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: ***

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

When it’s on: Saturday, 23 December (6.45 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

I posted a comment about The Bishop’s Wife as part of an extended ramble last Christmas on these pages. It was the first time I had seen the film, which felt like an enormous oversight because it came across as almost a perfect seasonal offering, and I was happily swept along with it. That said, in the UK at least there’s one classic slice of Hollywood melodrama that beats all others when it comes to Christmas films, so looking beyond It’s a Wonderful Life can be difficult. The Miracle on 34th Street gets a look in, though the number of people who think the Attenborough remake is the definitive version is a concern, but there’s little attention paid to the likes of The Shop Around the Corner, which is a beautiful piece of work that deserves more love, while the charm of Bing Crosby tends to sidelined into the ‘Musicals’ category rather than celebrated for its seasonal cheer. So then you get the various adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and a gem like The Bishop’s Wife is relegated to the early hours of a Yuletide schedule as opposed to the frequent theatrical exhibitions of It’s a Wonderful Life that show the extent to which it’s celebrated.

The Bishop’s Wife was an RKO picture made on the back of The Best Years of Our Lives, a box office bonanza and Oscar winner for Samuel Goldwyn, who ordered a Christmas movie for 1947. At the time, It’s a Wonderful Life was a commercial failure, so the project was something of a gamble, and things got worse as the A-List cast of David Niven, Loretta Young and Cary Grant clashed on set. Part of the trouble was resolved when its male stars swapped roles, and watching the film it’s tough to picture Niven in any other part than that of the troubled bishop, a soul-troubled character whose personal demons too well reflected the recent real-life bereavement he had suffered. Young and Grant took umbrage against each other all too often, falling out over the latter’s perfectionism that slowed down the filming and the fact both preferred to be shot from the same side, making a challenge of the many scenes when they were facing each other. It’s a credit to both performers that the chemistry between their characters was intact throughout, indeed the sparks possibly helped the jarring, ‘not quite right’ on-screen relationship that depicted his romantic overtures she was unwilling to reciprocate.

In the film, Grant plays Dudley, an angel who gets assigned to help a young bishop, Henry Brougham (Niven). The bishop is striving to have a cathedral built in his town, a task that depends on the patronage of the local matriarch (Gladys Cooper), but her interest depends on his agreement that it will be an edifice to her late husband. This troubles his pure motives for building the cathedral, but the bigger issue for him is the time he’s spending on the planning, which is distancing him from his wife Julia (Young) and their daughter. Dudley reveals himself to Henry, who has natural doubts about his angelic status but nevertheless agrees to take him on as an assistant. This introduces Dudley to Henry’s entire world, not just his project but all the people in it, including his family and house staff, as well as their friends within the community. Increasingly, while the bishop attends endless meetings Dudley’s role becomes that of companion to Julia, and the pair grow closer, much to Henry’s dislike who can see the effect on his wife all this attention is having.

The romantic triangle at he heart of the film isn’t its most interesting dimension. As enchanted as Julia is by Dudley’s attentions, her heart very clearly belongs to Henry, who is portrayed as having lost his way, and then not in a way that leads him to committing any evil. He certainly doesn’t deserve to lose his wife, who gives every impression of understanding his preoccupation with the cathedral, and as a result the hints of Dudley’s efforts being to do more than ease Henry’s soul don’t really amount to much. Of far greater value is the effect his presence has on everybody else. Monty Woolley’s broken History Professor, a kindly man who has for years been devoid of inspiration for writing his book about Ancient Rome, regains his impetus thanks to Dudley’s gentle prodding. Cooper’s status in the film as its potential ‘Mr Potter’ is unmasked when the angel intervenes and gives her a glimpse of the humanity in her life that its been lacking. His interaction with the staff at the bishop’s house, notably Elsa Lanchester’s blousey maid, is quite heartwarming, and in the film’s most touching scene, he persuades cabbie Sylvester (James Gleason) to join Julia and himself in an impromptu ice dancing adventure. The scene is intended to hint at the developing feelings between the stars, but it’s Sylvester, recapturing a joie de vivre through his moment of sheer childlike joy, which leaves the most lasting impression.  It’s lovely, innocent stuff.

Of course, by the movie’s end everyone is in ‘happily ever after mode, just as they should be, and Dudley leaves having completed his mission, albeit after almost undermining it at the climax. For me, it’s a note that jars ever so slightly, the idea that an angel would gain feelings for a ‘mortal’ just because he’s played by classic romantic lead Cary Grant and he has to have that storyline, but it’s not enough to ruin the overall sentiment that’s been created. If The Bishop’s Wife has a core message, it is that everything will turn out all right in the end, and I think a Christmas picture can have no better one. It was directed by Henry Koster, who replaced the original choice and pretty much restarted the shoot from scratch, capturing the whimsical tone that had been missing from its initial filming. Whether this or 1950’s Harvey is the better of his light fantasies is entirely up to the individual viewer, but both have unmistakable charm and never fail to entertain.

The Bishop’s Wife: ****

Escape to Athena (1979)

When it’s on: Monday, 21 December (10.30 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I’ve never been a great fan of Second World War movies made as action adventure, I guess because as a History student I tend to believe it’s a subject that ought to be treated more seriously. I don’t want to sound like a killjoy and, when they’re done well, as in the classic Where Eagles Dare, these films can be very good fun, however I far prefer titles like Saving Private Ryan, or the British entries from the 1950s that show the consequences and emotional toll that being involved in warfare can take on people. All the same, there was clearly a market for this sort of fare, inspired by countless comic books and boys’ own yarns, and it took an arch entertainment figure like Sir Lew Grade to finance the likes of Escape to Athena, which offered thrills, exotic locations and an all-star line-up.

Filmed entirely on the Greek island of Rhodes, it’s a fantastic looking film. The opening and closing shots allow director George Cosmatos to serve up sweeping shots of the topography, the buildings clinging to mountainsides, monasteries built atop high plateaus, all framed by gorgeous seas and endless blue skies. Lovely. But that’s the highlight, the script having a sense of going through the motions and largely wasting its ensemble cast. And what a cast! As was the tradition in these films, Escape to Athena features a galaxy of stars, led by Roger Moore who at the time was at the height of his James Bond pomp. Fancying a change of roles after years playing heroes, Moore signed up on the basis that he would be a German commandant, however the screenplay made him an Austrian and a sympathetic Nazi, a former antiques dealer who is only present in Greece to excavate his prison camp for buried treasure. Once Stefanie Powers’s dancer arrives, his thoughts quickly turn to wooing her, and he soon throws in his lot with the freedom fighters and prisoners after they have taken over. It would be nice to say that the role brings out a tougher edge in Moore, whose playing of 007 came with a cheeky raised eyebrow, but in truth his German accent is pretty terrible (the standard dropping of German words like ‘und’ into his sentences is about all it amounts to) and he has little air of authority. Far more believable is Michael Sheard as his Sergeant, another Nazi part for the actor who was a ‘go to guy’ for fascist roles and only cast because the producers failed to recruit a bigger star, and even his austere playing collapses over the course of the picture.

On the side of the angels, Telly Savalas is probably the highlight. Playing Zeno, a former monk who has since shacked up with Claudia Cardinale’s brothel madame and head of the local resistance movement, there’s a sense of purpose to him that’s largely missing elsewhere. He gets some good action scenes, though the best one goes to Elliott Gould who enjoys a motorbike chase through the narrow back streets of the Greek town that’s breathtakingly shot. Gould’s role is a strange one. Oscillating between action hero and fey comic relief, spewing out a string of wisecracks, it’s as though his part was two separate ones and at some stage they were merged into his. David Niven plays an archaeologist who’s now a prisoner of war and planning his escape. By this stage nearly 70, he featured in a project that was being produced by his son, David Niven Jr, and was clearly too old for the part, perhaps also beginning to show signs of the motor neurone disease that would be the end of him a few years later. Richard Roundtree and Sonny Bono are fellow star names who add to the roster of prisoners. None are especially well characterised, the latter two especially being handed a few action scenes each but otherwise given little to do. The biggest waste is Cardinale, capable of demonstrating endless levels of emotion and sensuousness and yet existing here solely to provide a moll for Savalas.

The story is largely about people on the make. Moore’s Otto Hecht is happy enough to sit out the war in his benevolently run camp, sending the ‘finds’ his prisoners dig up to his sister in Switzerland whilst avoiding the close attentions of the local SS officer, played by the late Anthony Valentine in sadistic Colditz mode. Knowing that Allied forces are on their way, Zeno leads an assault on the POW camp to take it over, which involves Hecht switching sides rather than be killed, and then the liberators turn their attention to the local monastery atop Mount Athena. The former prisoners go because Zeno persuades them that the building is stuffed with Byzantine antiques, but the reality is it’s a German garrison that contains a V-2 rocket. The mission turns into one of rescue, freeing the monks who are trapped there and stopping the missile from being launched.

As the action ramps up in these later scenes, Escape to Athena becomes a better film, though it’s the usual business of production line Nazis being decimated by gun toting heroes. But it takes a long time getting there, the first half focusing more on comedy, especially from the leaden Gould who nevertheless gets a great in-joke moment with William Holden, putting in a lovely little cameo that references his role in Stalag 17 (Holden was hanging around the set as he was married to Powers at the time). It sank both critically and at the box office, audience’s tastes no longer in tune with war films played as light adventure yarns, and its seventies roots are betrayed by a closing shot that depicts the town in modern times before the credits roll and a Heatwave song – nothing wrong with the tune, but it’s hopelessly out of place here – plays. There’s some fun to be had in Escape to Athena, and the sense that it’s trying its best to please the viewer is there, but all told it’s a bit of a limp experience. Despite that, the Greek influenced score by Lalo Schifrin is nice, and the photography’s a winner, suggesting the cast and crew were assembled with the promise of a fine shoot on sun-kissed Rhodes. It all looks rather voluptuous on the Blu-Ray I watched.

Escape to Athena: **