Spitfire (1942)




Director:  Leslie Howard.

Starring.:  Leslie Howard (R.J. Mitchell), David Niven (test pilot).

The movie tells the story of R.J. Mitchell's design work to build the superior RAF fighter plane the Spitfire that was essential in the British winning the air war against Germany in World War II. 


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"In the grim days of 1940, when Britain stood alone between mankind and the Nazi hordes, a fighter plane staved off disaster. Behind this plane lies the heroic and unselfish story of R. J. Mitchell Ė the British Engineer whose story is a great inspiration to American engineers and designers Ė those invisible members of the air-power team Ė who toil relentlessly to forge superior weapons, so that their teammates, the gallant airmen may go into combat with the kind of advantage they deserve."  Major Alexander P. De Seversky

The narrator says that Germany has taken Austria, absorbed Czechoslovakia, obliterated Poland, invaded Denmark, overran Norway, grabbed Holland and Belgium and, lastly, taken over France. And now Britain alone faces the dictator Hitler. Will she be able to stop the Germans?

Zero Day. September 15th, 1940. Currently the Germans are attacking Britain by air and doing a great deal of damage. British pilots try to stem the tide, but this is a very difficult job as the number of German aircraft is vastly superior to the number of British aircraft.

The British have a very good weapon in the Spitfire fighter plane. Officer Geoffrey Crisp tells the pilots that an artist named R. J. Mitchell designed the Spitfire. The pilots have lots of misinformation about Mitchell, so he decides to tell the full story of Mitchell and the Spitfire.

Flashback. 1922. At the coast Mitchell is on his back watching the sea gulls fly. He tells his wife Diana that the birds are much better at flight than manís airplanes. Mitchell says that someday he will construct a plane that flies like a bird. He shows Diana a primitive drawing of his idea for a plane. Mitchell also shows Mary an invitation for lunch send to him by his own aviation company, called Supermarine. Dianne wonders why he did not show her this invitation before. Mitchell says he had heard that they might be wanting to get a speech out of him and he hates speeches.

The luncheon proceeds without Mitchell, but Mitchell and his wife are headed by car to the luncheon. They arrive a bit late. They hear the announcement that their new seaplane has broken a speed record by flying at 145 miles per hour. Mitchell was the designer on the seaplane project.

Dianne encourages Mitchell to get up front and speak to Commander Bride. He does go forward and is warmly received. They think Mitchell has a great future as a designer. Mitchell tries to use the opportunity to show the managers his new design for an airplane, but they give him the unwelcome news that they are putting him in the assembly shop for a year or more, so he can get some practical experience with airplane design. Mitchell is crushed and takes his wife home.

At the Schneider Seaplane Race, the firmís seaplane does not win the contest.

A year passes and Mitchell is still working on improvements for the flying boat. One day Geoffrey Crisp comes to see Mitchell. The secretary tells Crisp that if he doesnít have an appointment, he canít see the boss. Just then, Mitchell comes out of his office. He sees Crisp and wants to know who is this strange man? Crisp tells him his name and Mitchell suddenly recognizes the man. He happily brings Crisp into his office.

Mitchell introduces Crisp to two co-workers. Then the two men catch up on what each has been doing. Crisp says he became a pilot at the tail end of World War I. After the war he worked as a test pilot for awhile, but that job disappeared. Since then he has had some jobs that he did not like much and he wants to know if Mitchell can give him a job.

Mitchell invites Crisp over for dinner. There he shows Crisp his new designs either for a seaplane or a regular plane. Crisp says he would be willing to test the plane, if Mitchell designs it. This cheers Mitchell up a great deal. Mitchell shows his friend some more of his design drawings and Crisp says: "Mitch, this is the future."

Mitchell takes his ideas to the bosses, but they are very resistant against anything radically different from their biplanes. So Mitchell says that if they wonít let him design a new plane the way he wants, he will resign. The bosses wonít agree to his request, so Mitch leaves for home.

Mitch tells his wife and Crisp about his failure to convince the bosses. Crisp cheers him up again by saying that he will go along with Crisp to the next job. He says together, they can lick the world.

Mitch goes to talk to Diana, who is in the kitchen making Irish stew while wiping tears from her face. They talk about their future. Just then the Irish cook comes in to tell Mitch that Commander Bird wants to speak to him on the phone. Bride wants Mitch to keep working for Supermarine in order to built the a single-winged seaplane.

At the next contest at the Schneider Seaplane Race, Mitchell is there to see if his new design can win the speed race. Jimmy Doolittle is the pilot for the American bi-plane seaplane. Geoffrey Crisp is the pilot for the mono-plane. Crisp reaches 230 miles per hour, but blacks out suddenly and crashes into the sea.

Mitch visits Jeff at the hospital. Jeff blames himself for the failure. And yet, despite the failure, the airplane company gave Mitchell one more chance.

In 1927 the British team is sent to Venice for the Schneider Seaplane Race. The leader of Italy at the time is Mussolini, Il Duce. Mussolini is very confident that their plane cannot loose. The next day the race takes place. There are other single-winged aircraft competing with Crisp.  The Italian plane goes very fast, but the British plane does even better.  Crisp gets a heroís welcome. And Mitch is relatively forgotten by the crowds.

Back home Mitch makes improvements to his plane, but Flight Lieutenant Kinkead is killed while testing the new plane. This has Mitch in the dumps, but Crisp is there to encourage him. Crisp says he must continue improving his designs, no matter what the cost.

Mitch says he has pushed the British seaplane to its limits and now he is going to design a new plane with a brand new engine. Another company, Vickers, is interested in Mitchell and his designs. They pay a half a million English pounds to buy the Supermarine firm just to get Mitchell.

The 1929 Schneider Trophy Contest takes place. The Mitchell plane is so far ahead of the others designs, that it sweeps away the competition. At the big victory celebration, the wealthy Lady Houston arrives. She is a bit unconventional and deeply involved in politics, especially in the area of defense. Over her yacht she has a blinking sign saying: "Wake up England!" She says that Britain must be ready for action on the land and on the sea. Mitchell tells her: "And in the air." This takes Lady Houston back a little, but Mitch explains what he means and the Lady tells him that she will remember what he told her.

The next year it looks like there will be no Schneider Race. The British members of Parliament are afraid that the electorate wonít stand for spending 100,000 English pounds on the contest.

A man who looks a bit crazy approaches Crisp, Mitchell and Flight Leader Jefferson to talk to them about the Schneider Race. The men give the strange man the bad news about the contest, but the fellow just gives them a check for 100,000 English pounds. The men are shocked. The man says he is just delivering the check that is from Lady Houston.

1931. The contest goes forward and Britain is able to keep the Schneider trophy. The papers say that R.J. Mitchell will be honored for his great seaplane design.

Two years later. Crisp comes over to Mitchís home and Mitch says he has been taking things easy for the first time in his life. He tells Crisp: "There doesnít seem to be much left for me to go for." Crisp asks Mitch and Diana to go along with him on vacation to Germany.

In Germany a military man escorts them around. Hitler is now the Chancellor of Germany. The British tourists canít help but notice the militarization of Germany going on. They see boys being ordered around as if they were soldiers. A formal dinner and dance is given in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell and Mr. Crisp. The military host tells everyone that the work of Mr. Mitchell is well known in Germany. Mitchell gets up and says that they have been very impressed by what they have seen in Germany. He describes the Germans as "peace loving" and toasts to them.

Mitchell is honored to meet a German rival, Mr. Messerschmitt. The German asks Mitchell to stay in the country. They have a lot of work for Mitchell. The Germans say that the Versailles Treaty is forgotten. Germany will no longer be underdogs, but overlords. This makes Mitch and Crisp very nervous to say the least.

Back in England, Mitchell tries to warn the Brits about German intentions. Mitch tells his boss that he wants to build the fastest and deadliest fighter airplane in the world. But the Air Ministry will only give the project 7,500 English pounds.

Mitch goes to see Sir Henry about a new engine for his fighter plane. Sir Henry says he will get the money for the project.

Miss Harper, the secretary, brings news of Mitch to Crisp. The man is working so hard that she is afraid he will crack up. Crisp goes with Miss Harper immediately to check on Mitch. They stop at the office and tell Mitch he is going home with them. He complies.

Diana asks their guests to stay for awhile. Mitchell sits down and immediately goes to sleep. All three people now gang up on Mitch to try to get him to stop working such long hours. But Mitch says he is working on a special airplane. "Itís got to do 400 miles an hour, turn on a six-pence, climb 10,000 feet in a few minutes, dive at 500 without the wings coming off, carry eight machine guns. . . . Itís a bird that breathes fire and spits out death and destruction. A spite-fire bird."

The next morning Mitchell goes to see the doctor, who tells Mitch that he is a very sick man. He adds that the overworking must stop. If he keeps up at this pace, he has only about a year more to live. The most likely scenario is that he will live 6 to 8 months.

Mitch goes in to work and learns that his plane must be ready in twelve months. The designer says that it will be ready in eight months, because thatís all the time he can give them. Now Mitch really works himself and his men hard.

His wife tells him he is not well and wants him to go to the doctor. Mitch tells her he has already seen the doctor and he has to rest or he will die. But he wonít tell his wife how long he has to live if he continues to work too hard. Mitch sees how upset she is, so he promises her that he will finish up their work and go on a vacation until he is better. Diana cries and hugs her husband in fear and gratitude. At this very time, however, Mitch sees the newspaper headline: "German Bombers Wipe Out Spanish Town." The town is Guernica. He now says he canít go on vacation and asks his wife to understand. She says she understands.

The Spitfire will be tested by Crisp. Everyone is impressed at what the new airplane can do. Back home the nurse hounds Mitch to watch himself. Crisp dives the plane at an incredible speed, but, fortunately, he does not black out this time. He flies over the Mitchell house and gives a thumbs up to Mitch sitting in his wheel-chair by the garden. The military observer, Air Marshall Bradford, tells Mrs. Mitchell: "Will you thank your husband and tell him that he has given England something that she badly needs?"

Crisp comes over to see Mitch laying out in the sun on the lawn by the garden. He is so anxious about the long delay in hearing from the air force. Mrs. Mitchell runs out to tell the two men that they are going to start producing hundreds of her husband's airplane. Mitch and Crisp are ecstatic over the news, but Mitch is still too weak to do any real celebrating. Crisp says good-bye to his sick friend.

Mitch asks Diana to go to the workplace and thank all the workers for their help. He also tells her thanks for all she has done for him. She acknowledges his gratitude and then tells him to sleep. He says: "I am asleep." Going to the house, she realizes what those words mean.

Back to the present. Crisp tells the pilots that Mitch died a happy man. "But thatís not the end of the story." The pilots have to scramble to meet another German attack. Crisp goes up with them.

They attack a group of German bombers and start knocking them out of the sky. Crisp knocks down one of the bombers. Air command says the men can return to base. Crisp looks toward the sky and says: "Mitch. They canít take the Spitfires, Mitch. They canít take them."

"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

-------- Winston Churchill


Good movie. Leslie Howard is terrific as the airplane designer R. J. Mitchell.  His rather slender frame went along with the story of a man who works himself way too hard in order to help save his nation from Hitler's air force.  The film is the moving and inspiring story of a man who would sacrifice himself to protect his country from the Nazis. It's a story also of a test pilot named who played a crucial part in the life of Mitchell by encouraging the man's work and constantly buoying him up emotionally.  And then there's the devotion of the loyal wife Diana to Mitchell, which made his work possible.  The trio made up a great team that gave Britain the important weapon known as the Spitfire fighter airplane. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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