The First of the Few


By the late 1920's aircraft designer R.J. Mitchell feels he has achieved all he wants with his revolutionary mono-planes winning trophy after trophy. But a holiday in Germany shortly after Hitler assumes power convinces him that it is vital to design a completely new type of fighter plane and that sooner or later Britain's very survival may depend on what he comes to call the Spitfire. - IMDB Description

The First of the Few, known as Spitfire in the United States, is a 1942 British film directed by and starring Leslie Howard (actor) as R.J. Mitchell, the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire, alongside co-star David Niven. 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 in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".


A 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-World War I 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 1930s and a chance meeting with leading German aircraft designer Willy Messerschmitt, Mitchell resolves to build the fastest and deadliest fighter aircraft. Convincing Henry Royce of Rolls-Royce Limited 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 as the first prototype Supermarine Spitfire takes to the skies. (In fact, Mitchell died over 15 months after the first flight). 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.
File:Reginald Mitchell Spitfire designer.jpg
File:Supermarine Spitfire prototype K5054 Unpainted.jpg


Principal cast members, in on-screen credit order:
{| class="wikitable" style="width:40%;"
|- "
! Actor !! Role
|Leslie Howard (actor) ||R.J. Mitchell
|David Niven || Geoffrey Crisp
|Rosamund John || Diana Mitchell
|Roland Culver || Commander Bride
|Anne Firth ||Miss Harper
|David Horne (actor) || Mr. Higgins
|J.H. Roberts || Sir Robert McLean
|Derrick De Marney || Squadron Leader Jefferson
|Rosalyn Boulter || Mabel Lovesay
|Herbert Cameron || MacPherson
|Toni Edgar-Bruce || Lucy, Lady Houston
|Gordon McLeod (actor) || Major Buchan
|George Skillan || Henry Royce
|Erik Freund || Willy Messerschmitt
|Fritz Wendhausen (as F.R. Wendhausen)|| Von Straben
|John Chandos (actor) || Krantz
|Victor Beaumont || Von Crantz
|Suzanne Clair || Madeleine
|Filippo Del Giudice || Bertorelli
|Bni O'Rorke || The Specialist


The First of the Few was a British film produced and directed by Leslie Howard, with Howard taking the starring role of R.J. Mitchell. Leslie Howard bore little resemblance to R. J. Mitchell, however, as Mitchell was a large and athletic man. Howard portrayed Mitchell as upper class and mild-mannered. Mitchell – "the Guv'nor" – was in fact working class and had an explosive temper; apprentices were told to watch the colour of his neck and to run if it turned red. Howard himself was well aware of these deliberate artistic discrepancies, and dealt delicately with the family and Mitchell’s colleagues; Mrs. Mitchell and her son Gordon were on the set during much of the production.

Musical score

The film's score was composed by William Walton, who later incorporated major cues into a concert work known as "Spitfire Prelude and Fugue".

Historical accuracy

The First of the Few contains several historical inaccuracies:
  • Mitchell's exact illness is not mentioned. He had rectal cancer and had a colostomy in 1933. However the film gave many people the impression that he contracted tuberculosis as a consequence of an immune system weakened by overwork.
  • Mitchell did not work himself to death on the Spitfire. He did, however, continue to work despite the pain of his illness, tweaking and perfecting the Spitfire design up until his death. Designer Joseph Smith (aircraft designer) had taken over the primary design work by the time of the first flight of the Spitfire prototype.
  • The famous "Merlin" engine was named after a bird of prey, following the Rolls-Royce convention adopted for its piston aircraft engine designs; certainly not after the incubus wizard of Arthurian legend, as depicted in the film.
  • Mitchell did not visit Germany and so never met Willy Messerschmitt. The film shows that the trip convinced him to design the Spitfire.
  • Geoffrey Crisp is a fictional character based on an amalgam of Vickers's test pilots, Jeffrey Quill (also an RAF veteran) and Joseph Summers. Quill actually flies a Spitfire in the film, and had tested the Spitfire in battle, shooting down three aircraft while on temporary assignment to the RAF.



    • Aldgate, Anthony and Jeffrey Richards. Britain Can Take it: British Cinema in the Second World War. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2nd Edition. 1994. ISBN 0-7486-0508-8.
    • Barr, Charles, ed. All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 1986. ISBN 0-85170-179-5.
    • Berg, A. Scott. Goldwyn: A Biography. New York: Riverhead Trade, 1998. ISBN 978-1-57322-723-0.
    • Eforgan, Estel. Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2010. ISBN 978-0-85303-941-9.
    • Evans, Alun. Brassey's Guide to War Films. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2000. ISBN 1-57488-263-5.
    • Murphy, Robert. British Cinema and the Second World War. London: Continuum, 2000. ISBN 0-8264-5139-X.
    • Quill. Jeffrey. Spitfire: A Test Pilot's Story. London: Arrow Books, 1983. ISBN 0-09-937020-4.
    • Rosevink, Ben and Lt Col Herbert Hintze. "Flight 777." FlyPast, Issue #120, July 1991.

    Category:1942 films
    Category:English-language films
    Category:1940s war films
    Category:British films
    Category:British war films
    Category:British aviation films
    Category:Battle of Britain films
    Category:World War II films made in wartime
    Category:Black-and-white films
    Category:Films directed by Leslie Howard
    Category:RKO Pictures films
    Category:Film scores by William Walton
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