It’s hard to think of any machine more beautiful, more iconic or more storied than the legendary Supermarine Spitfire. The harmonious rumble of its vast Rolls Royce Merlin engine is the soundtrack of heroic air combat in hundreds of movies, and its aggressive, curvy silhouette adorns the ceilings and walls of many boys to this day. Along with the Hawker Hurricane, the Spitfire is the plane that saved the UK during the Battle of Britain, and is a national symbol of overcoming impossible odds.
This documentary, directed by David Fairhead and Ant Palmer and narrated by the inimitable Charles Dance, charts the history and development of the Spitfire, with stirring interviews from veteran pilots and freshly recorded footage of restored planes flying over the English countryside, as well as the usual historical recordings.
This may be the last major documentary made on the subject in living memory of the war; the interviewees here are all approaching one hundred years of age. They’re all razor sharp, though, and there’s honesty and contemplation in spades. You can see the ambivalence the pilots felt about their victories, one of them even apologising for recalling the thrill he felt hunting the enemy Messerschmitts.
One of the seldom-seen aspects of this story is the roles of the Air Transport Auxilliary, an all-female team of pilots responsible for flying newly-manufactured planes to their airbases. A particularly moving scene shows the owner of a restored Spitfire reunite one of the surviving ATA ladies with the only plane (out of a thousand she flew) that she signed.
There are many, many documentaries about planes – and lots about the Spitfire – but none quite as lyrical as this one. It’s also beautifully shot in glorious high-definition and is never less than fascinating. If you’re a history buff, this is a real pleasure, and if you’re only casually interested, the human interest here is highly involving.