Directed and Produced by: David Fairhead & Anthony Palmer / Produced by Gareth Dodds, Steve Milne and John Dibbs / Executive Producers: Trevor Beattie, Christian Eisenbeiss, Keith Haviland, Patrick Mills and Mark Stewart.
Spitfire tells the story of the world’s most iconic aircraft, in the words of the people who built her, flew her and still fly her today.
“In Spitfire, a documentary about the birth and history of the British fighter plane, the only piece of genius that goes un-celebrated is the plane’s name. That alone deserved to win the Battle of Britain, didn’t it? A plane that spits fire: brilliant. A little dragon in the sky, fast, fearless, impudent, un-outwittable.
Since cinema spits fire too — gobs of light and heat propelled from an image-vehicle called a projector — here is a perfect rhyme between subject and medium.
David Fairhead and Anthony Palmer’s film was probably inevitable in the centenary year of the Royal Air Force. But the narration of the plane’s conception, birth and growth to military effectiveness is done with skill, clarity and honourable admiration. The mortal danger and nearly supra-mortal agility of aerial battles is conveyed with archive footage and modern recreations. Surviving fighter pilots are given space to talk, to muse, to anguish over fallen friends — and to look that imposter “age” in the face (they’re all 100 or near) in the knowledge that they helped to prevent an enemy stopping the clock of freedom and sovereignty in the land of their home. ★★★★☆” Nigel Andrews, The Financial Times
“There are some people who’d rather have a flight in a Spitfire than spend their pension money on a Jag,” a 99-year-old pilot points out in David Fairhead and Ant Palmer’s lyrical documentary. Narrated by Charles Dance, this is a film that will thrill those people – but it’s not only for them.
It captures the tactile pleasure of the plane’s design, lingering on a hand as it grazes the edge of a wing. Newsreels and grainy but gripping gun-camera footage are intercut with sumptuous new film (shot with flair by John Dibbs) of some of the few remaining Spitfires in the air. It’s the pin-sharp memories of the people who flew them, however, that give this film its broader purpose and appeal.
That 99-year-old pilot, for instance, is Mary Ellis. During the Second World War, she flew more than 1,000 aircraft – including hundreds of Spitfires – from their factories to the RAF airfields. If there’s anyone who has an excuse to be bored of them, it’s her.
And yet, the elegance of the Spitfire – “like a dancing fairy” – still enthralls her, even though she’s not blind to its faults. The plane, she says, was “a lady in the air but a bitch on the ground”, difficult and dangerous to land.
It’s an interview that gets to the heart of Spitfire’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach, at once enlarging and undercutting myths about the plane. The life of its inventor, RJ Mitchell, is partly told through clips from The First of the Few, Leslie Howard’s celebrated drama about him. But Spitfire challenges that film’s portrayal of Mitchell’s solitary genius; we learn that one of his colleagues, who previously worked for the Luftwaffe, may well have copied the famous elliptical wing from an earlier German design.
These are some of very last voices from a crucial moment in Britain’s history. As one pilot ruefully notes, in five years they may all be gone. The giddy younger enthusiasts who pop up here – one calls the Spitfire “the most beautiful machine man has ever made” – might be irksome if they weren’t balanced by the grit of the first-hand accounts.
To many of those who used them as weapons, “this Spitfire business” is baffling. “The aura around the Spitfire is a postwar thing,” one shrugs. “It was just an instrument of war then.”
Spitfire manages to hold that aura in check, while making the most of its shimmer.” Tristram Fane Saunders, The Daily Telegraph
“Unashamed patriotism, stirring strings, magisterial narration by Charles Dance — there’s much that’s conventional about this documentary marking 80 years since our most eulogised fighter plane entered service. Yet David Fairhead and Ant Palmer’s film never feels like pre-Brexit tub-thumping, and that’s mainly due to the diversity and vitality of their interviewees.” Ed Potton, The Times
“Beautifully shot, including some of the most stunning and balletic aerial photography we have seen, Spitfire offers stupendous visual treat for the aircraft enthusiast… how glad we are that Spitfire has been produced at all, and produced so lavishly: clearly a labour of love and something to be appreciated for being just that.” Pilot Magazine
“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…
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…
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.” Geoffrey McNab, The Independent
“Icon. Battle of Britain-winner. Course of history- changer. The Few. All these things and more can be said of the Supermarine Spitfire – and have been said many, many times over the past 70- plus years. The aircraft credited with giving the out-manned Royal Air Force the firepower – and the fire in the belly – to hold Hitler’s Luftwaffe at bay and take the air war across the Channel has never wanted for plaudits. With its cockpit bubble and elliptical wing, the Spitfire is even the most easily recognised military aircraft ever.
But has this greatest of fighter aircraft been over-exposed? Perhaps, one might think – but if one thinks that, one has not seen Spitfire, a documentary released this month to mark the centenary of the RAF. Or, more like, one has not heard Spitfire. Not even the 2017 big-screen drama Dunkirk featured so many real, flying Spitfires, including three – three – Mk 1s; we hear them before we see them, and what a sound from those Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.
Apart from sound, Spitfire – from Elliptical Wing Productions and the British Film Company – stands out for magnificent photography. New work by aerial maestro John Dibbs is combined with digitally remastered 1940s film to give real life to white cliffs, wheat fields and anxiety.
But while other films about Spitfires may have covered the same ground, this one stands out not only for technical excellence. Interviews with the last remaining veterans of the Battle of Britain are, truly, priceless…
Those veterans tell many tales, both intimate and harrowing. Clearly, time does not wash away the fear of an 18- or 19-year-old thrust into battle, nor the shock of losing comrades in what can only be described as Hell above Earth.
But for all its glorious sound, magnificent pictures and tales of daring-do, Spitfire’s great contribution is context. Viewers are pointedly reminded in the first minutes that, for all its beauty, the Spitfire was a killing machine – and very good at it. Towards the end, pilot Ken Wilkinson – who passed away just a year ago, aged 99 – observed that people have always fought, and go on fighting. And that, he pleaded, has to change.” Dan Thisdell, Flight International