A British engineer must design the most deadly fighter plane of his time if he is to save his country from Nazi invasion. Based on a true story. [Dir: Leslie Howard/ Leslie Howard, David Niven, Rosamund John/ 118 min/ Drama, Biography/ Britain/ Creator as Hero, Voluntaryism]
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Spitfire fighter plane to modern freedom. The Nazi assault on England was planned to take just six weeks but instead dragged on for a year before being called off, thanks in part to Britain’s plucky Spitfires. That precious year gave the U.S. time to begin building the war machine that would ultimately spoil Axis plans for world conquest.
Dramatized here is the less well-known account of how the Spitfire was designed and to some degree financed by private individuals worried about German militarism, long before government woke up to the danger. At the center of this story is aircraft designer R. J. Mitchell.
Mitchell was a pioneer in early aircraft engineering. His “flying boat” aircraft, developed over the 1920s and 1930s, broke speed record after speed record, but it’s his Spitfire fighter plane for which he is best remembered. Mitchell started designing the Spitfire on his own, well before World War II started, because he sensed the danger England would soon be facing from Nazi Germany. However, he couldn’t find a company to build his plane. The design was too revolutionary.
To make matters worse, Mitchell was diagnosed with cancer before he’d even finished the plans for it. He nonetheless persevered in completing his remarkable design, literally spending the last cancer-ridden months of his life putting the final touches on his “impregnable wall against the barbarians.”
When the Spitfire was finally built, it surpassed even his own expectations for agility and deadliness. It was such an effective fighter, it was the only Allied warplane that was kept in production for the entire duration of the war.
This is a terrific creator-as-hero story and a heartwarming tribute to Mitchell. Leslie Howard, who produced, directed, and starred in this film, gives a sympathetic performance in the leading role. There are some good supporting performances as well, and a few actual RAF pilots of the day appear in the opening and closing scenes. Also listed as First of the Few.