If there is one emblematic and iconic aircraft of the Second World War, it has to be the Spitfire, the fighter plane that was turned out in the tens of thousands by British factories to combat the Nazi threat over the nation, and could arguably claim to be what prevented them invading the United Kingdom and altering the course of the conflict. Now, with so few of the original pilots left alive, and those who have survived reaching their hundredth year in the world, this documentary looks back on the phenomenon of the Spitfire, from its inception to its use in battle, as told by those who were there at the time and for whom the memories will never fade.
The Royal Airforce was one hundred years old itself the year this film was released, and tributes were paid up and down the land, but one of the better factual films made as part of that celebration was this unassuming item which was often content to let the images do the talking as much as the reminiscences. Taking the few Spitfires left (indeed, we are shown the last existing example to have actually flown combat missions) and flying them during some fortuitously clement weather for some genuinely lovely aerial footage, it was worth catching this simply to watch the legendary vehicle in action, as its speed and grace resonated throughout the running time.
However, as we are told early on, it is worth being reminded the Spitfire was a war machine, and no matter how attractive it is to witness soaring into the blue, it was designed to kill and destroy, and this apparent contradiction lived and breathed in almost every frame. The pilots we heard from, effectively the last interviews most of them would give, had a valedictory quality that brought home the reality of flying this small craft up into the skies with the express mission to bring down the enemy craft, who had orders to do the same to you. Not all the interviewees flew combat missions, either: we hear from the women who transported the planes, and one who assisted the strategy.
Directors David Fairhead and Ant Palmer were canny enough to know when to allow the war heroes and heroines their space to spin their yarns, and when to use stock footage to illustrate what they were saying: we saw photographs of them when they were in the conflict, then they had managed to find clips of missions some of them participated in, described as we see the action unfold in black and white film. One says it's not decent to say how much he enjoyed shooting down the Nazis when so many on those missions didn't come back, but admits he found it incredibly exciting nonetheless, an honesty that was not only indicative of the tone of the interviews as a whole, but also that it didn't shy away from the sobering facts of what it was like to be in that situation at that young age (many were barely in their twenties).
The visuals returned again and again to that aeroplane of the title, either in vintage or captured in recent times, and though the overriding mood was less to roll out a list of dry facts and more to convey a sense of what flying one during the Battle of Britain - and beyond - was like first hand, we did learn a number of gems, assuming you were not a war buff who knew all this already. The famous "double ellipse" wing design was of a German design, not that anyone would have admitted it at the time, the Spitfires were not much beloved in their day by the pilots who merely regarded them as tools to get the job done, and when the last were decommissioned in 1957, they were being used for weather reports rather than defence, since jet engines had made them all but obsolete. If you get the sense there was so much more they could have told us, it was worth remembering it was the spirit of an age they were conjuring up, and nothing said that better than hearing from those who endured - or seeing the plane in action, of which there was plenty. Music by Chris Roe.