“The First of the Few” is a biopic about the man who designed the Spitfire fighter plane. It was produced and directed by Leslie Howard. He plays R.J. Mitchell and this was his last role as the airliner he was flying in was shot down one year later. The movie costars David Niven who was loaned by Samuel Goldwyn in exchange for American distribution rights. When Goldwyn learned that Niven was not the lead, he angrily cut 40 minutes from the American release. The movie was renamed “Spitfire” in America (which, if you think about it, is a better title).
The movie opens during the Battle of Britain in 1940. A narrator explains the expansion of Germany accompanied by black spreading across the map of Europe. Quotes by Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering illicit boos from the audience. A group of real RAF fighter pilots is waiting to be scrambled. Squadron Leader Quentin Crisp (Niven) shows up to raise the acting level and initiate a flashback. In 1922 Mitchell has the idea for a radical new plane. Crisp comes on board as the test pilot. The plane will use the secrets of the birds with no struts or wires. Only Crisp and Mitchell’s supportive wife think he’s on to something. A series of air races chronicles the development of the plane and leads us to the question: Did people actually spectate at these races? In 1933, he goes to Germany. At a party with German military officials, Mitchell is told that the Germans are violating the Versailles Treaty and suck on it. The arrogance of Willi Messerchmitt motivates Mitchell to create a fighter plane that will be able to compete with the Germans. This being a biopic, there has to be a wrench thrown in. Mitchell is diagnosed with some disease and told he can either take some time off and live or save England and die. Guess which he chooses?
“The First of the Few” is your standard 1940s biopic. Mitchell is a saint and his wife is the stereotypical supportive spouse. There are no villains other than the entire nation of Germany. The movie is definitely propaganda, but it’s not the gag-inducing kind. Speaking of gags, the movie is very British especially in its humor. All of which is provided by Crisp as a ladies’ man and a wise-cracker. It is likely the movie would be pretty boring without his character. The acting is fine by Howard and Niven, but the rest of the cast is average. Most of the film takes place on sound stages so it has an artificial look to it. The cinematography and music are meh. The movie does take off in the test flight scene and the dogfight at the end. The movie finishes strong.
The movie is generally accurate, but simplifies and sanitizes things. (Try to imagine Howard as a boss from hell, which is what Mitchell actually was.) He was a brilliant aircraft designer who developed twenty four aircraft from 1920-1936. Much of the effort was part of competition in air races like the Schneider Cup. The biggest bit of artistic license is the meeting with Messerchmitt. In reality, Mitchell never visited Germany. The Crisp character is fictional, but a composite of two test pilots named Jeffrey Quill and “Mutt” Summers. Summers was the pilot who tested the plane in battle and shot down three German planes. The real Summers flew a Spitfire in the film. The movie implies that Mitchell died of tuberculosis, but he had rectal cancer and worked through the pain. His work did not hasten his death. The movie also dramatically has him dying right after the first test flight when he actually died fifteen months after the prototype was first flown. In a more trivial note, Mitchell did not name the plane and felt the name was silly when he learned what the RAF wanted to call it.
In conclusion, this is a must-see if you are British. It’s probably the law. If you are American, you should see it if you are a war movie buff. Bucket list – check.