The First of the Few (1942)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 3 January (12.30 pm)
Channel: Spike
IMDb Link

The First of the Few was retitled as Spitfire for its release in some territories outside Britain, notably America. The suggestion is that US viewers knew of the British fighter plane well enough, but were less familiar with the film’s original name, a play on Winston Churchill’s famous ‘Never has so much been owed by so many to so few‘ comment about the RAF pilots who fought and won the Battle of Britain. The ‘first’ of the title refers to R. J. Mitchell, the aeronautical engineer who designed racing seaplanes and was ultimately responsible for developing the Spitfire itself.

Returning to Britain after World War Two erupted, Leslie Howard shrugged off the matinee image that had been crafted for him in Hollywood to become quite the emotional figurehead. The diffident figure he cut in Gone with the Wind, by some distance the least memorable of the principal players in that epic, was suddenly an active participant in propagandist and morale-boosting efforts. He appeared in movies, made many public appearances, all to defy the Nazis and defend his realm. Howard became so prominent that no less a figure than Lord Haw-Haw denounced him over the airwaves. Increasingly the actor was taking fuller roles in his productions. He shared directorial duties on 1938’s Pygmalion and made Pimpernel Smith in 1941. The First of the Few followed in 1942.

The film was supported by no less a figure than Churchill, who asked the RAF to give the production unprecedented access to its planes and airfields. This seal of approval ensured The First of the Few would fulfil its positive image of both Mitchell and his cause, albeit in romanticising his story. Howard played Mitchell as a softly spoken English gentleman, really a stylised version of himself, whereas in reality the engineer was a tough, working class Potteries man, given to bouts of barely controlled rage and torrents of abusive language. This might not have suited the image Howard wanted to project, though he did seize on Mitchell’s work ethic, the fact he’d driven himself into an early grave when he continued to work on the Spitfire despite the ravages of rectal cancer. In the film, the nature of Mitchell’s illness is never disclosed, but his determination to get the Spitfire finished rather than take a long break for his own health is shown, and adds a suitable heroic note to the man’s efforts. More importantly, the film gave this then rather obscure figure a platform, bringing him to public acclaim as an unsung champion, which given the success of the fighter plane was no less than he deserved.

Mitchell’s story is told in flashback. A squadron of pilots is taking a short break in between shooting down German attackers. They’re met by David Niven’s Geoffrey Crisp, who begins telling them Mitchell’s story, the implication being that it’s one few people knew. Crisp was an invention of the film, an amalgamation of a number of test pilots who worked alongside him during the years, most notably Jeffrey Quill who made an uncredited cameo as the pilot performing those acrobatic leaps and daring dives in the test of the Spitfire. Crisp, a ‘lifelong friend’ of Mitchell’s, works as his pilot during the 1920s, a period of growing success in the development of seaplanes that came to regularly win competitions and break speed records. Taking a holiday to Germany in the early 1930s, the pair meet Nazis, who unsubtly prophesise that the Fatherland will one day dominate Europe. Mitchell and Crisp see the obvious danger, and return home to work flat out on a fighter plane that will eventually be capable of defending the island. As his bouts of sickness increase, Mitchell sacrifices himself for the cause. Told by his doctor that he can last no longer than eight months without a significant rest, Mitchell declares that it’s time enough and carries on.

Though embellished, the story manages to take in Mitchell’s struggle to get his plane worked on in spite of a government more focused on appeasement and saving money, which strikes a true note about the period. He’s supported financially by Lady Houston (Toni Edgar-Bruce), an aristocratic patriot who like Mitchell can see the threat posed by the fascists, and believes in his dream. The film’s dig at the ostrich-like government of the pre-war years reflects Britain’s own withering attitude towards its officials, who only come to appreciate where things are heading at the last minute, when it’s almost too late to make effective plans to counter Germany, along with the vision of people like Mitchell, who ‘got it’ early enough.

There’s a temptation with films like this to mock it, in particular the perception it creates of some misty-eyed, half remembered past when pipe-smoking Professorial types could be heroes, imbued with the traditional ‘make do and mend’ mentality that is exhorted as a uniquely British virtue.  In contrast the Germans, depicted in the film’s entirely fictionalised episode, are shown as megalomaniac villains, determined to break the Treaty of Versailles and make their country great again, no matter who suffers in the process. It’s a cartoonish representation and a bit of a false step, as elsewhere the film attempts to strike an authentic note in recounting Mitchell’s story, and rather carefully builds his image as a dedicated and quietly resolute engineer. He’s shown as possessing that vanguard British virtue, getting to where he does thanks to years of hard work and an inventive mind. The concept that will eventually blossom into the Spitfire is inspired by birds, Mitchell’s aim to develop planes that are based on their natural, physical ‘engineering’ at a time when everyone else was a long way behind technically.

The First of the Few is directed in semi-documentary style, opening with a narration about Germany before depicting Mitchell’s life, his achievements and pitfalls, in episodic snapshots. Crisp appears to have been created as a more easily digestible cinematic character and Niven plays him just right, giving him personality and a winning charm as he makes to woo a succession of ladies, most of whom turn out to be already married.

But it’s Howard’s film, even if he plays Mitchell as a rather typically British one-noter of determination and bluff. It’s an encapsulation of the English ideal, the sort celebrated by the Daily Mail and efficiently performed, Howard’s traditional ‘under playing’ transforming him into the embodiment of pluck and virtue.

It’s easy enough, watching this, to see the reasons for his success during this period, and his status as someone Germany might want to see out of the way. Less than a year after its release and several days before it debuted in American theatres, Howard was dead, most likely shot down by Nazi Junkers while on a flight from Portugal to Britain. Rumours about this persisted. One conspiracy theory suggested he was sacrificed as Churchill was on a plane at the same time and British Intelligence deliberately leaked that Howard’s flight was carrying a VIP. Another speculated that Enigma messages intercepted by code-breakers revealed the Nazi plan to take Howard down, and the difficult decision was taken to let it happen so that Britain’s ability to decode the machine would not be revealed to the enemy. Most likely it was down to an error of judgement, a fateful act that would normally have involved Howard’s plane being escorted to France and its occupants taken as prisoners.

The First of the Few: ***

Rage at Dawn (1955)

When it’s on: Saturday, 12 August (2.35 pm)
Channel: Spike
IMDb Link

In the hinterland of British Freeview television, that mid-afternoon space the schedulers have always struggled to fill, the classic Western still reigns supreme. It was like this when I was young, quite some time ago, and it remains so today. Clearly there are viewers who want to watch these movies, and the sheer wealth of titles on offer proves there’s a rich vein from which to mine, certainly where films made in the 1950s are concerned. The ‘Golden Age’ of the Western threw out some unimpeachable gems, efforts that are well worth watching now both on their own merits and as mirrors to the contemporary American society, values and concerns. But they weren’t all greats. For every High Noon, there were numerous offerings like Rage at Dawn, this minor entry from late period RKO that trod well known paths, served as a vehicle for its star name – Randolph Scott – and disappeared as quickly as it hit theatres.

The film makes an attempt to tell the story of the Reno Brothers Gang, an infamous real-life group of outlaws that was renowned for its train robberies. It’s entirely possible that the Renos’ adventures formed the basis for The Great Train Robbery, America’s first action film from 1903 that would have been made less than forty years after the actual events it was depicting and by which stage the protagonists were long since dead, all hanged by lynch mobs in grisly examples of frontier justice. Rage at Dawn does a fair job of recreating their capers, and the efforts by the Pinkerton Detective Agency (renamed Peterson in the film) to bring them to heel.

Scott plays James Barlow, who’s hired by the agency to work undercover and infiltrate the gang. He doesn’t appear until after twenty minutes have elapsed. That time is taken up with our introduction to the felons, the double cross that leads them to exact some pretty brutal revenge, and the suggestion that not all is right in the web of corruption of which they are the centre. The gang lead a torrid home life, holed up in the house of Laura Reno (Mala Powers) and arguing among themselves, treating the Reno sister like a servant. The good brother, Clint (Denver Pyle), wants little to do with any of it, leaving Frank (Forrest Tucker) to effectively run things, to the happiness of nobody.

Once Barlow enters the picture, he takes it over, faking a train heist in order to come into the gang’s orbit while he learns about the crooked town officials they’re keeping sweet, and speaking of which of course becoming sweet on poor, downtrodden Laura. Scott is an old hand at this stuff and plays his part well enough, seeming to realise it isn’t a prestige project and won’t have any lasting effect on the public’s imagination and so putting in a fairly routine performance. The kind of broiling, beneath the surface resentment that Budd Botticher found in his retinue is barely there and Scott plays it straight, easily in command of the proceedings. Charisma and a natural charm come to the surface. Things only ramp up towards the end, when the gang has been caught and townspeople take it upon themselves to do an old-fashioned lynching, which prompts him into action and offers a spark of the bitter anger he was more than capable of showing. The chemistry with Powers is just about present, though it comes with an air of both players being the only attractive performers and so something romantic’s bound to happen eventually. 

It’s all down to a by the numbers script from Horace McCoy, best known for writing the novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and Tim Whelan’s somewhat leaden direction. Whelan was credited as one of the three (named) directors on The Thief of Bagdad, and many years before had written the story that led to Harold Lloyd’s seminal Safety Last!, but made this one as a strictly box ticking exercise, covering the bases but failing to pronounce any of the story’s more interesting elements, such as the corruption angle. The result is a harmless enough matinee flick that could have been much more, indeed I was pulled in by what sounded like a densely layered plot that didn’t amount to very much.

It does look good however, Whelan able to take advantage of Technicolor to produce an Oater that’s altogether easy on the eyes. Scholars of the period have noted that while the action is supposed to take place in Indiana (where the crimes happened) it’s very clearly California. A state flag appears at one point to unfortunate effect, and that’s when the boom mic isn’t dropping into the shot, all of which suggests a briskly made film without much attention to detail being paid. One for the Randolph Scott completists.

Rage at Dawn: **

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

When it’s on: Saturday, 1 October (1.00 pm)
Channel: Spike
IMDb Link

At the end of Desmond Davis’s Clash of the Titans, Father of the Greek Gods Zeus makes a prophecy that the exploits depicted in the film and indeed the Gods themselves may one day be forgotten. The speech might also be an end note on this type of movie – by 1981, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation was looking quaint and increasingly artificial, while the tales of ancient mythology covered in these entries were not what audiences were perceived to want any longer. Fantastic cinema was taking to the skies, to other galaxies, with the decade’s later Krull resorting to a blend of both Harryhausen-esque fantasy and science fiction, and the main man’s retirement putting a seal on the genre.

All the same, these films had their golden age, and arguably they were never in better shape than when Harryhausen and Co. came up with Jason and the Argonauts in 1963. Remembered for its sword fighting skeletons, Hydra and of course the mighty Talos, what makes the film so good is that every element was thought about carefully. The casting was inspired; consider the character of Hercules, a role owned at that stage by bodybuilder Steve Reeves who had lent his services to a string of European productions. The easy thing would have been to hand the part to some passing beefcake, but instead they chose Nigel Green, who brought muscle to the role but more importantly a booming personality, lending Hercules a buoyant masculine arrogance that he might not otherwise have possessed. Green’s Hercules is well aware of his own legend – ‘HERCULES IS HERE!‘ – and revels in it, while being good natured enough to have real charisma, and it’s these qualities that make the character so memorable.

Elsewhere, Todd Armstrong’s Jason seems plucked from the shelf of ‘bland leads’, interacting with Harryhausen’s animated characters well enough, and especially in his conversations with it breathing life into the bust of the goddess Hero that provides the ship’s bow. Medea, the story’s heroine, is played by shapely Nancy Kovack and only turns up in the latter half, though in the legends she was a far more prominent character. A string of respected British thespians make up the rest of the cast in this Anglo-American production. The likes of Laurence Naismith, Douglas Wilmer and Gary Raymond help to crew the Argo, the Gods count Niall MacGinniss, Honor Blackman and Michael Gwynn among their ranks, and there are significant supporting roles for the likes of Patrick Troughton and Jack Gwillim. Each lends a touch of class, doing enough to suggest various sub-stories that are worth telling – what exactly did Troughton’s Phineus say to anger the gods to such an extent that he’s plagued by harpies every day, for example?

The film is based on Greek legends that were already ancient in times of antiquity, the story embellished as it was passed down, details added to throw in further challenges for its hero, a saga that in mythology all ended rather unhappily. They loved their tragedies, those Greeks, but here the focus is the golden fleece and its heroic collection. Bits of the tale are grafted on to suit the narrative’s purpose (in the myth, the Argonauts don’t meet Talos until their journey home), chosen to enhance the special effects, which at the time were enjoying their zenith as cinematic spectacle. It was filmed in Italy, mostly around the small town of Palinuro, based south of Naples, with its glorious blue Mediterranean seas and authentic locations, which looked exactly like the pre-Biblical Aegean world it was attempting to recreate. Bernard Herrmann was responsible for the film’s blistering score. Best known for his association with Alfred Hitchcock, Herrmann provided many of the soundtracks for these movies, especially those involving Harryhausen, and suitably evoked the sense of wonder and sometimes menace that fit the tone perfectly.

British director Don Chaffey keeps the action moving at the kind of pace that never reveres the material to the extent that everything slows down, a good thing because its yarn of Gods meddling in the deeds of men, men who come across fantastical beasts as a matter of routine, should be taken as seriously as the description suggests. The point is that there’s so much packed in it feels like a much longer film than its actual running time of comfortably under two hours – lots happens, it always looks great, but everything’s passing at breakneck speed so that viewers are never left to think too deeply about the simple fantasy they’re watching. Of course, Chaffey knew enough to appreciate that the project was a showcase for Harryhausen’s visual effects. By this point a producer as well as doing the legwork, Harryhausen had the good fortune to graft his work onto a film that ticked the boxes in all departments, meaning it never feels like something that’s waiting around for the next stop motion creature to light up the screen, something that becomes more apparent when watching the later The Valley of Gwangi. The effects aren’t gratuitous either. The scene where the Argo has to negotiate a narrow valley called the Clashing Rocks, and is saved from destruction by the intervention of the sea god Triton, is all the better because Harryhausen had the character played by a human actor (an uncredited William Gudgeon), the ship and sea projected in miniature because stop motion animation and water didn’t mix well. The effect works. It’s a memorable and beautifully filmed scene, teasing at the regular meetings of the human and deity spheres that were always prominent in ancient literature.

As for the other effects, well take your pick. The fighting skeleton from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad makes its reappearance, but this time it brings along its mates and the Argonauts have to take on a small army, a deadly corps of corpses as they kill some of Jason’s men and he’s only able to dispatch them by leaping into the sea, knowing if they follow the spell that’s animating them will be broken and they’ll once again be bags of bones. There are the flying harpies that make Phineus’s life an eternal misery, and the Hydra protecting the golden fleece, all obstacles for Jason and his crew to take on, but the show stopper is of course Talos, the enormous bronze statue of the legendary Titan that comes to life when Hercules steals one of the treasures it guards. One of the best things about Harryhausen’s animated characters is the personalities he gave them, perhaps a by-product of the hours and hours he spent bringing them to life, also the fact they were conduits of his own short-lived frustrations as an actor, when he suffered stage fright and instead channelled his performances through the creatures he created. When Talos moves, it’s with the jarring noise of ancient metal joints rubbing together, which becomes a terrifying signal of its approach. Despite its inscrutable mask of a face, it’s difficult not to imagine it being amused at the ant-like warriors attempting to hurt it with spears, its response an almost insulting swing of its sword, like it’s simply swatting them away. When Talos makes a serious attempt to attack the Argonauts, it very nearly halts the entire voyage when it stands, like the Colossus of Rhodes, at the harbour entrance the ship tries to flee through, picking the boat up like a toy and giving it a playful shake. What really makes all this work are the perspective shots, these larger than life heroes suddenly tiny fleeing insects with Talos in pursuit. It’s wonderful stuff, about as good an example of the craft as you’re ever likely to see, the sheer scale and ambition elevating the material to marvellous proportions, Herrmann’s score resorting to a martial drumbeat in reflecting the unstoppable approach of the metal Titan.

The influence of this movie on later film makers can’t really be overstated, the likes of John Landis, Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton all soaking up its delights. Tom Hanks once called it his personal best film of all time. The optimum time to watch it is of course in the early afternoon, the matinee hours, the world doing its own thing outside while you get to immerse yourself in a fantastical story of Gods, monsters and a time of adventure. I envy anyone catching it for the very first time.

Jason and the Argonauts: *****