Earlier this week I went to a showing of the new ‘feature’ documentary Spitfire, made by Altitude Films, produced by Mark Stuart and directed by David Fairhead and Ant Palmer, in a small art-house style cinema screening at Chichester in West Sussex.
As a small boy in the 1950s and beyond I learned at my father’s knee about the legends of the Battle of Britain then only fifteen years or more before, cue Winston Churchill’s “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few …” speech and then romantic notions of stirring British phlegm under pressure and Blitz bombing in WW2.
In my case the process continued with constructing Airfix kit versions of the Spit and Hurricane with which to play out endless aerial dog-fights and/or watching black and white war movies such as First Of The Few (1942) – starring Leslie Howard as R.J. Mitchell, its designer, and David Niven as an RAF officer test pilot – at our regular Saturday afternoon movie shows before tea at prep school.
The patriotic triggers were many and everywhere.
The legless air ace Douglas Bader and the movie Reach For The Sky (1956) starring Kenneth More as Bader. Editions of This Is Your Life featuring former fighter pilots such as ‘Johnny’ Johnson. A conveyor belt of books on the RAF’s conduct of WW2, television documentaries and regular media references.
Even the 1969 ‘dramaticised documentary’ Battle of Britain (starring just about every famous actor in the UK then still working).
I’m unrepentant about it – I’m a great fan of the Spitfire, its illustrious history, the sheer beauty of its lines and elliptical wings and, of course, the sound of the Merlin engine which I still hear often these days, being someone who regularly visits West Sussex and the area around Goodwood, whose airfield boasts Spitfires including at least one ‘double cockpit’ example which allows members of the public to experience what it is like to fly in a classic warplane (at a price).
In advance of watching it in full I had seen the movie’s trailer and some of the advance notices, the former impressive and the latter largely favourable. It was therefore practically a no-brainer to book tickets for a family grouping.
In the event, however, I am only going to give the project 6 stars out of a possible 10.
A couple of stars came off simply because of the presentation experience. I don’t know what I had expected in advance – probably (stupidly) some sort of Odeon Leicester Square IMAX super-sensaround, quadraphonic, all-enveloping, immersive experience of a lifetime that would blow my socks off.
Instead the actualité was somewhat more prosaic. A small, somewhat muggy, airless room with seats for only about forty people; small uncomfortable chairs; a position in the front row, looking up acutely at a screen not much bigger than a (pretty large!) television screen; and a projection system that seemed to be based upon a laptop computer.
As for the movie itself – and I’m being super-critical here because I shall shortly be listing some of its good points – overall, and now having had 36 hours to reflect upon it, I would summarise it as an opportunity missed.
The content plusses were firstly, extracts from interviews with surviving former Battle of Britain fighter pilots – most of them now aged 90 or above – and similar female (auxiliary unit, flying the planes from the factory to RAF airfields) pilots as well, at least two of whom had died since the movie was completed.
Secondly, extracts from interviews with RAF types involved in flying modern Spitfires and/or memorial flights generally, speaking about its iconic reputation and standing.
Both the above were interspersed with authentic scenes from WW2 real life and/or propaganda movies (in black and white) and/or modern (colour) sequences of still-airworthy Spitfires and/or Hurricanes throwing themselves about, and/or flying in formation, above the skies of Sussex and Kent all shot in super high-definition.
Frankly, I was less impressed by the voiceover narration of actor Charles Dance, deploying his deepest cod-Royal Shakespeare Company-style tones to denote the seriousness and historical importance of the subject.
That said, the main aspect that moved me towards my “opportunity missed’ verdict was the way the story was told.
Within whatever constraints the brief and budget had imposed I’m sure the film’s producers had tried their level best to do justice to what I presume was the intention of the project, i.e. to provide a definitive tribute to the Spitfire to coincide with – and probably be part of – the commemorations mounted to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the RAF.
However – and you can file this under the heading “Could have done better”.
The narrative of the origins of the Spitfire design and not-always-smooth tale of how it became accepted as a key part of the RAF’s preparations for war, the rise of Hitler and the growing might of Germany and indeed the details of the Battle of Britain itself have all been covered with much greater incisiveness and detail in television and other documentaries.
The producers could have gained a lesson in how to do this sort of thing from the 1973/1974 ITV (Thames) television series World At War.
What I watched this week was not a first rank documentary on the Spitfire. It went through the motions – even, I grant, had done its homework and, with the modern flying sequences and interviews, had most of covered the ground necessary to potentially become a definitive piece of work.
But after all that hard work – and in football parlance, having ‘worked an opening’ for a 20 metre shot into an open goal – ultimately and sadly it fired the ball close to the post but wide.
For a taster, please find here a link to the trailer for the film, courtesy of – YOUTUBE