The First of the Few – 1942
Starring David Niven and Leslie Howard The First of the Few should have been titled Ode to the Spitfire or How I Went to Germany and Learned How Evil They Really Are. Actually this film was known to American audiences as Spitfire. This early war film is essentially propaganda. The Italian Mussolini stand in is a buffoon(as Il Duce was seen in England and America), all the German’s have scars, drink too much, and have designs on being conquerors. But since the war is long since over we’re not here for the propaganda.
The scene stealer is David Niven as the “cad-about-town” test pilot Jeffery Crisp. His wry humor lightens every scene he visits in this heavy film. Niven was actually serving in the British Army when this film was made and would later participate in the invasion of Normandy with the signal corps. He would have a long and illustrious acting career after the war. He died of complications due to ALS in 1983.
Leslie Howard does well portraying the obsessive and driven air plane designer R.J. Mitchell, but the film bears more resemblance at times to a stage play than a film. It is a product of its time and a tight budget in war-torn England. Leslie Howard was nominated twice for the Best Actor Oscar for Pygmalion and Berkley Square, and is best known to US audiences as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. Howard would perish in 1943 when his plane, a civilian passenger flight, was shot down by German fighters over the Bay of Biscay as he was enroute to England from Portugal. He had been there giving lectures on filmmaking and was reputedly working with anti-Nazi contacts there. Interesting trivia: Leslie Howard gave Humphrey Bogart his big break in film by insisting that he play the same part he had performed on stage when the film version of The Petrified Forest was made. Bogart was so grateful for this that he later named his daughter Leslie in Howard’s honor.
Unlike the film portrayal the real R.J. Mitchell does not die from overwork or tuberculosis, but a recurrence of rectal cancer. He died in Vienna in 1937 while undergoing treatment. Mitchell’s crowning achievement is the Spitfire. Over 22,000 Spitfires and variants were constructed throughout the war. And perhaps that’s the biggest star of The First of the Few: the Spitfire. The final fight scene mixes newsreel footage, miniature work, and best of all early gun camera footage to some moderate effect. To an audience in 1942 this may have been their first view of actual footage from the war in the air. Produced and directed by Leslie Howard The First of the Few is a remarkably forgettable war film, but we can forgive Howard this as his aim was patriotic propaganda and not fine art.
The full film is available on YouTube.