New documentary Spitfire indulges some treasured British falsehoods

by James Robins / 06 September, 2018
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Narrated in Churchillian tones by Charles Dance, and released in time for the centenary of the Royal Air Force, Spitfire is a straightforward documentary celebration of the elegant World War II British fighter – an enduring symbol of national defiance.

As a work of cinematography, story-telling and nostalgia, it is delightful. Who can resist the patriotic pull of those elliptical wings over the cliffs of Dover? As a work of history, however, Spitfire is more mixed. It rightly includes long sections on the women who flew Spitfires as part of the Air Transport Auxiliary, but then again, pampers quite a few myths.

Despite a brief mention of the plane’s fame being a “post-war phenomenon”, there is little interrogation of how it became that enduring symbol. One might suspect 1969’s Battle of Britain or the generation of boys raised on WE Johns’ Biggles books have something to do with it. More recently, Dunkirk added to the mythology, suggesting the plane was capable of shooting down Stukas even after it ran out of gas if piloted by Tom Hardy.

After all, the Spit was not the principal fighter of the Battle of Britain. Most of “the few” honoured by Winston Churchill in 1940 flew Hawker Hurricanes – the uglier, hardier workhorse of Fighter Command. Nor was Britain standing alone against Hitler in that darkest hour; it called on the might of its Empire and thousands of Europeans in defying the Nazis.

Spitfire is evocative, to be sure, but it indulges some treasured falsehoods.

IN CINEMAS NOW​ 

★★★

Video: ONE Media

This article was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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