The First of the Few
|The First of the Few (aka Spitfire)|
US theatrical poster
|Directed by||Leslie Howard|
|Produced by||Leslie Howard
|Written by||Henry C. James
Anatole de Grunwald
|Music by||William Walton|
|Distributed by||General Film Distributors (UK), RKO Radio Pictures Inc. (USA)|
|14 September 1942 (20 August 1942 at the Leicester Square Theatre, London)|
|118 minutes (UK), 90 minutes (USA)|
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.
Principal cast members, in on-screen credit order:
|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|
|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|
|Victor Beaumont||Von Crantz|
|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.
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.
|This section needs additional citations for verification. (January 2013)|
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.
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.
- 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 airliner in which he was a passenger was shot down by the Luftwaffe one year after the film was released.
- 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". More recently, Leonard Maltin called it a "good biographical drama".
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