Monday, October 12, 2015


David Niven returns to TCM tonight for a second night in his turn as TCM's Star of the Month. This week I'm going to recommend him in a supporting performance in The First of the Few, also known as Spitfire, airing at midnight.

The star here is Leslie Howard, who also directed. Howard plays R.J. Mitchell, an aerospace engineer back in the days when such people didn't have such fancy titles but were were working in the fledgling field of aviation. Mitchell worked for a company called Supermarine, which you might be able to guess from the name developed seaplanes. But that wasn't Mitchell's biggest interest. In fact, he liked developing racing aircraft. These were still the days when there were air races, and various designers entered their prototypes in these races. Mitchell is seen in the movie partaking in such races along with his test pilot Geoffrey Crisp (that's Star of the Month Niven).

Mitchell was having a quite successful career, to the point that the company that bought out Supermarine specifically wanted him to stay on. But things began to change in the early 1930s. Specifically, it was the Nazis coming to power in Germany that changed the course of Mitchell's life. In the movie, he is presented as visiting Germany to talk shop with German airplane designers, since as you can imagine in a young industry the pursuit of invention can lead people from divergent backgrounds who might otherwise dislike each other to have a sense of camaraderie. But what Mitchell hears on his trip to Germany frightens him. The German airplane designers are coming up with some great designs, but it's in the service of an air force that, so the plan is, should make Germany strong again. And it's obvious that the force would be used against a country like the UK if the need ever arose.

So Mitchell realizes that the UK needs to take a prophylactic step to try to deal with the coming German menace. For Mitchell, this means building a new fighter for the UK's own air force that would be able to take on any possible German invaders if it should come to that. Now, in real life the British government was already looking for a new plane to replace one of their older fighters, and what Mitchell was designing was something that would fit the bill nicely. The movie, I have a feeling, dramatizes this a bit and makes Mitchell more prescient in seeing the possible German threat. But in any case, he did design the plane that would become known as the Spitfire, and that plane did take the major part in Britain's air defenses against the Nazis in the Battle of Britain.

However, Mitchell wouldn't live to see the ultimate success of his Spitfire. He had been diagnosed with cancer, and despite knowing that his days were numbered, continued workign on his prototype Spitfire almost until the end.

I have to admit to not knowing how much liberty the movie takes with the real events. (The Wikipedia article on the movie, however, does list several.) But in any case The First of the Few is a fine dramatization of those events. Leslie Howard obviously had a lot of love for the subject, both in terms of aviation and in terms of the people defending Britain; see From the Four Corners. The supporting cast, including Niven, are fine, but this is really Howard's movie.

The First of the Few is available on DVD if you should miss the TCM showing.

No comments: