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The First Of The Few (US title Spitfire)
1942 British Aviation Pictures 

David Niven and Leslie Howard "This film is brilliantly conceived, superbly produced and directed, and has some of the finest lighting and photography yet seen in British films. The flying sequences are exceptionally effective. But perhaps outstanding is the portrait of R. J. Mitchell by Leslie Howard. Simple and straightforward, and therefore most moving in its appeal, this characterisation is unforgettable. There is some fine acting, too, from David Niven as Crisp and Rosamund John as Mrs. Mitchell, and the members of the supporting cast are to be complimented on their performances. The music was specially written by William Walton and has served the subject extremely well."
—BFI Monthly Film Bulletin's review, Sept 1942

Pictured: David Niven as an out-of-work test pilot, and Leslie Howard as aircraft designer R.J. 'Mitch' Mitchell, meeting up at the Southampton Supermarine Aviation plant after the first world war, to form a partnership that will help win the next war.
Produced And Directed by Leslie Howard / Screenplay By Anatole de Grunwald and Miles Malleson
Starring Leslie Howard, David Niven, and "Pilots & Other Personnel Of Fighter Command RAF"
Music By William Walton
B&W 129 minutes [US release prints titled 'Spitfire' usually 89 mins]

Introduction
In the mid-1990s, Christchurch Tourism produced a Heritage Trail brochure which has on its cover a painted portrait of David Niven in RAF uniform. This commemorated the little-known fact he once stayed at what later became the Tourist Information Centre, back when it was a hotel, in WW2. This was for the filming of the airfield exteriors for The First Of The Few. These were shot in the summer of 1941 just north of Christchurch at RAF Ibsley on the western verge of the New Forest, portraying a fictional south-eastern airfield called ‘Seafield.’ Some footage of a Spitfire performing aerobatics was also apparently shot here for the portrayal of the Mark I prototype's March 1936 test-flight (which actually occurred at Eastleigh airfield, at what is now Southampton Airport, some 20 miles away).  Additional shots of takeoffs and landings were shot at RAF Warmwell (Dorset), RAF Boscombe Down (Wiltshire), and RAF Iddesleigh (Devon).
The other players who appeared in the airfield scenes were veteran Battle-of-Britain pilots (more or less just portraying themselves), from 118 and 501 Squadrons based here. The RAF Ibsley Historical Group website says that director Leslie Howard stayed at the airfield filming for months, as did David Niven and Rosamund John (who played Mrs Mitchell). This last detail suggests that many location scenes with the three main characters ended up on the cutting-room floor.

David Niven on location at RAF Ibsley

 

Pictured:  David Niven on location at RAF Ibsley. Posted to a secret forward-recon unit then training nearby at Poole, he had been given leave to star in the film, but was still so impressed by the young pilots that at the end of filming, he paid for a weekend for them all at the Savoy. For the finale, the pilots acted out a dogfight, performing various manoeuvres, including tackling enemy bombers ( played by a captured Heinkel). All footage had to be shot between combat operations, and some of the pilots you see at the beginning did not live to see themselves on screen.

 

Left: Moyles Court manor outside Ringwood can be seen in the background of some shots. It was requisitioned by the RAF as station Headquarters for Ibsley Fighter-Command airfield. The young airman pictured was a real Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot.

The Fim's Subject Matter - The Historical  Background
The idea of the development of the Spitfire as the subject for a patriotic wartime biopic was a natural one. Two thirds of the fighters in the Battle of Britain itself were not the all-metal Spitfire but the canvas-framework Hurricane made by rival firm Hawker, which proved the reliable workhouse of the battle, cheaper and easier to build and re-arm. Yet it was the Vickers Supermarine Spitfire that captured the public imagination. This higher public profile was partly due to its predecessor-prototype, the Vickers Supermarine seaplane, having competed in the international Schneider Cup Trophy races ( held annually in a different national venue) from 1922 onward. After 3 wins, the Supermarine became the permanent Trophy winner, and would break 400mph air-speed records, gaining designer RJ Mitchell a CBE.
At a time the RAF was still flying biplanes, Mitchell next developed a monoplane fighter that could fly over 200 miles at a time, climb to over 30,000 feet, cruise at over 350 mph, and dive at over 500 mph, carrying 8 machine guns (later 4 cannon) in its wings. It proved the RAF’s best fighter of the war, and over 20,000 would be built, with nearly two thousand paid for by public subscription.
"What is it you need, gentleman?” asked Goering helpfully of his glum Luftwaffe staff officers in mid-1940 when the Battle Of Britain failed to go as well as expected. “Spitfires!” replied one. Goering was not amused, but “Achtung Spitfeuer!” was a genuine alarm call for the German fighters as well as bombers. For while the Hurricanes went after the bombers, the faster Spitfires went for the escorting German fighters. It turned the tide of the war, denying the Germans the air supremacy they needed to invade in 1940. It was the first German defeat of the war.
There was also the personal heroism of Mitchell, who had not let a painful terminal illnesss prevent him from overseeing the aircraft’s completion in time for the start of the air war. Len Deighton's history Fighter suggests Mitchell developed that prescience sometimes granted to the dying, in this case a realisation that his plane would be a war-winning weapon. Convinced his aircraft was going to be crucial, he worked non-stop to see it finished in time, and died age 42, within a year of the plane’s first test flight. As his son and biographer Dr Gordon Mitchell summarised his contribution, ‘Without the Spitfire we would have lost the war. And without my father there would have been no Spitfire.’
Map of Battle Of Britain front lines
Map: The first published Air Ministry account The Battle Of Britain (1941) says that in early August 1940, the Luftwaffe in the first phase of the battle attacked coastal shipping, starting with the dive-bombing of convoys off Wight and Bournemouth by up to 130 Stukas, switching to attacking ports a few days later with raids on Weymouth and Portland. But the Stukas proved easy prey for the RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes. The Luftwaffe switched to bombing airfields using fighter-bombers, a tactic that could soon have put the RAF front-line bases [shown above on an official MOI map] out of action. However, they changed tactics to target London and other port-cities such as Southampton with heavy bombers, allowing Fighter Command time to recover and return to its previous effectiveness. The RAF fighters were directed or ‘vectored’ to the enemy by Britain's new radar system (developed not far from the film's location airfeld), a secret the film is careful not to give away.

Leslie Howard's Fateful Flight
Leslie Howard The film was a considerable success, but would be Leslie Howard's final screen role. On 31st May 1943, Howard and his manager took a commercial flight to Lisbon to attend the film's premiere in Portugal, where it received a best-film medal. He also discussed the possibility of an Anglo-Spanish co-production about Columbus, and flew back June 1st.  Around noon, the BOAC/KLM DC3 passenger-transport plane carrying him and other civilians was attacked by half a dozen German fighters. It broke up in mid-air over the Bay Of Biscay, and everyone aboard was lost. Germany released a statement the shootdown was due to a misidentification.
Since then, it has been suggested that this was really an assassination, a reprisal for Howard's success in making patriotic wartime films, especially First Of The Few, where the idea of  killing him in a way demonstrating German mastery of the skies might have particular appeal. That is, in one fell swoop the Luftwaffe publicly downed the producer, director and star of a current propaganda film promoting British air supremacy.
The alternative explanation was offered by Churchill after the war that incompetent enemy agents at Lisbon had misidentified Howard and his chubby, balding manager as Churchill and his bodyguard, both of whom were visiting Algiers at the time ("a tragedy which much distressed me"). This theory features in TV historical documentary series like Churchill's Bodyguard. (The scenario here is that Churchill was due to fly home from the Algiers Conference that day in a US Liberator bomber flying the same route over the sea, but heard of the assassination plan via Enigma intelligence decrypts and flew home a day later, using the excuse of a mechanical fault to protect the Enigma code-breaking secret.)
Portugal being neutral in the war, Lisbon was able to run commercial flights used by Axis as well as neutral and Allied VIPs (Casablanca fans will remember how the plot revolves around the daily Lisbon plane). Being used by both sides at VIP level as well by neutrals, these flights normally operated without interference. Nevertheless, the flight out Howard originally planned to take was also attacked, managing to escape at wavetop level despite damage. Repaired, it was this same aircraft that was shot down on its return journey.
Churchill himself later commented it was hard to understand the Germans could have been so stupid as to believe their agent's report he was travelling on a neutral civilian airliner. The idea agents believed Churchill, as the Nazis' number-one assassination target, would take an ordinary passenger flight via Lisbon over the Atlantic is a not very credible scenario. And the fact the plane was attacked on the way out contradicts the story.
However, an epilogue to a 2007 Radio 4 play [
27/4/07] about the shootdown mystery, The Wrong Hero? by Mark Burgess, noted the Gov't recently decided to keep the official documents on this matter secret till 2025.  This seems to add credence to the scenario suggested by Churchill's Bodyguard the Prime Minister was able to fly home unmolested as the Germans believed for several days they had already shot him down, not realising or believing they had killed Howard.
Howard's son, the Dorset-resident actor and art collector Ronald Howard, in his 1981 biography In Search Of My Father, suggests the Germans actually got the idea of killing him in this way from Hamlet (from which Howard did readings in Lisbon). In the play, the thoughtful young prince who disputes the legitimacy of the new regime is sent across the sea to be assassinated on a pretext. Earlier, the turncoat broadcaster known as Lord Haw-Haw (whose voice is heard in the film, and who had in 1939 lived outside Ringwood, near RAF Ibsley where Howard would film) had announced Howard was on a death-list, and would be liquidated in good time.
The headline in Goebbels's propaganda newspaper was "Pimpernel Howard has made his last trip," a reference to his update of his Scarlet Pimpernel role in his previous anti-Nazi propaganda film Pimpernel Smith. There are also claims Howard had a real-life 'Pimpernel' role of his own, that he was on a secret diplomatic mission, the Columbus film project being a front for negotiating tactical concessions from Franco, who had been making discreet political overtures to Britain. The actor's son suggests the shootdown may have been a warning to Franco.
Howard in Gone With The WindGerman radio described the shoot-down as an "error of judgement." It was certainly that, in ways the Germans did not foresee, for Howard was also a nationally-known figure in America from his role in Gone With The Wind (which ran in cinemas throughout the war). He was the very image of the gentle, normally harmless English aristocrat, and killing him would have done the Germans no good at all in the propaganda department. Howard was shot down just as the film premiered in the USA, and US as well as British reviews often mention the fact its director-star was killed when the Luftwaffe shot down an unarmed civilian passenger plane. The incident validated warnings by Howard and others that fascism was simply a veneer for a murderous tyranny.

With an output including The Scarlet Pimpernel, Pygmalion, 49th Parallel, Pimpernel Smith, The Gentle Sex, and The Lamp Still Burns, Ronald Howard describes his father as "Britain's most powerful and effective propagandist." As well as a tribute to R.J. Mitchell, the film and the popular concert suite adapted from its music score thus also are a memorial to another talented patriotic Englishman, Leslie Howard.


 


RAF Ibsley near Ringwood (playing fictitious RAF Seafield near 'Ringford' in Sussex) is seen in its wartime role as a front-line Battle-of-Britain airfield at the start and end of the film. (The setting was no doubt fictionalised for wartime-security reasons. Ironically, 'Lord Haw-Haw,' the turncoat Irish-American William Joyce, whose voice is heard in the prologue, lived outside Ringwood in 1939 and exploited his familiarity with the localty in his 'Germany calling' propaganda broadcasts to imply Germany had spies everywhere.
The screengrabs below show some of these documentary' scenes,as the squadron takes off and lands again. They feature actual Spitfire pilots - some of the actual 'few' of the film's title, who were even fewer by the time filming and editing finished, and did not live to see the completed film. Mouse over each photo to see the 2nd image underneath.
The Making Of The Film
The First Of The Few tells the story of the birth of the Spitfire, the title of the [shorter] US version being simply Spitfire). While the film dramatises how the fighter–plane came into being, of interest here is how the film itself came into being.
The film was produced and directed by its star Leslie Howard, who had returned from Hollywood when war broke out. (He had played in a number of Hollywood A-films, including The Petrified Forest opposite Bogart, and Gone With The Wind.) Howard spent the rest of his career devoted to making British mainstream cinema instrumental in the war effort, until he himself was shot down by the Luftwaffe in 1943 [see inset left, below].
Like others then prominent in Britain’s pre-war film industry, Howard had a Hungarian background. Though not a direct émigré like the Korda brothers and their circle, he proved just as patriotic as those who had seen directly what totalitarianism was capable of. Born in London in 1893, he was of Jewish-Hungarian descent, born Leslie Howard Stainer or Steiner, and grew up in Vienna. Though he had fought in WWI (until he fell victim to shell shock), he had actually been in films since 1914, and his brother Arthur was an actor in comedy films. His boyish good looks offset by his high forehead, he began to play a particular type of Englishman. He had taken an interest in directing early on, and formed a company called Minerva Films with actor-turned-director Adrian Brunel.
Jeffrey Quill in Spitfire Mk1 at Eastleigh (1938)In Britain his best-known pre-war roles were as The Scarlet Pimpernel for Korda in 1935, and in 1938 as Professor Henry Higgins in GB Shaw’s social satire Pygmalion (the basis of  My Fair Lady). After Howard returned from Hollywood, he had produced, directed and starred in an updated ' Scarlet Pimpernel' story, Pimpernel Smith (1941), where an ineffectual-seeming archaeology professor helps people escape the Nazis.
To get the Spitfire biopic off the ground, Howard approached Churchill, who gave him a ‘To Whom It May Concern’ letter of support, and with this Howard got backing from the new Rank Studios and GFD, then the largest British distributors. Howard also got his old partner Adrian Brunel, now working for the MOI, as ‘production consultant’ to help film and incorporate the documentary footage [see inset left, below]. For the main, soundstage-shot scenes, he hired Korda's lighting cameraman Georges Perinal, with Jack Hildyard as operator.
He also got star David Niven leave from front-line service in the Army to play the co-starring role of test pilot ‘Geoffrey Crisp,'  who was based mainly on Vickers’s test pilots Jeffrey Quill (also an RAF veteran) and 'Mutt' Summers. It was Jeffrey Quill [pictured above in a MkI] who flew the Spitfire in the aerobatics scene where in front of the RAF brass the prototype is put through its paces, showing it can indeed climb to 10,000 feet and dive at over 500 mph.
Major Niven had already been posted to the south coast, being based behind Poole Harbour while training his own mobile squadron in stay-behind guerrilla fighting in case the Germans invaded. Niven was still under contract to US producer Samuel Goldwyn, who had released him to appear in exchange for US distribution rights. Graham Lord's 2003 Niv: The Authorised Biography Of David Niven says Goldwyn wrote to his star in August 1943 to say he would not have approved the deal if he had known the part Niven was going to play. "Spitfire was a disappointment to me," adding, "I spent two months cutting it and took out about forty minutes, in addition to putting in some closeups of you."
A missing RAF Ibsley scene? Few prints of the film are complete. Lord's own verdict was it was "Niv's first major British movie and possibly his best performance to date," but it's likely Niven had a larger co-starring role in the original script. Lord's authorised biography says that whereas Niven's own memoir The Moon's A Balloon has him spending only 4 weeks filming it, his army records show he was released from duties for 5 months. It's also likely Goldwyn expected a more conventional glossy Hollywood product. However regarding the idea of making the film in the US, the actor's son Ronald Howard has said, "the subject would have been totally unrealistic in Hollywood which had neither the technical resources nor the experience of war, neither the Spitfires nor the pilots who had flown them in battle."
Filming in England with Churchill's support, Howard was also able to get official RAF access to film real Spitfires, both being built and in action on Fighter Command airfields. This included getting actual pilots to appear in brief speaking roles. Hence, the film’s credits and posters describe the film as "Starring ... Leslie Howard / David Niven / “Pilots & Other Personnel Of RAF Fighter Command.”

The Film’s Use Of  Creative License
US release poster Though the development of the the RAF’s finest fighter from a successful trophy-racing seaplane by a dying designer now in a grim race against time provided the basis of an exciting film project, it was the film’s use of creative license that made the film work and ultimately helped turn the Spitfire into a legend for millions who would never see a real Spitfire.
In the early scenes we see Mitchell struggling for recognition and having to resign in protest at a blinkered management who can't grasp the potential of his monoplane design ("looks just like a damn bird with boots on"). In fact, Mitchell was Vickers Supermarine’s Chief Designer, a wealthy man (he was given a Rolls Royce at one point), with a house (depicted in the film by a soundstage set) built to his own specification in 1927 in Portswood, Southampton. He also had his own pilot's licence. He did not simply work on a single 'dream' concept, but was a very practical man who designed over twenty different aircraft, from light planes to a long-distance flying boat that flew round the world, and was working on a high-speed heavy bomber when he died. (The plans were destroyed in a Luftwaffe raid on the Southampton Vickers plant which killed many workers.) As one encyclopedia put it, “Britain dominated the flying world through Mitchell’s designs.”
And the plan for a monoplane fighter with wing-mounted guns was in fact proposed by the Air Ministry in 1930. Mitchell's first design, an open-cockpit gull-wing monoplane with fixed undercarriage (just as we see in the sketch), was rejected when it proved unable to carry the required 8-gun load. Mitchell then designed a new closed-cockpit prototype, with a Rolls Royce engine and the now-familiar elliptical wing with retractable undercarriage, which became the Mark I. Though Mitchell died in 1937, the Spitfire continued to be developed , the Vickers design team carrying out regular modifications to keep the plane competitive as Germany improved their fighter designs. It was the only British plane that was in continuous production throughout the war.
The pilot played by David Niven is a composite character, there being no single pilot who flew the seaplane races and tested the Spitfire. The name ‘Geoffrey Crisp’ is probably meant to suggest Vickers test pilot Jeffrey Quill: though he never raced in the Schneider Cup races, he helped test the Spitfire prototype, along with 'Mutt' Summers, Vickers’s chief test pilot. (Summers is portrayed as a character in The Dam Busters in the Fleet-Lagoon test-drops.) Quill also flew the plane in the recreation shot especially for the film in November 1941, of the prototype test flight which impressed the RAF brass. However making the test pilots into a composite character creates a coherence the film would otherwise lack, with the Niven character becoming the film’s flashback narrator (and occasional comic relief), the man who has seen the events depicted, right through from start to finish.
R.J. MitchellMitchell's illness in the film is delicately unspecified, and depicted as coming later in life than it did, with an implication it was something that could be alleviated if not cured by rest. In fact Mitchell had the same condition that comedian Will Hay survived in the year the film came out: bowel or rectal cancer. Mitchell was not so lucky as Hay. In 1933, he collapsed and underwent a colostomy, after having a malignant section of intestine removed. His son has recently said he did not tell friends about his condition; in the film he doesn’t even tell his wife he is ill until near the end. (See still below.) The German holiday depicted in the film was actually to convalesce from his operation, though the notion the trip alerted him to Nazi re-armament and bully-boy ambitions seems to have a basis in fact. (Two days after the prototype's maiden flight on March 5, 1936, the first German troops marched into the Rhineland demilitarized zone.)
In 1937, after three years unstinting work on the Spitfire and his planned new high-speed bomber (never built), he went to Vienna for specialist treatment, but returned soon after to die in Southampton. He died in June 1937, age 42, within a year of the Spitfire’s first test-flight, at what today is part of Southampton International Airport. (His 85-year old son and biographer still campaigns to have the airfield renamed to commemorate this 1936 maiden flight.)
The film opens with him in 1922 picnicking on a South Coast clifftop, admiring the grace of gulls as they swoop and dive, and goes on to depict him as a man with a dream, of a bird that will swoop and dive, and ‘spit fire’. This depiction of Mitchell as a bit of a dreamer may not have been accurate (anecdotes in documentaries tell of "Mitch" being stern and gruff), but it fitted Leslie Howard’s own on-screen image. (That Howard kept his slender boyish looks even at age 50 allowed him to credibly play a man ageing from his mid-20s to age 42.) As with Michael Redgrave in The Dam Busters, the actor made no attempt to portray the real-life inventor’s stammer.) While thus on holiday watching the gulls wheel above the clifftops, Mitchell is inspired, in the manner of inventor Leonardo Da Vinci, to the possibility of a plane that would have the grace of a bird, and could swoop like one. (During the war, in neutral Sweden, the famed nature documentarist Arne Sucksdorff made a film on skua gulls ‘dive-bombing’ the guillemots who live on the cliff-face, which was taken by some as a parable of Nazi aggression, with the crank-winged skuas as Stuka dive-bombers.)
z. The film portrays ‘Mitch’ as an artist, and his plane designs as works of art. One of the DVD issues of the restored film (on the Odyssey label) includes comments by the real Jeffrey Quill (the basis of the David Niven character) saying the idea Mitchell was inspired by gulls is fantasy. His Dictionary Of National Biography entry says his brilliance was the way, as a practical engineer, he integrated many refinements seen in various American (Curtiss) and German (Junkers) aircraft designs.
Regarding the name Spitfire, historically Mitchell is quoted as saying, when he heard the Air Ministry had officially named the plane the Spitfire, “That’s just the sort of bloody silly name they would give it.”  To which it has to be added, that seems to have been just the sort of thing he would say, with his reputation for bluff northern bluntness. The quote seems to be officially accepted as genuine, and was recently used as a question on University Challenge by Jeremy Paxman, who himself had nominated the Spitfire in 2005 as a British Design Icon. Mitchell's son and biographer has said "My father thought the name Spitfire was a bit silly.” He had toyed with calling his earlier unsuccessful fighter design the Spit
fire and wanted to call his re-design the Shrew, but luckily this was vetoed.
One reason he may have felt the name silly was that it had become associated with Hollywood. A series of films made from 1939 on, starring actress Lupe Velez, was known by her own personal nickname, the Mexican Spitfire. It was an old slang term for a type of fiery, hot-tempered female who will fight to do things her way.  (At war's end, director Carol Reed tried to get a Lady Godiva historical comedy made under the title Spitfire.)  The Vickers chairman had called his daughter ‘my little spitfire’ in Mitchell’s presence, and the name came out of this usage. In fact the name itself had tremendous propaganda value (it worked in German - as in 'Achtung, Spitfeuer!'), emphasizing the fighter’s firepower and death-dealing capability, and it is this the film builds on. Mitchell's envisioning the gull as the prototype of a fighter in the flashback-framework sequence anticipates the mediaeval pilgrim's trained hunting hawk turning into a Spitfire in Powell & Pressburger's 1944 A Canterbury Tale (an effect later reused by Kubrick in 2001 with a bone thrown in the air becoming a space weapon).

The Film’s Soundtrack And Score
After Howard’s, the greatest artistic contribution to the film is the music of Sir William Walton (1902-83). Having written the 1937 coronation march ‘Crown Imperial’, he had been exempted from military service on the grounds he could serve his country better in its hour of need by writing stirring patriotic music for films deemed ‘of national importance’. This was one of these, and his music proved so effective and memorable that in 1943 he turned its main themes into a still-popular concert suite, the ‘Spitfire Prelude And Fugue.’
When Howard, busy elsewhere, sent his Supervising Editor Sidney Cole [see panel below] to tell Walton what music Howard felt the film needed, Walton listened, then replied simply, "Oh, I see, Leslie wants a lot of notes", and went off and wrote the Spitfire Fugue. (To say this fast-tempo piece comprises 'a lot of notes' would be an understatement.) Although many reviewers seem to think Walton's musical contribution consisted only of the Prelude and Fugue parts reproduced on the concert suite, his underscore actually consists of around 20 different cues. The concert-suite themes are basically those heard under the main and end titles (the ‘Prelude’ part) and the race-against-time plane-building montage (the 'Fugue' part), with a violin-solo interlude interpolated to represent the dying Mitchell.
Prelude and Fugue apart, Walton here tends to a similar approach to that of Bernard Herrmann in his 1941 Citizen Kane score, where the music is close to ambient or source music, but often used in a slightly satiric way. (Walton had earlier written some ‘parodic’ music for the concert hall that got him attacked critically as 'a musical joker’. ) Despite Walton’s ability to compose stately themes reminiscent of Elgar, he preferred a lighter touch. He may well have disliked military music as the theme music of bellicose fascism, for both conventional military-parade marches and Wagnerian melodrama are satirised in his score. (His score for another film on the same subject, the 1969 film Battle Of Britain, was largely replaced by the producers as unsuitable. Since restored on both DVD and soundtrack CD, it is - triumphal grand finale apart - notably more light-hearted and humanistic than Ron Goodwin’s martial snaredrum-heavy replacement.)
After the film’s opening titles, the historical scene-setting prologue is scored in a mock-Wagnerian medley as the blitzkrieg overruns Europe and Nazi bigwigs make boastful speeches about conquering Britain next. After the opening airfield scene, Walton provides a cue of the ‘celestial’ sort (harps) used in films to set up dream-sequences and memory flashbacks, and this continues into the south-coast clifftop scene where Mitchell is watching the gulls. Similar music is also used in the ‘passage-of-time’ bridging montages. The music introducing the film’s narrator, Crisp (who doubles as the film’s comic relief in his ladies-man debacles), is initially reminiscent of ‘Pop Goes The Weasel.’
With the various Schneider Cup seaplane races, we get simulated source music (an American march for the Baltimore race, an Italian one for Venice) combined with ‘suspense’ music in the race montages. There are also some incidental musical ‘stings’, as with Crisp’s crash (and later, Mitchell’s moment of death). After the third and permanent trophy win, in Italy, the film’s own stately march is first heard as underscore. In the German holiday sequence, an onscreen Bavarian 'oompah' band suddenly turns serious and starts playing a ‘Strength Through Joy’ march for a Nazi-youth glider-club marchout scene (cut from US prints). This is at once followed by a waltz to set up what at first appears to be a congenial dinner with top German aviators.
The violin theme representing Mitchell’s physical decline is first heard next as Crisp escorts the overworked inventor home. After he gets the news he has only a short time to live, the fast-tempo fugue strings theme appears (rather warbly in its first iteration here) over the first plane-building montage. (British cinema of the 1930s-40s often featured industrial montages set to music using French cinema’s “ballet mechanique” concept, and as the brass joins in, you can almost hear the hammering of a busy factory floor.) The violin ‘elegy’ theme returns the moment he sees the ‘Guernica’ headline. (See scene breakdown, right.) There is then an immediate return to the race-against-time plane-building fugue music, which builds up to a triumphal climax with the ‘march’ theme heard behind the sounds of the real Spitfire, before subsiding into a quiet ending. The ‘celestial’ music returns for his death scene, and finally provides a slighty unworldly overtone to the stately ‘Waltonian’ grand finale of the film’s fadeout against a cloudscape illuminated by fan-shaped rays of light.

Spits in formation


The Film's Use Of Montage
The third artistic contribution that makes the film work is the film's editing, especially its many montage sequences, by Supervising Editor Sidney Cole (1908-1998), and Howard's old partner Adrian Brunel (1892-1958). Listed as the film's Production Consultant, Brunel was known as a 'film doctor' patching up films editorially. The scene-bridging montages are an essential element, for like many biographical films the film is necessarily episodic. Cole and Brunel's montages, full of optical dissolves, do more than simply convey the passage of time. There are three key montages that bring the film alive cinematically. The first of these opens the film with a scene-setting prologue on the fall of Western Europe to Nazi aggression. This begins with the main titles over a cloudscape with Europe seen from the heavens. Then Nazi bigwigs make pompous speeches superimposed on a background map of Europe over which 'mediaeval tyranny' has spread as a black stain, and we cut straight to a title announcing 'Zero Day' in the Battle of Britain, thus cuing the opening scene at RAF Ibsley.
Towards the end comes the two-part documentary montage that inspired Walton's 'Spitfire Fugue' and which form the film's cinematic climax. Brunel shot the factory scenes himself for these at the factory at Hamble, on Southampton Water. In the first montage, we see the prototype being assembled under Mitchell's supervision, with wings, cockpit, and then engine fitted.
In the second part, as the plane takes shape, at first we hear only Walton's music, then the roar of the fighter's Rolls Merlin engine is also heard as this is 'run in', followed by the rapid-fire chatter of the wing-mounted Vickers machine-guns as these are sight-tested. The wing-guns are test-fired at a white cloth-strip target with an enemy-bomber silhouette painted on it. We see the machine guns firing from inside the wing (with wing cover off), then from below to show hundreds of spent .303 cartridges spilling out below onto the tarmac, and back to over the now-covered wing. If you look carefully, you can see in the background the cloth target actually catches fire from the friction of the Spitfire's fusillade, and the image fades out as the dream of the bird that can 'spit fire' is fulfilled.
The montage ending with the testing of the wing-mounted machine-guns and the Spit's first appearance as it is wheeled out the hangar brings the first 90 minutes to a climax, in one of the great sequences of British wartime cinema. The 3 documentary shots which conclude the Fugue montage last only a few seconds but show the inventor's dream finally realized, as we both see and hear his machine literally "spit fire."  (Hover mouse over picture above left to see 2nd, rollover image.)

cloudscape

Scene Breakdown With Production Notes
Though the original story was by two almost unknown scriptwriters, the screenplay itself is credited to two British film industry stalwarts, the actor-playwright Sir Miles Malleson and the future producer Anatole de Grunewald (who next produced the 1945 RAF-airfield Terence Rattigan drama The Way To The Stars).
The film’s story framework is near-contemporary, i.e. the opening and closing scenes are set during the Battle of Britain. The rest of the film is flashbacks covering 1922-37, starting the day Mitchell shows his first sketch for a gull-winged monoplane, and ending the day he dies. Note there are 2 versions of the film, the shorter US version being titled Spitfire. (Mouse over titles photo at left to see US main title.) The film has been cut in many prints by up to forty minutes, and for study purposes I include below a breakdown of the main sequences and key scenes, with any relevant production notes in parentheses. (I've bundled a few minor scenes in with the major ones to keep the listing of manageable length, but if anyone out there spots any significant omissions below, please email me.) Note that the standard UK DVD release, with the 114-minute version, lists only 19 chapters, but some of these incorporate several scenes as one. Warning: plot spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen the film.

1. A lengthy documentary prologue portrays the current war almost as a religious crusade, against a return of 'mediaeval tyranny'. We hear excerpts of speeches of Lord Haw-Haw, Churchill, Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering, all setting the scene for this pivotal moment in history in mid 1940 - "a fateful summer for the world."
2. An opening scene set on the climactic day of the Battle of Britain, September 15th 1940 ('Zero Day'), as the Luftwaffe amounts its largest-scale onslaught. The RAF control room prepares for a large-scale air raid while the Spitfires seek out the enemy.
3. At a front-line airfield (supposedly 'Seafield' near the town of 'Ringford' in Sussex), real pilots exchange snippets of authentic banter. We see a flight returning, with one plane crash-landing. (David Niven appears at this point, in his only surviving on-location scene.)
4. Waiting at their Dispersal Point (a soundstage setup), the young pilots discuss the thrill they get just from seeing the Spitfire and exchange rumours about its legendary designer. Niven, as Geoffrey Crisp, Mitchell's former chief test pilot and now the older Station Commander, begins to tell them about the real Mitchell, and how the Spitfire came into existence.
5. The flashback scenes begin with Mitchell on the cliffs in 1922 as he watches gulls hovering overhead, and tells his wife about his dream of a plane that will fly like a bird. (The clifftop-picnic scene had to be shot down in Cornwall, at Polperro, this being the closest the crew could film coastline without WWII barbed wire in shot.)
6. Although the Sealion flying-boat biplane he helped design for Supermarine has just won the new annual Schneider International Seaplane Race (flying at 145 mph), he gets sent back to the assembly shop for two years, his 'gull' style plane sketch ignored.
7. The 1923 race, won by the US, is seen via a montage incorporating newsreel footage.
8. Ex WWI pilot Crisp, an old school pal, arrives for a test pilot job at Supermarine, and Mitchell shows him his bird-style monoplane design. (The still from this scene, used at the top of this page, was also used for the video sleeve.)

9. His monoplane proposal is turned down by the board, so he resigns. After a tense week, Supermarine management relent, and give him the go-ahead.
10. His design is adopted in time for Supermarine to compete in the 1925 Baltimore race against the top American entry, Doolittle's Curtiss, but the monoplane's speed in a tight turn causes Crisp to black out, and he crashes and is hospitalised.
11. The RAF is now backing the racing effort with its High Speed Flight group, and Crisp becomes part of it. With the Italian race, Fascist politics first raise their head (with Mussolini's spokesman played in caricature by a British studio chief). The Supermarine wins at 281 mph.
12. Vickers Armaments buys Supermarine Aviation to get Mitchell working for them. He announces he wants to build a plane for the future.
13. At the celebration party for the new model S6 winning the trophy (in the 1929 race, only glimpsed), the ultra-patriotic Lady Houston arrives from her yacht lit up with the sign "Wake Up England" and Mitchell tells her England is in danger not just from the sea but from the air.
14. When the Government declines to help subsidise Vickers's enterprise, Lady Houston comes through with a large cheque. The SB6 wins the trophy outright for Britain,
Mitch gets a CBE, but finds he has now nothing urgent to do, so Crisp insists they take a holiday, suggesting Germany.
15. Crisp and the Mitchells visit a German gliding club, and then a 'Richthofen Club' dinner attended by Dr Messerschmitt. Indiscreet remarks by a drunken young Nazi aviator alert Mitch and Crisp to German determination to re-arm and conquer, convincing him England needs a modern fighter plane.
16. He starts to lobby for a British fighter - "the fastest and deadliest fighting aeroplane in the world", which will use the new Merlin engine.
17. His secretary tells Crisp she is concerned he is suffering from exhaustion brought on by overwork. Crisp takes Mitchell home to rest, where he tells Crisp the plane must climb to 10,000 feet and dive at 500 mph and carry an armament of 8 machine-guns. It must be 'a bird that breathes fire and spits out death and destruction - a spit-fire bird.'
18. At a visit to a Harley Street consultant, Mitchell learns the truth about his condition (unspecified), and is told he must take a year off or be dead within the year, but returns even more determined.
19. The race to build the prototype is shown, a combination of drawing-board and machine-shop documentary scenes set to Walton's 'Spitfire Fugue.' (Directed by Adrian Brunel, this and its followup are montages of the sort previously seen in British 1930s documentaries demonstrating Britain's industrial capacity.)
20. Returning home at dawn, Mitchell agrees to his wife's plea he take a break, confessing he is dangerously ill. But he is moved to a final spurt of effort by seeing a newspaper headline that Nazi dive-bombers have destroyed a Spanish village. (This would be the Guernica atrocity, commemorated in Picasso's famous painting, where Franco's German-supplied dive-bombers destroyed a 'rebel' Spanish village in 1936 - the first demonstration of how air supremacy allowed the bombing and strafing of helpless civilian populations, a forewarning of things to come.)
21. The 'building-the-Spitfire' montage set to Walton's fast-tempo 'Spitfire Fugue' resumes and comes to a triumphant conclusion as the completed prototype is wheeled out [see inset left, for details].
22. The prototype (a MKII was used) is put through its paces by Crisp for the Ministry top brass, soaring over the landscape to a sound that would become familiar to the British public, the Spitfire's Merlin engine. The plane flies a loop, climbs to 10,000 feet, and swoops down on the airfield at 500 mph. Crisp also flies over the now wheelchair-bound Mitch in his country garden, and they give each other the thumbs-up.
23. After hearing the Spit is being officially put in production, Mitch passes away peacefully in his garden.
24. The scene returns to the 'present' i.e. wartime reality. Just as Crisp finishes telling his young pilots the story, the "Hunter Squadron -scramble!" order is heard.
25. Crisp joins in as Hunter Squadron engage and quickly vanquish the enemy, who cry "Achtung Schpitfeuer!" (The dogfight scene is done with model and soundstage shots of planes and pilots, intercut with gun-camera 16mm footage of disintegrating planes, and 2nd unit aerial shots using a captured Heinkel 111). Crisp, joining in the dogfight over the white cliffs, momentarily turns bloodthirsty (the closest the film comes to cliché) and pursues and shoots down a Me-109 which has shot down a young Spit pilot. The scene ends with a double shot of Crisp's Spitfire dropping back and firing its machine guns against a white-cliffs background.
26. "They just can't take the Spitfires, Mitch, they just can't take 'em," whispers Crisp skyward as the flight heads off into a 'celestial' sunburst-shaped cloudscape, over which the end titles are seen, with the famous Churchill quote about the Few ("Never was so much owed by so many to so few") from which the film's title is taken, and Leslie Howard's own handwritten signature, as Walton's main theme draws to its grand finale. 


Further Study
Rstored UK DVD coverRstored US DVD coverThe Film On DVD: In US territories, the film was shown in cinemas as a Samuel Goldwyn production under the title Spitfire ("The story of the plane that busted the Blitz!"), this US theatrical version having been cut down by Goldwyn personally by around forty minutes [see notes above], and it was this truncated version later issued on home video. (The version available online in the US runs 89 minutes. There are three downloadable clips of dialogue (not flying) scenes (including the key 'Nazi Dinner Party' scene) on the BFI's ScreenOnline site, which can be accessed via member institutions.) Prints using the original title, The First Of The Few, are more complete, though the standard UK DVD for sale runs only 114 minutes [1:53:53]. However in 2002 a restored director's-cut version [see image left] was issued as part of Odyssey Video’s Classic British Film Collection series, a few copies of which may be still available from online sellers. This is also now available under the US release title, Spitfire [cover image right]. (To search for a copy online, input the label number of this, ODX20150 ;even if the length is not indicated, it will be the one that comes with interview extras; the cover [left] says "Digitally Remastered & Completely Restored.") There is also a 2013 restored DVD available here. [see cover below left] Goldwyn's comment he cut out around 40 minutes suggests the original length was around 89+40 = 129 minutes. The 'restored' DVD running time is 123 mins, and factoring in the ‘PAL speed-up effect’ (where in countries with a 50-cycle current, films are scanned in electronically at 25 instead of 24 frames/sec) yields an equivalent 'theatrical' length of 128 mins..
Related Dramatic Films: Just as the Supermarine was the prototype of the Spitifre, the film became the prototype of a genre, the forerunner of a cycle of British war dramas made in the 1940s and 50s. Its influence can be detected in A Matter Of Life And Death (1945), another David Niven film where death hovers in the clouds above, and where various touches such as the celestial music and viewpoint and the use of the ‘thumbs up’ sign can be seen. Angels One Five (1950), though it concerns a Hurricane Squadron, starts off with a similar prologue and then the same RAF control-room, dialogue and even the same actor. The Dam Busters has the same structure with a battle against unimaginative bureaucracy followed by aircraft-testing sequences, and again the film score (originally by Walton, though largely replaced by Ron Goodwin selections) is a primary element. The film that has the highest actual onscreen Spitfire count is probably Malta Story (1952). Reach For The Sky (1956) uses largely model shots, but Battle Of Britain (1969), again with music by Walton, gives a more realistic overview of the actual campaign. ITV's 1987 miniseries Piece Of Cake, from the Derek Robinson novel, also dramatises the fighter's role in 1940 from the pilots' viewpoint, as does the Czech film Dark Blue World (2001). Overall, the Spitfire soaring protectively over the South Coast Downs has become a classic image, reiterated in films from A Canterbury Tale and The Sound Barrier to The Land Girls.
DVD coverDocumentaries: There is no shortage of DVD documentaries on the Spitfire, and Mitchell will be of course mentioned in these. There are also at least two available on Mitchell himself: the feature-length 1997 video First Of The Few - The True Story and a 2004 documentary by The UK History Channel for its Heroes Of World War II series; this year, The History Channel put on a full day of programming commemorating Battle of Britain Day on September 15, most of it on the Spitfire.
Music: The score by Sir William Walton has never been issued on disc beyond the 8-minute concert piece Walton adapted from it in 1943, the ‘Spitfire Prelude And Fugue.’ Even the earliest version, on the Pearl/Gem archival-recordings CD British Film Music, Vol. 3 is not the soundtrack (with studio music director Muir Mathieson conducting the LSO), but from the 78-rpm EMI disc issued of the 2-part suite's premiere recording (Walton conducting the Halle Orchestra) in June 1943. Nevertheless the concert version remains close to the original arrangements (the military-band arrrangement less so), representing the film's 3-4 main music cues [see inset above left for details]. Walton himself conducted the suite again for the EMI Classics label in 1963, for issue on LP, to replace the old 78-rpm recording. This version was released as an addition to an LP reissue of Walton's scores for Laurence Olivier's Shakespearean films, now on CD. EMI Classics also issued a proms-concert performance conducted by Sir Charles Groves, which also has audio samples online, as does Sir William Walton's Film Music Vol. 2.
Books: The most recent, and perhaps most wide-ranging, book on the subject is Jonathan Glancey's Spitfire: The Biography. There are biographies of both Mitchell and Howard by their sons: Dr Gordon Mitchell’s R. J. Mitchell - Schooldays To Spitfire (1986; pbk 2006), and In Search Of My Father (1981) by Ronald Howard, plus one by Howard’s daughter, A Quite Remarkable Father. There is also an anthology, R.J. Mitchell, edited by Dr G. Mitchell (1986 Nelson & Saunders) and The mystery of Howard’s fatal 1943 flight was covered in Flight 777:The Mystery Of Leslie Howard by Ian Colvin (1957), now out of print, and in various mystery anthologies. For the test-pilot's viewpoint, there is Spitfire: A Test Pilot's Story (1983) and Birth Of A Legend: The Spitfire (1986) by Jeffrey Quill, the test pilot upon whom the David Niven character is largely based, and who became President of the Spitfire Society. Derek James's The Schneider Trophy Contest 1913-1931 covers the reality of the seaplane races seen in the film's first half.
Events: There were a number of 'flypasts' in 2006, between March and September, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Spitifre's first flight. (The RAF Memorial Flight, which includes 4 Spitfires and a Hurricane, is based at RAF Coningsby, Lincs., though there are other preserved fighters at the IWM's Duxford Air Museum hangars.) In 2007, London's Science Museum put on the exhibition Inside the Spitfire (including a statue of 'RJ'), sponsored by a wealthy American aviation enthusiast, the late Sidney Frank, after discovering the rules did not permit granting Mitchell a posthumous knighthood, and that he was omitted from the BBC list of the 100 most famous Britons, his name lost to public view. He argued that in winning WWII, Mitchell was important as Churchill, and his tribute website to 'RJ' and the Spit is the most complete, including video clips of early flights. The Design Museum has listed the Spitfire as Britain's third most popular icon, with background information on the history of the plane and its designer on their website.)

Locations: Actual pre-war test flights were conducted at Southampton Eastleigh Airport, and a campaign is underway to have it renamed 'Southampton RJ Mitchell Airport.' The actual wartime RAF aerodromes seen are now history (cf now-vanished RAF Warmwell in mid-Dorset, shown on the wartime map above left, which once lay at OS 758/888), but the remnant of RAF Ibsley is viewable. RAF Ibsley Historical Group's memorial plaque on the NW corner has an engraved map showing the airfield layout, viewable or downloadable here. The Group has been campaigning to have the control tower restored (cf press article here). The village of Ibsley itself is on the E side of the Avon Valley, on the outskirts of the New Forest, along the old road paralleling the A338 dual carriageway running N from Christchurch to Salisbury. You can just glimpse the airfield Control Tower from the road, the field itself being largely now a water-filled gravel pit. The RAF Ibsley Historical Group is seeking funds from English Heritage to restore the ruined Control Tower, as the last survivor of its kind. Moyles Court, the manor house use as the station HQ, is now a school and thus out of bounds, but for a place to stop there is a nearby pub, the Alice Lisle, named after the manor's most famous owner. For further info, see our Avon Valley page, here.

A distinctive design feature was the Spitfire's elliptical wing. In 2006, the Spitfire came third in the Design Museum's 'British Design Icons' contest.

Animated-FX page. Envoi
The image of a Spitfire soaring protectively over English downland has become an iconic one. It symbolises the more pastoral approach to English patriotism adopted during WW2 in works of art. Its most complete representation is still in The First Of The Few, where the Spitfire first soars over peaceful English countryside in its maiden test flight.

Above: You can click on the image above to view a Battle Of Britain commemorative webpage I once did on this theme for another project, with a link to the Imperial War Museum. (Clicking 'Refresh' or Reload on your browser bar will restart the timelined animation sequence, but you need to scroll down the page to see it all.)

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