A biography of the iconic fighter plane, ‘Spitfire’ mixes interviews with the last surviving pilots, remastered archive footage and beautifully shot, if over-used, footage of a Spitfire in flight. It’s traditional in form – Charles Dance delivers Stentorian commentary 101 – and adds little new to the story but it gets by on the powerful, touching, funny reminiscences from the pilots themselves.
‘Spitfire’ starts a biography of a machine, tracing its journey from designer’s RJ Mitchell drawing board (an icon of British resistance, it interestingly had design influences from Germany), but soon gets caught up in a retelling of the Battle of Britain itself. Cue Churchill speeches, things being pushed around on maps and people mentioning ‘the Hun’ a lot. A section detailing the plane’s role in North Africa feels different – the wing-mounted footage is exhilarating – but mostly the film delivers a familiar sortie into WWII documentary territory.
‘Spitfire’ is at its best when it gives the stage to the pilots, at once self-deprecatory (‘Being shot down didn’t appeal to me’) and honest (‘I can’t help it. I enjoyed it’). It also shines a light on the female pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary who flew the planes up and down the country between airfields, at one point touchingly granting 100-year-old Mary Wilkins the chance to fly in a Spitfire again. It does little to puncture the mythology surrounding the plane – we don’t hear from Luftwaffe pilots who faced it – but on the centenary of the RAF, ‘Spitfire’ burnishes the legend a little bit more.