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First of the Few, The (1942)

Main image of First of the Few, The (1942)
35mm, 118 min, black & white
Director/ProducerLeslie Howard
Production CompanyBritish Aviation Pictures
ScreenplayMiles Malleson
 Anatole De Grunwald
CinematographyGeorges Périnal
MusicWilliam Walton

Cast: Leslie Howard (R.J. Mitchell); David Niven (Geoffrey Crisp); Rosamund John (Diana Mitchell); Roland Culver (Commander Bride); Anne Firth (Miss Anne Harper); David Horne (Mr Higgins); Derrick de Marney (Squadron Leader Jefferson)

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Aeroplane designer R.J. Mitchell overcomes apathy and opposition to build the Spitfire fighter plane, but the effort damages his health and he dies before the Battle of Britain.

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Leslie Howard's tribute to R.J. Mitchell is itself possessed of those qualities of modesty and emotional restraint it so fulsomely praises in its hero. With its appropriately stirring William Walton score, the film is fondly remembered but it lacks the vivid dramatic and emotional realism that still impresses in Howard's other propaganda efforts, and anticipates the more formulaic qualities of the 1950s war film. Only the opening and closing sequences give the impression that the film was made at a time when the outcome of World War Two was still to be decided, something that certainly cannot be said of Howard's Pimpernel Smith (1941) or The Gentle Sex (1942).

It begins with a sobering montage depicting Germany's advance through Europe, accompanied by chilling, doom-laden narration from Howard that makes no effort to deny the severity of Britain's plight. The following Battle of Britain sequences, incorporating real battle footage and giving speaking roles to genuine serving airmen, maintain this level of immediacy but are compromised by what now plays as distinctly Biggles-type dialogue, with battles described as 'parties', 'shows' and 'good fun'. Tellingly, it is also the only one of Howard's wartime films to offer trivialising caricatures of the enemy, especially the Italians, who serve as comic relief pompous buffoons. (The character of Bertorelli, interestingly enough, is played by Filippo Del Giudice, managing director of Two Cities Films.)

But the heart of the film is its presentation of its hero as a kind of embodiment of the British character, and Howard is as effective in the role as might be expected. It is in the quiet moments between the battles and the aerial action sequences that the film scores most, with Howard making Mitchell both visionary and everyman, slaving at his drawing board until the exertion literally kills him, because he, and he alone, understands the importance of what he is attempting to do.

Incidentally, the familiar face with one line of dialogue as an apathetic politician is the film's co-writer Miles Malleson. Though best known from countless British comedies and Hammer horrors as Britain's favourite bit-part eccentric, Malleson was also a respected playwright, translator and intellectual. Despite the imperial and military nature of many of his scripts (he also wrote Korda's aborted attempt to film Lawrence of Arabia), he had achieved notoriety during World War One as a highly vocal pacifist and member of the anti-conscription movement.

Matthew Coniam

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Video Clips
1. Mitchell is turned down (2:48)
2. Wake up England (4:04)
3. Nazi dinner party (4:01)
Sid Cole: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1987)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Cole, Sidney (1908-1998)
Culver, Roland (1900-1984)
De Marney, Derrick (1906-1978)
Howard, Leslie (1893-1943)
Malleson, Miles (1888-1969)
Miles, Bernard (1907-1991)
Niven, David (1910-1983)
Périnal, Georges (1897-1965)
Walton, Sir William (1902-1983)