Spitfire, film review: RAF documentary beyond simple-minded wartime nostalgia

Dir David Fairhead, Anthony Palmer, 97 mins, featuring: Tom Neil, Geoffrey Wellum, Mary Ellis

Geoffrey Macnab
Thursday 19 July 2018 14:03
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“You can’t fly a Spitfire and forget about it… it stays with you” one of the elderly pilots remembers in this strangely poignant feature documentary. The film has been made to mark the 100th anniversary of the RAF. It has its jingoistic moments (inevitably, we get to hear the Churchill speech, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few”) but in its best moments it goes beyond simple-minded wartime nostalgia. The beautiful aerial photography helps. So do the reminiscences of the subjects – the last surviving combat veterans to have flown the Spitfires. Charles Dance’s voiceover narration is as soaring and dramatic as that of Laurence Olivier in The World At War.

Early on, the filmmaking is routine. We are shown snippets of the 1942 biopic First Of The Few in which Leslie Howard played Spitfire inventor RJ Mitchell as if he is the quintessential, pipe-smoking dreamy English visionary type. The real Mitchell, who died in 1937, wasn’t quite as ethereal as Howard’s portrayal suggested. One surprising revelation is that the Spitfire wing design was almost certainly taken from German prototypes. Mitchell didn’t design the plane on his own either. He had a small army of engineers and designers supporting him.

The story of the Battle of Britain is told in highly evocative fashion. Co-directors David Fairhead and Anthony Palmer intercut between newsreel footage, archive photographs and contemporary interviews in a seamless fashion. The elderly former pilots don’t always stay on message. One or two admit that they “enjoyed” the dogfights, even if their main purpose in being in the air was to kill the enemy – and even if many of their own colleagues also died in the battles. Others feel very uncomfortable about glorying in their wartime exploits and speak with something close to remorse about what they did in the line of duty.

Some of the accounts of pilots getting lost en route to Malta as their petrol ran out have the same mix of morbidity and lyricism found in Antoine de Saint-Exupery books about solo flyers like Terre des Hommes or in Howard Hawks aviation movies like Only Angels Have Wings. These, though, are set beside sometimes dreary footage of contemporary air shows at which men with Terry-Thomas moustaches try to imitate the wartime spirit.

In spite of the bluff machismo occasionally evident, many of the best moments here feature the women who also piloted the Spitfires, helped build them, wrote their names under their wings and were as enraptured by them as any of the male flyers who so like to boast about their exploits. The interviewees are in their 80s and 90s – and one woman is a centenarian – but when they talk about what they experienced all those years ago, it becomes very easy to picture them as they were in their youth.

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