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Over the years, the mystery of Leslie Howard's 1943 death--shot down in a passenger plane by the German Luftwaffe en route from Portugal to England--has raised considerable speculation and rumor, but among the most persistent is the notion that the actor was on a Nazi hit list because of his persistent and highly effective propaganda efforts during the war, including weekly radio broadcasts and such films as 'Pimpernel' Smith (1941), 49th Parallel (1941), and First of the Few (aka Spitfire) from 1942. The latter film was Howard's last feature and a patriotic paean to the man who developed the short-range, high-performance, single-seat fighter plane that became the backbone of the Royal Air Force Fighter Command in both Europe and the Pacific. Because of this, some have said that the Nazis were particularly eager to take down the producer-director-star to deflate British claims of air superiority.
Howard plays real-life aircraft designer R.J. Mitchell. In the screenplay, Mitchell, despite numerous air race successes with his test pilot Geoffrey Crisp, struggles with financial difficulties and government hesitance to develop a new and more efficient fighter after experiencing the Nazi threat first-hand during a trip to Germany early in the 1930s. The result of his feverish work is a monoplane capable of flying more than 200 miles at a time, climbing above 30,000 feet, and carrying 8 machine guns (later 4 cannon) in its wings. It proved to be Britain's best fighter craft of the war, with upwards of 20,000 built, roughly ten percent of those paid for by public subscription.
Some license was taken with historical fact for the sake of drama and patriotic fervor. Although First of the Few shows government officials mocking the design in an era of biplanes, the air ministry actually proposed a monoplane fighter with wing-mounted guns as early as 1930. Contrary to Howard's depiction of a single-vision designer struggling against the odds, Mitchell was actually a successful and wealthy man thanks to his development of twenty different aircraft, from light planes to a long-distance flying boat that flew around the world. The film also shows Mitchell giving the plane its legendary name, inspired by the notion of "a bird that breathes fire and spits out death and destruction." In fact, when he heard what the RAF intended to call his design, Mitchell reportedly said he found the name "Spitfire" to be "bloody silly." Furthermore, Mitchell had never visited Germany. He was a large, athletic, working-class man of explosive temper, as opposed to the mild-mannered aristocrat portrayed by Howard; and he did not work himself to death developing the Spitfire but had in reality battled rectal cancer since 1933 and was working on a high-speed bomber when he died in 1937.
The story does nail certain details that matter to aficionados of the history of both early aircraft and the RAF. In addition to shots of real Spitfires being built and in action on Fighter Command airfields, the picture includes the only existing footage of Mitchell's racing sea plane taking off and in flight. Furthermore, several real-life RAF pilots who had fought in the Battle of Britain, among them Tony Bartley and Brian Kingcombe, play small roles as themselves in the opening and closing sequences, talking with co-star David Niven as Mitchell's test pilot Crisp (an amalgam of two real-life pilots). Between actual wartime combat missions, the RAF pilots also acted out a dogfight for the film's finale. Their participation has become more poignant by the awareness that many of them probably did not live to see themselves on screen.
Niven, who was then posted on England's south coast training troops in guerilla tactics in case of a land invasion, was given special leave to play Crisp. In his memoirs, Niven said he spent four weeks on the project, but military records indicate his leave was granted for five months. The actor was under contract at this time to independent Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, who let Niven do the project in exchange for the U.S. distribution rights to the film (whose title he changed from the original British release title First of the Few). But Goldwyn was disappointed with Spitfire, telling his star, "I spent two months cutting it and took out about forty minutes, in addition to putting in some closeups of you."
Howard was able to get the film produced with official RAF access and assistance by securing a letter of support from Prime Minister Winston Churchill. By the way, Howard's daughter, Leslie Ruth Howard, appears in a small role as Nurse Kennedy.
Director: Leslie Howard
Producer: Leslie Howard
Screenplay: Miles Malleson, Anatole de Grunwald, from an original story by Henry C. James and Kay Strueby
Cinematography: Georges Perinal (uncredited)
Editing: Douglas Myers
Art Direction: Paul Sheriff
Original Music: William Walton
Cast: Leslie Howard (R.J. Mitchell), David Niven (Geoffrey Crisp), Rosamund John (Diana Mitchell), Roland Culver (Commander Bride), Anne Firth (Miss Harper).
by Rob Nixon