Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The First of the Few, a.k.a. Spitfire (British Aviation Pictures/Leslie Howard Productions, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was a 1942 British production called The First of the Few — released in the U.S. as Spitfire, after the famous British fighter plane that was instrumental in Britain’s successful defense against German bombing raids during World War II — and the plot of the film centers around the Spitfire’s designer, R. J. Mitchell (Leslie Howard, in his final film before he himself was killed in the war — he was on a morale-building tour to British troops in North Africa when German pilots mistook his plane for Winston Churchill’s and shot it down), and his work for a British aviation company called Supermarine. Howard not only starred in the film, he produced and directed it — and when I first saw The First of the Few, on a public-domain VHS tape in the 1980’s, what startled me most about it was that Howard, whom I’d previously written off as a rather dull milquetoast type, gave a performance of real power, authority and emotional weight. Apparently Howard as director was able to get much more out of Howard the actor than many of his more highly-regarded and prestigious directors had been earlier in his career! The script, written by Miles Malleson and Anatole de Grunwald from a story by Henry C. James and Katherine Streuby, starts with a prologue featuring actual pilots from the Royal Air Force playing themselves and being debriefed by their squadron commander, Geoffrey Crisp (David Niven, who was then serving in the British Army but was also still under contract to U.S. producer Sam Goldwyn, so he needed dispensations from both the British government and Goldwyn to make the film — given that this was a heavy-duty morale-booster the British government was no problem, but Goldwyn demanded the U.S. release rights in return for letting Niven do the film).

Crisp then reminisces about his days working with R. J. Mitchell and being his test pilot, and the film flashes back to a scene in which an unseen person is looking through a set of binoculars at a flock of gulls flying over a beach. Leslie Howard’s voice is heard on the soundtrack as Mitchell, saying that the birds are superbly engineered to fly and the only way human aircraft will progress is if we abandon the preposterous contraptions of wire, cloth and wooden struts that were the standard for aviation in the early 1920’s (when the film opens) and learn to build our planes like birds’ bodies. He tries to put his theories into practice in his work for Supermarine, which builds seaplanes (as their name suggests) that compete in the regular Schneider Cup races. These really existed; they were a series of speed competitions for seaplanes whose founder hoped they would spur improvements in aircraft design. In 1923 the British have just lost the Schneider Cup to the Italians, and Mitchell offers a revolutionary design he’s sure will win — a monoplane with its gas tanks in the seaplane’s landing pontoons and its engines cooled by radiator pipes built into the front of the wings, so the water is kept cool by the rush of air over them. The plane crashes in the 1925 competition, but Mitchell’s competitors pay him the sincerest form of flattery — imitation — when during the 1927 competition, every other entrant is a sleek monoplane copied from Mitchell’s design. Crisp flies the Mitchell plane to victory in 1927 and 1929, and looks forward to doing so again in a new Mitchell design in 1931 — only the British government, beset by the Depression, balks at hosting the race. A private citizen, Lady Houston (Toni Edgar Bruce), who’s obsessed with Britain’s lack of military preparedness — in one of the movie’s quirkiest and most powerful scenes, she buzzes a private upper-crust party in a yacht emblazoned with lighted signs reading “Down With the Government” and “Wake Up England” — puts up the 100,000 pounds necessary to hold the last race. Crisp wins it for Britain in Mitchell’s plane and thereby permanently retires the trophy (the rule was that if one country won it three times in a row, they would get to keep the prize in perpetuity and the series would end), leaving Mitchell without much to do but putter around the garden and look after his wife Diana (Rosamund John) and their children. Crisp talks the Mitchells into joining him on vacation, and after a bit of debate as to just where they’re going to go, they decide to visit Germany.

Unfortunately for Mitchell, but fortunately for his country, they go to Germany right after Adolf Hitler has become Chancellor and has started to organize so-called “gliding clubs” so Germany, barred by the Treaty of Versailles from having a military air force, can train a new cadre of pilots capable of flying the state-of-the-art powered planes Willy Messerschmidt (Erik Freund) is designing and the Germans will start building as soon as they repudiate the treaty. Mitchell is so scared by what he sees and hears in Germany, he returns home determined to build Britain the ultimate fighter plane, one powerful enough to out-fly, out-maneuver and overpower any bombers or fighters Germany sends up against them in the war he’s now convinced will inevitably come. He throws himself so intensely into his work designing the Spitfire (a name that comes to Mitchell when he muses that what he needs is “a bird that spits fire,” though according to an imdb.com “Trivia” contributor the name was actually thought up by the RAF and the real Mitchell said, “That’s the sort of bloody silly name they would choose!”) that he literally wears himself out. He visits a doctor and is told that he must immediately take off work for at least a year or he’ll die within eight months to a year, and later, when his wife urges him to see a doctor, Mitchell laconically tells her he already has and he’s under a death sentence, but he feels he has to accept his own mortality because his country needs his plane. The Spitfire is finally completed and ready for testing — intriguingly, there’s a socialist-realist montage of the various industrial processes involved in producing the prototype scored with heavily “inspirational” music by William Walton, but Crisp’s actual test flight of the Spitfire is unscored — and the test is a brilliant success, but Mitchell is too ill to attend it himself. Instead his wife goes and calls him after it’s over to tell him how well it went. Mitchell dies a quiet death in his garden, but the film continues with an epilogue returning to the Spitfires in action against Nazi planes; when his flight commander is grounded by illness Crisp takes up a Spitfire himself and shoots down the German fighter whose pilot got his best friend “Bunny” Currant (one of the real-life pilots who played themselves on screen). The film ends with a scene of silhouettes of Spitfires against the British sky and a final title giving Winston Churchill’s famous encomium to the pilots in the Battle of Britain: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

According to Ben Mankiewicz’ outro to the TCM showing, Sam Goldwyn altered the film for its U.S. release, changing the title from an obscure reference to Churchill’s speech (the original British title essentially presents Mitchell as the first victim of the Battle of Britain) to Spitfire and re-editing it to include more close-ups of his star, David Niven — but I’ve seen a version of this film titled Spitfire and my memories are that the two track so closely they are virtually identical, even though TCM’s showing of the original British print timed out at 119 minutes and the imdb.com page, which gives Spitfire as the primary title and The First of the Few as the alternate, lists only a 90-minute running time. Either way, The First of the Few is a powerful film, full of the stiff-upper-lip attitude the British take so much pride in, and given added resonance by its being Howard’s only work as a director (at which he was quite good) and Howard’s own status as a war casualty, which gives a sense of even greater loss to the movie than Howard and its other creators intended when they decided that R. J. Mitchell had been “the first of the few,” the first casualty of the Battle of Britain. It’s a beautifully understated, underacted movie — quite a vivid contrast to the intense flag-waving propaganda U.S. World War II movies that were made during the war — and even the stock conflicts between the visionary Mitchell and his reluctant backers at Supermarine, Vickers (a larger British aircraft company which buys Supermarine midway through the film to get Mitchell’s services — plus ça change, plus ça même chose) and the British government are presented quietly and yet vividly. Though Leslie Howard had an enviable star career — including a turn in the most popular movie of all time, Gone With the Wind — playing mostly romantic leads (in which his odd diffidence was a handicap, whereas here it works for the taciturn character who’s playing a married man but one whose real emotional relationship is to his work), there’s still a sense that he didn’t fulfill his potential. Whether Howard could have developed into as good a director on other subjects as he is here — in which he’s dramatizing the origins of what was literally a life-or-death struggle for his country — is of course unknowable, but both his performance and his direction in The First of the Few suggest a more powerful and more complete filmmaker than he was allowed to show before the war first interrupted and then tragically ended his career.