The First of the Few (1942)

The First of the Few (1942)
 
 
 

The Spitfire Story

David Niven and Leslie Howard in The First of the Few (1942)

"The First of the Few" is the story of R.J. Mitchell the man who invented the Spitfire and as such is an important story. But it is a movie which was made during WWII and as such this is not a pure biopic of the man but one which alters facts and turns them into a patriotic propaganda movie. That is not a criticism because propaganda movies had an important part to play in the war effort but it is worth bearing in mind if you are a fan of aviation and come to watch "The First of the Few" for who it is about.

Having worked for Supermarine Aviation Works designing various flying boats quickly working his way up to chief designer R.J. Mitchell (Leslie Howard - Gone with the Wind) had visions of designing a monoplane having studied the way birds fly and manoeuvre. Despite opposition he eventually forces through his design coming up with the Supermarine S.6B which his friend Geoffrey Crisp (David Niven - The Sea Wolves) agrees to test pilot. After achieving as much as he could with this plane Crisp, Mitchell and his wife take a holiday to Germany in 1939 where they become aware that Hitler is preparing to wage war which causes Mitchell to head back to the drawing board to design a plane which is like a bird that breathes fire and spits out death and destruction; A spitfire bird.

Leslie Ruth Howard and Leslie Howard in The First of the Few (1942)

So as already mentioned "The First of the Few" is a wartime propaganda movie, using the life of R.J. Mitchell as the basis of a drama to raise the patriotic spirits of a nation. What does that mean well we get this mix of Micthell's story with plenty of fictitious elements which wouldn't be noticeable unless you know about Mitchell, one of the few people who actually interested me during boring history lessons. But whilst various elements are changed such as giving us Mitchell's fictitious visit to Germany before the war and his friend Crisp being fictitious the actual evolution of the Spitfire is a fair representation of its genesis.

The thing is that whilst "The First of the Few" is this mix of fact and fiction it is an entertaining mix with plenty of dramatic and fun elements. There are some great moments of plane drama none more so than when we see Crisp take up the S.6B for a flight and we also have the drama on the ground be it opposition to Mitchell's ground breaking design to his battle with illness. And then we have the fun most significantly from David Niven playing Crisp as a charmer, a ladies man who often found himself chatting up married women and then talking his way out trouble. It works well to make it entertaining and with it book ended by war footage as well as actual air force pilots being told the Mitchell story it does get across the necessary patriotic pride.

Now producer, director and star Leslie Howard was nothing like the real R.J. Mitchell not only when it comes to physique but also mannerisms with Howard portraying Mitchell as upper-class. It is another reason why "The First of the Few" is not authentic but the character Howard portrays is an entertaining one and more importantly one which is easy to warm to and get behind.

What this all boils down to is that first and foremost "The First of the Few" is an entertaining wartime propaganda movie which whilst fictionalised does get across the story of the spitfire. As for the story of R.J. Mitchell well this is where it is fictionalised and will be a bit of a disappointment for those more interested in his story rather than that of his most famous creation.

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