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William WALTON (1902-1983)
Film: The First of the Few
Starring Leslie Howard as R.J. Mitchell the designer of the Spitfire
with David Niven and Rosamund John
ODYSSEY ODX 20150 [123 mins]




This 1942 Leslie Howard production is a fictionalised account of how R.J. Mitchell came to design the Spitfire, the plane that won the Battle of Britain. It had the enthusiastic support of Winston Churchill as a morale booster during the dark days of World War II. Sir William Walton wrote the stirring music that he was later to lift and arrange slightly to become the popular concert piece ‘Spitfire Prelude and Fugue’.

One notices immediately how sparingly Walton’s music is used in the film. The Prelude is the opening Title Music not too well performed and none too clearly recorded, despite the DVD’s claims that the audio content has been remastered. The fugue drives the montage showing the building of the plane. A reflective, romantic variation (featuring solo violin) of the Prelude underscores scenes between Mitchell and his wife (Rosamund John) and the Prelude and Fugue join together in a victorious alliance as the completed plane is wheeled out of the workshops. Scraps of other atmospheric music are heard too.

Disappointingly there is no mention of Walton’s contribution in the feature material that accompanies the film. [He was exempted from military service, despite having attempted to join up, to provide music for films deemed to be ‘of national importance’. During 1941 and 1942 he wrote music for: Next of Kin (a documentary about bad security – "careless talk costs lives"), Went the day Well and The Foreman Went to France as well as The First of the Few ].

An Introduction is included by Mitchell’s son, Dr Gordon Mitchell (not R.J. Mitchell as claimed on the DVD box) who comments that the character, Crisp, played by David Niven, is a composite of all the test pilots who worked on Mitchell’s designs including the sea-planes that won so many Schneider Trophy races in the 1920s and early 1930s. He also corrects the alleged facts about Mitchell’s death which in reality was of cancer that had been diagnosed many years earlier, although there is no denying that the urgency of developing the plane sapped his strength. There is also a commentary by Jeffrey Quill, one of Mitchell’s test pilots, who denigrates the notion that the spitfire’s design was influenced by the flight of seagulls as the opening romantic scenes suggest.

At Odyssey’s reasonable price this is an irresistible piece of wartime nostalgia well-acted and, of course, there is Walton’s stirring music.

Ian Lace


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