the role) is David Niven as Mitchell's close pal Crisp. Niven was always good value and was convincing in uniform or official roles. Rosamund John has the remaining plum part as Mrs Mitchell, and plays the part very well.
'The First of the Few' works as propaganda, as an involving war actioner, and as a character study of an eccentric inventive mind. Howard's skill as a director ensures all angles are adequately covered and that the viewer is rarely bored. Dated it may be (and obviously so given the date of production) but should still appeal to a wide and discerning audience.
A Bird That Spits out Fire and Destruction
The development of the Spitfire fighter plane by the Royal Air Force is considered a crucial factor in winning the Battle of Britain in that crisis year of 1941. It could fly faster and higher than the best German fighters and of course being right at home base it had the advantage of being able to instantly refuel. Unless a German pilot could shoot one down, a tie was always to the defenders because the German eventually had to return home for fuel.
Though he didn't live to see it, credit for the design of the Spitfire and a share of winning the Battle of Britain goes to Reginald J. Mitchell who had been dead four years before the Battle of Britain. This film is a tribute to him as realized by Producer/Director/Star Leslie Howard.
The problem one encounters in biographical films of this sort occurs when the subject lead colorless lives. We don't get that much of Mitchell here I suspect because outside of designing aircraft he probably was a pretty dull fellow. But Howard and David Niven who played his friend and test pilot are capable players and there's enough aerial footage to satisfy any buff.
Howard's seminal moment in the film occurs when he goes to Germany to view their nascent airplane industry and realizes just who is the target of all these new warplanes. He comes back and through sheer persistence and conviction persuades the Air Ministry and the Baldwin government to start the development of a better fighter plane.
Curiously enough the American aviator hero Charles Lindbergh got the same treatment from the Germans and came back to America with a message of defeatism. Interesting the different reactions when aviation people start talking shop.
Had Leslie Howard not died ironically enough a battlefield casualty as the airliner he was on shot down in 1943 in the Bay of Biscay, The First of the Few might have been the beginning of a great career behind the camera. Probably would have extended into British television as well as the cinema.
Still this film is a fine farewell and a tribute to two British patriots, Leslie Howard and Reginald J. Mitchell.
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The film was shot at Ibsley (now no longer in existence either as a base or a beacon, though you can see the remnants) which was in Hampshire, and in 1942 an active fighter station. The group of airmen listening to David Niven recounting the story of Mitchell were real RAF airmen. The filming did not stop for the war. If the bell went to scramble, filming would temporarily be halted while those airmen would run to their spitfires, go off and fight the war, before returning and carry on filming as though nothing had happened. At the end, Niven was so impressed with those heroes that he sent them off to The Savoy in London for the weekend, ringing the manager with instructions to give them whatever they wanted: women, drink, food, making sure the bill was sent direct to him. Difficult to imagine our pampered "stars" doing likewise these days! How do I know so much? One of those unsung heroes was my adored uncle Peter Howard-Williams, who had been in 19 Squadron flying out of Duxford during the Battle of Britain, but happened to be at Ibsley when the station was chosen for the film.