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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.
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.
This film could be unique in that the aircrew "extras" in the film who
"Scrambled" during the Battle of Britain scenes were all pilots who had
actually flown in the Battle of Britain.
I know this because at the end of 1941 I was stationed at 61 (Spitfire) Operational Training Unit at Heston (now part of Heathrow airport) and was billeted in Meadow Way Heston. My roommate was a Flight Sergeant I Hutchinson who was on "rest" from operational flying as the Maintenance Wing test pilot and was one of the "extras" in the film.
My recollection is that he had to be up at crack of dawn and was seldom free before about 2200 hours. On the other hand, his base was the Savoy Hotel!
To be a Flight Sergeant in 1941 meant you had been an airman pilot for quite some time and consequently had a lot of experience. I see from the Battle of Britain Roll of Honour that, thankfully, F Sgt Hutchinson survived the war.
He gave me my one and only flight in a single engined monoplane - a Miles Master - and I still recall that experience with great pleasure.
FAG KAY 33 Marchmont Rd Richmond Surrey TW10 6HQ
'The First of the Few' shows Leslie Howard at his most reflective,
almost to the point of diffidence. His only show of assertiveness is
when he informs the haughty bigwigs of 'Supermarine'that he will design
aeroplanes HIS way, despite David Horne's salutary warning that he will
'come an almighty cropper'. Howard plays R.J. Mitchell, legendary
designer of the Spitfire, the revolutionary fighter plane that was to
take centre stage in the Battle of Britain.
Throughout the film it is Howard himself who takes centre stage and never really leaves it, his star quality and charisma embracing all manner of scenes, from cheeky one - liners, 'you're not a bird, but you can fly', as a retort to Tonie Edgar - Bruce's mercurial Lady Houston, or modestly basking in the reflected glory of yet another Schneider Trophy triumph (the annual seaplane contest between Great Britain, USA and Italy which has now passed into folklore). Perhaps he is even more compelling in the touching solo scenes, with little or no dialogue, where, to William Walton's evocative music, he is found by his colleagues overworking himself deep into the night, trying to design the Spitfire before the imminent spread of Germanic imperialism, or, later on, close to death, scanning the skies for a sign of David Niven leading the way on the famous fighter plane.
An impressive cast of character actors give him great support, including Roland Culver as the supportive and insightful head of Supermarine, Anne Firth as a petite but highly efficient secretary, and future film maker Filippo Del Giudice as a foppish, hilarious Bertorelli, the high ranking Italian official who relays the message from 'Il duce' Mussolini, to the effect that the winning British Schneider Trophy entry could only have achieved such a feat 'in our glorious Italian sky'.
Howard's introverted Mitchell is in contrast to David Niven's jaunty, red blooded senior pilot, who demonstrates in this film just why he will go on to be the top British star in Hollywood, his easy acting style and unbridled optimism making Crisp a lovable character without ever seeming arrogant. Perhaps his inexplicable crash in one of the Schneider Trophy contests has the effect of 'bringing him down to earth', both literally and in character.
The only downside of the film is an oddly mechanical performance from Rosamund John, as Mitchell's wife. Obviously she could not come over as a dominant figure to Howard's subtle Mitchell, but the attempt to make her appear even more introverted than the star produces an uncharacteristically robotic outcome from this fine actress.
Both Mitchell and Howard were soon to pass beyond earthly constraints into immortality, the latter disappearing in mysterious circumstances, ironically, in a plane, over Portugal, in June, 1943. There is no finer epitaph to both of them, than 'The First of the Few', Mitchell as the genius aeroplane designer, and Howard as the first English actor (albeit of Hungarian parents) to make it big in Hollywood. In this respect, Niven may be regarded as 'the second of the few'. A gem of a film, whose great star never shone more brightly than here.
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
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.
My father was one of the fighter pilots featured in this film (speaking part and "action " shots ) This film was part of his "war" ,if you like. To me ,this film represents the very best of British cinematography of its day and genre.I have some "stills " of the film and also quite a few w action shots (no pun intended !)on the open air set at RAF Ibsley in 1942. The soundtrack on most broadcast copies is rather poor,but the quality of the music score is beyond question.The composer ,william Walton was commissioned at the time but his music was not thought particularly noteworthy .It was not until the 1960's his music was accredited rightly in my view as a work of sheer brilliance. I agree with everything anthony Inglis has said in his commentary
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
One of my biggest loves in this world is the Spitfire fighter
aeroplane. A wonder of aviation and an engineering masterpiece, its
speed and versatility, (not to mention the brave boys who flew them)
were the sole reason why Britain remained in the fight and fought of
the foul invasion force throughout the dark days of 1940.
Although now old and obsolete, no other aeroplane has as much right or privilege to fly over our green and pleasant land.
Here the Spitfire is given top billing in a biopic of it's creator R.J. Mitchell.
The great Leslie Howard plays the genius designer, in what was to be his last 'appearance' before the camera. Mitchell was an aircraft designer of noted repute having invented several of the Supermarine seaplanes which secured the Schneider Trophy for Britain throughout the 1920's and 1930's.
He was one of the few people in Britain to have heard the snarls and threats of Nazi Germany and was an open campaigner for rearmament, a policy not at all popular with the British Government of the time. Yet despite opposition he fought against not only the bureaucrats but a serious and life-threatening illness to design and build, what has been regarded since as the greatest fighter aircraft of all time, in preparation for a war he knew was coming and a crisis the rest of Britain chose to ignore.
David Niven plays Geoffrey Crisp, Mitchells friend and test pilot, who's affable and likable performance is hampered slightly from the fact that his character is completely fictional. Geoffrey Crisp, whoever he was, was never a Schneider trophy winner for Britain.
The true facts for anyone interested are that H.C.Biard won the title for us in 1922, followed by S.N.Webster, H.R.D.Waghorn and J.N.Boothman in 1927, 1929 and 1931 respectively, the last three flying Mitchell's Spitfire forerunners the Supermarine S5, S6 and S6B.
Also Geoffrey Crisp was not the test pilot of the very first Spitfire. That high honour goes to Joseph 'Mutt' Summers, who took off from Eastliegh airport on 5th March 1936. Summers became the chief test pilot for Vickers and was also the man who dropped the very first life size prototype of the bouncing bomb over Chesil Beach, Weymouth in 1943.
This is a great movie, and one which makes all Englishmen grateful and proud, but with all historic based movie stories, there is always something that has been changed, omitted or hushed up, especially in a film made during the war at the height of it's 'keep mum' propaganda battle.
Enjoy it like I did, but if there are any R.A.F or aviation buffs out there and would like to know more about the Spitfire and it's history, the glory of the air racing days of the 20's and 30's or just more factual information about the great man himself, then I suggest you visit www.rjmitchell-spitfire.co.uk
and probably on a par with the "Miniver" pictures. Covers not only the
Supermarine/Merlin work but the glider designs that the Germans used for
airframe research before openly dumping the Versailles treaty.
(Note: I don't use the term "propaganda" in a demeaning sense here; it's just that I consider any ideological product that gets government backing to be propaganda, and this work fits the definition.)
Fine acting, acceptable plot movement for what is considered now a melodramatic period, historic moment - this film deserves multiple viewings.
This film was released in the USA within two weeks of Leslie Howard's
death in June 1943. The plane Howard was flying in was shot down over
the Bay of Biscay.
Leslie Howard produced and directed this biography of R.J. Mitchell as well as starring in the film. This biography is also part propaganda and part documentary as Howard shows us Britain's advances in aviation going into World War II.
The cast is quite good, with David Niven as Crisp especially solid. Rosamund John plays the ever-patient wife. Also good are Roland Culver as Commander Bride, Toni Edgar-Bruce as Lady Houston, Anne Firth as Harper, Derrick De Marney as Jefferson, and Howard's daughter, Leslie Ruth Howard, in her only film appearance as Nurse Kennedy.
This film is hugely important because it is Leslie Howard's final film appearance but also because it documents the development of the famous Spitfire, without which Britain might have fallen to Germany.
This is a wonderful film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Leslie Howard is R. J. Mitchell, the man who. with the help of his
friend (David Niven) and the support of his wife (Rosamund John),
designed the speedy monoplanes that won the Schneider Trophy in the
1920s and who later designed the superb British fighter, the Spitfire.
In a modern biography, Mitchell would have to be beset by inner demons, which he would then have to conquer in order to succeed -- maybe booze, mental illness, satyriasis, or the heartbreak of eczema. But in 1942, the story couldn't be fitted into the usual Procrustean bed.
Mitchell's only problem is that he discovers Germany's desire to conquer the known world and works himself to death inventing the airplane that will contribute to the failure of their plans.
At one point, his doctor informs him with brutal candor that he either must give up his work and take a long vacation -- at least a year -- or he has only a few months left to live. (Oh, how I wish some doctor had told ME that. Or given me some other set of Aesculapian orders that would be easy to follow -- "Stay in bed for a year and drink plenty of fluids.") But the doctor is barking up the wrong tree. Mitchell's problem is that he has a Calvinist "calling." In designed the Spitfire he is fulfilling God's plan. The first mate of the Pequod, Starbuck, tried to tell Captain Ahab about all this in "Moby Dick." It was one thing to be a zealous whaler. By providing society with whale oil and ambergris they were doing a service to mankind and carrying out God's will, but Ahab's obsession with the White Whale was personal, and therefore blasphemous. No such problem with Mitchell and the Spitfire.
And what an airplane Mitchell came up with! Oh, it had its weaknesses, couldn't dive abruptly, but when it came to appearances the Spitfire was more than a match for its adversary, the Bf 109. The thin wings were long, wide, and elliptical, like a bird's soaring. And its sleek nose ended in a bullet-shaped spinner. And it was a beauty to fly, quick and nimble, reluctant to stall out. Unlike many fighters of World War II its design suggested not so much power as elegance and grace.
You don't actually get to learn much about the airplane though. You get to learn a lot about R. J. Mitchell, his friends, and his devotion to a cause. It's more of a flag waver than a broad topical study. How could it be otherwise in a 1942 British war movie? Leslie Howard, who looked and acted so English, was of Hungarian ancestry. He had a hand in every department of this film. He directed it himself, and it was his last film effort. His plane was lost over the sea a short time later.
The movie must have meant a lot to wartime audiences. It could profitably be shown today in many high school and college classes because today's students tend to be so ahistorical that they get everything mixed up. When Barbara Tuchman ("The Guns of August") gave a guest lecture at a large Midwestern university on the causes of World War I, a student congratulated her for enlightening him. He'd always wondered why the other was called World War II.
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