The First of the Few

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The First of the Few (aka Spitfire)
US theatrical poster
Directed by Leslie Howard
Produced by Leslie Howard
George King
John Stafford
Written by Henry C. James
Kay Strueby
Miles Malleson
Anatole de Grunwald
Starring Leslie Howard
David Niven
Music by William Walton
Cinematography Georges Périnal
Distributed by General Film Distributors (UK), RKO Radio Pictures Inc. (USA)
Release dates
14 September 1942 (20 August 1942 at the Leicester Square Theatre, London)
Running time
118 minutes (UK), 90 minutes (USA)
Country United Kingdom
Language English

The First of the Few, known as Spitfire in the United States, is a 1942 British film directed by and starring Leslie Howard as R.J. Mitchell, the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire, alongside co-star David Niven. The film depicts Mitchell's strong work ethic in designing the Spitfire and his death. The film's title alludes to Winston Churchill's speech describing Battle of Britain aircrew, subsequently known as "The Few": "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".


A newsreel sets the scene for summer 1940, showing Nazi advances in Europe with Britain facing invasion and aerial attacks on the island increasing. On 15 September 1940, during the Battle of Britain, RAF Squadron Leader Geoffrey Crisp (David Niven), the station commander of a Spitfire squadron, recounts the story of how his friend, R.J. Mitchell (Leslie Howard) designed the Spitfire fighter. His pilots listen as Crisp begins with the 1922 Schneider Trophy competition, where Mitchell began his most important work, designing high speed aircraft. While watching seagulls with his binoculars, he envisages a new shape for aircraft in the future. Crisp, an ex-First World War pilot seeking work, captivates Mitchell with his enthusiasm and the designer promises to hire him as test pilot should his design ever go into production. Facing opposition from official sources, Mitchell succeeds in creating a series of highly successful seaplane racers, eventually winning the Schneider Trophy outright for Great Britain.

After a visit to Germany in the 1930s and a chance meeting with leading German aircraft designer Willy Messerschmitt, Mitchell resolves to build the fastest and deadliest fighter aircraft. Convincing Henry Royce of Rolls-Royce that a new engine, eventually to become the famous Rolls-Royce Merlin, is needed, Mitchell gets the powerplant he requires. Faced by the devastating news that he has only one year to live and battling against failing health, Mitchell dies as the first prototype Supermarine Spitfire takes to the skies. (In fact, Mitchell died over 15 months after the first flight). Crisp ends his account when the squadron is scrambled to counter a German attack: the fight sees the Germans beaten, with the Luftwaffe losing more planes than the British. In the end, Crisp is happy over the victory and looks to the heavens to Mitchell, voicing a thanks to Mitchell for creating the Spitfire.

Aviation engineer and designer R.J. Mitchell was the subject of the "bio-pic".
The First of the Few used footage of the Supermarine Spitfire prototype as well as scenes of early series production types.


Principal cast members, in on-screen credit order:[1]

Actor Role
Leslie Howard R.J. Mitchell
David Niven Geoffrey Crisp
Rosamund John Diana Mitchell
Roland Culver Commander Bride
Anne Firth Miss Harper
David Horne Mr. Higgins
J.H. Roberts Sir Robert McLean
Derrick De Marney Squadron Leader Jefferson
Rosalyn Boulter Mabel Lovesay
Herbert Cameron MacPherson
Toni Edgar-Bruce Lady Houston
Gordon McLeod Major Buchan
George Skillan Henry Royce
Erik Freund Willy Messerschmitt
Fritz Wendhausen (as F.R. Wendhausen) Von Straben
John Chandos Krantz
Victor Beaumont Von Crantz
Suzanne Clair Madeleine
Filippo Del Giudice Bertorelli
Brefni O'Rorke The Specialist


The First of the Few was a British film produced and directed by Leslie Howard, with Howard taking the starring role of R.J. Mitchell. Leslie Howard bore little resemblance to R. J. Mitchell, however, as Mitchell was a large and athletic man. Howard portrayed Mitchell as upper class and mild-mannered. Mitchell – "the Guv'nor" – was in fact working class and had an explosive temper; apprentices were told to watch the colour of his neck and to run if it turned red. Howard himself was well aware of these deliberate artistic discrepancies, and dealt delicately with the family and Mitchell’s colleagues; Mrs. Mitchell and her son Gordon were on the set during much of the production.[2]

Because The First of the Few was made during the Second World War and dealt with subjects related to the conflict, it was, in effect, propaganda. Because of its value as propaganda, the RAF contributed Spitfire fighters for the production. U.S. producer Samuel Goldwyn released Niven who was still under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, allowing him to appear in exchange for U.S. distribution rights. After seeing the prints, Goldwyn was furious that Niven was cast in a secondary role and personally edited out 40 minutes before reissuing the film as Spitfire.[3]

Musical score[edit]

The film's score was composed by William Walton, who later incorporated major cues into a concert work known as "Spitfire Prelude and Fugue".

Historical accuracy[edit]

The First of the Few contains several historical inaccuracies:

  • Mitchell's exact illness is not mentioned. He had rectal cancer and had a colostomy in 1933. However the film gave many people the impression that he contracted tuberculosis as a consequence of an immune system weakened by overwork.
  • Mitchell did not work himself to death on the Spitfire. He did, however, continue to work despite the pain of his illness, tweaking and perfecting the Spitfire design up until his death. Designer Joseph Smith had taken over the primary design work by the time of the first flight of the Spitfire prototype.
  • The famous "Merlin" engine was named after a bird of prey, following the Rolls-Royce convention adopted for its piston aircraft engine designs; certainly not after the incubus wizard of Arthurian legend, as depicted in the film.
  • Mitchell did not visit Germany and so never met Willy Messerschmitt. The film shows that the trip convinced him to design the Spitfire.
  • Geoffrey Crisp is a fictional character based on an amalgam of Vickers's test pilots, Jeffrey Quill (also an RAF veteran) and "Mutt" Summers. Quill actually flies a Spitfire in the film, and had tested the Spitfire in battle, shooting down three aircraft while on temporary assignment to the RAF.[4]
Screencapture from The First of the Few shows the Supermarine S.6 racer.

The film contains historically significant footage that would otherwise have been lost to posterity:

  • Film footage of the Supermarine S.4 in taking off from Southampton Water, and in flight, which is now available nowhere else. The film also includes footage of many real-life Battle of Britain fighter pilots in the opening and closing scenes. RAF fighter pilots such as Tony Bartley and Brian Kingcombe (with pipe) have cameo roles in the scenes at the dispersal, and are seen discussing their flights before take off and after landing with David Niven.[5]
  • Film footage of Jeffrey Quill flying a Spitfire Mk II in the final scenes of the film. Jeffrey Quill's log book records that the aerobatic flying sequences featured in the last 20 minutes of the film were made by him from Northolt on 1–2 November 1941, in a Spitfire Mk II, flying for one hour, five minutes on 1 November and for 45 minutes on 2 November 1941.

Leslie Howard's portrayal of Mitchell has a special significance since Howard was killed when the BOAC Flight 777 Douglas DC-3 airliner in which he was a passenger was shot down by the Luftwaffe one year after the film was released.[6]

  • The workers seen building the Spitfire, near the end of the film, are the real workers, filmed at the Hamble Supermarine Factory, one being Wilfred Hillier (wearing spectacles), working on the only left handed lathe, imported from Germany.


In an atmosphere of wartime frenzy, The First of the Few was received well by audiences and critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Later reviews noted that the film "gets the essentials correct, and is surprisingly suspenseful for a bio-pic of this type. As a result of the presence of David Niven in the cast, The First of the Few was picked up for distribution in the U.S. by Samuel Goldwyn, who had Niven under contract".[7] More recently, Leonard Maltin called it a "good biographical drama".[8]



  1. ^ "First of the Few (1942) Full credits." Retrieved: 29 November 2009.
  2. ^ Eforgan 2010, pp. 190–193.
  3. ^ Berg 1998, p. 286.
  4. ^ Whitehead, Christopher. "The Supermarine Spitfire, an operational history." DeltaWeb International, 2006. Retrieved: 5 September 2011.
  5. ^ Evans 2000, p. 70.
  6. ^ Rosevink and Hintze 1991, p. 13.
  7. ^ Eder, Bruce. "The First of the Few (1942)." The New York Times, 2012. Retrieved: 7 May 2012.
  8. ^ "Leonard Maltin Movie Review: The First of the Few." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: 7 May 2012.


  • Aldgate, Anthony and Jeffrey Richards. Britain Can Take it: British Cinema in the Second World War. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2nd Edition. 1994. ISBN 0-7486-0508-8.
  • Barr, Charles, ed. All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 1986. ISBN 0-85170-179-5.
  • Berg, A. Scott. Goldwyn: A Biography. New York: Riverhead Trade, 1998. ISBN 978-1-57322-723-0.
  • Eforgan, Estel. Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2010. ISBN 978-0-85303-941-9.
  • Evans, Alun. Brassey's Guide to War Films. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2000. ISBN 1-57488-263-5.
  • Murphy, Robert. British Cinema and the Second World War. London: Continuum, 2000. ISBN 0-8264-5139-X.
  • Quill. Jeffrey. Spitfire: A Test Pilot's Story. London: Arrow Books, 1983. ISBN 0-09-937020-4.
  • Rosevink, Ben and Lt Col Herbert Hintze. "Flight 777." FlyPast, Issue #120, July 1991.

External links[edit]