“It trickles down from the eyes and into the mouth. That’s fear. It’s a salty taste,” recounts a former RAF pilot of his primary emotion during the aircraft dogfights of the Second World War.
‘Spitfire’ tells the story of the British aircraft (most recently mythologised in Christopher Nolan's ‘Dunkirk’), which was a crucial part of the Battle of Britain. The film traverses the aircraft’s history but rather than roll out a bland history of sequential events, documentarians David Fairhead and Ant Palmer have mixed up the Spitfire's tale with a slew of anecdotal stories from the people who made, delivered, and flew the craft.
On the 20th August 1940, Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons. Germany had overwhelmed Europe and Great Britain was hanging on by a thread. The threat of invasion hung over the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister proclaimed to the body, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” He was referring to the men and women of the Royal Air Force who flew against Adolf Hitler’s formidable Luftwaffe.
The documentary gives the audience an insight into the aircraft’s designer, R J Mitchell, where his ideas came from, and why his creation was called “the most beautiful machine ever built”. He died in 1937, aged 42, when the Spitfire was less than a year beyond its test flight and the war hadn't yet started.
Fairhead and Palmer use archival and modern-day aerial photography that follows a contemporary Spitfire through the sky as the film covers the aeroplane's crucial use in the Battle of Britain. Sparsely and sonorously narrated by the recognisable voice of Charles Dance (HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’), we also hear ex-pilots speaking clearly and with humour about what they remember. All are old and each tells a fascinating, often gripping, story about the dog fights, and the danger of being overwhelmed and outnumbered in blazing skies. As exciting as this sounds, it doesn't sidestep the awful loss, either.
We also hear ex-pilots speaking clearly and with humour about what they remember. All are old and each tells a fascinating, often gripping, story about the dog fights, and the danger of being overwhelmed and outnumbered in blazing skies. As exciting as this sounds, it doesn't sidestep the awful loss, either.
The documentary goes beyond the Battle of Britain when it details the battle for Malta and interviews the last surviving RAF ace from the campaign, who recounts being lost without a map over the Mediterranean Sea.
The documentary also examines the role that women played; whose skills were not only employed in the manufacture and design of the aircraft, but also their piloting prowess in delivering the 22,000 Spitfires to the airfields. The film shows auxiliary pilot Mary Ellis Wilkins (who passed away on the 25th July 2018) being reunited with a Spitfire aircraft that she flew in 1944.
One of the participants in the documentary acknowledges that within the next five years that none of the pilots who fought in World War II will be alive, but the Spitfire and those who flew in them were responsible for Hitler's first defeat. Fairhead and Palmer's film is the kind of documentary that doesn't require an interest in the subject to make it worth your while.