The First of the Few (US title Spitfire) is a 1942 British black-and-white biographical film produced and directed by Leslie Howard, who stars as R. J. Mitchell, the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft.
David Niven co-stars as a Royal Air Force officer and test pilot, a composite character that represents the pilots who flew Mitchell’s seaplanes and tested the Spitfire.
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 was so much owed by so many to so few”.
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 1930’s and a chance meeting with leading German aircraft designer Willy Messerschmitt and after hearing talk of German Re-Armament 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 just after hearing word that the government has ordered the Spitfire into production. 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.
- Leslie Howard … R.J. Mitchell.
- David Niven David Niven … Geoffrey Crisp.
- Rosamund John Rosamund John … Diana Mitchell.
- Roland Culver Roland Culver … Commander Bride.
- Anne Firth Anne Firth … Miss Harper.
- David Horne David Horne … Mr. Higgins.
- J.H. Roberts J.H. Roberts … Sir Robert McLean.
- Derrick De Marney Derrick De Marney … Squadron Leader Jefferson.
- Rosalyn Boulter Rosalyn Boulter … Mabel Lovesay.
- Herbert Cameron Herbert Cameron … MacPherson.
- Toni Edgar-Bruce Toni Edgar-Bruce … Lady Houston (as Toni Edgar Bruce).
- Gordon McLeod Gordon McLeod … Major Buchan.
- George Skillan George Skillan … Mr. Royce.
- Erik Freund Erik Freund … Messerschmitt.
- Fritz Wendhausen Fritz Wendhausen … Von Straben (as F.R. Wendhausen).
- John Chandos John Chandos … Krantz.
- Victor Beaumont Victor Beaumont … Von Crantz.
- Suzanne Clair Suzanne Clair … Madeleine.
- Filippo Del Giudice Filippo Del Giudice … Bertorelli.
- Brefni O’Rorke Brefni O’Rorke … The Specialist.
- Gerry Wilmot Gerry Wilmot … Radio Announcer.
- Jack Peach Jack Peach … Radio Announcer.
- Leslie Howard’s portrayal of Mitchell has a special significance since Howard was killed when the Lisbon-to-London civilian airliner in which he was travelling was shot down by the Luftwaffe on 01 June 1943.
- His death occurred only days before The First of the Few was released in the United States on 12 June 1943, under the alternative title of Spitfire.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Leslie Howard.
- Producer(s): Leslie Howard, George King, and John Stafford.
- Writer(s): Henry C. James, Katherine Strueby, Miles Malleson, and Anatole de Grunwald.
- Music: William Walton.
- Cinematography: Georges Perinal.
- Editor(s): Douglas Myers.
- Production: British Aviation Pictures.
- Distributor(s): General Film Distributors (UK) and RKO Radio Pictures (US).
- Release Date: 14 September 1942.
- Running Time: 90 minutes.
- Country: UK.
- Language: English.