Review: Spitfire

2 years ago
Aidan Johnson

Spitfire is a documentary about one of the most romanticised images of the British world War Two experience – the Spitfire fighter plane. A solid documentary, it is something that the enthusiast should use as a way to get their unknowledgeable friend interested in the many aspects of British wartime aviation history.

What brings this documentary out of the general “World War 2 documentary” category is the interviews with people who were actually there. There are hardly any veterans from that era alive – one woman was well into her nineties, and another interviewee made a wry remark he was the last Maltese ace pilot alive – which means this documentary will probably one of the last to have them appear in modern interviews. Fortunately they covered a lot of different questions, and really showed them as humans rather than cut-out characters (though they certainly presented that way due to their mannerisms).

Another factor that played into this documentary’s favour is that it tried to explore a broad range of stories. Naturally a lot of time is spent on the Battle of Britain (1940), as this was period certainly the “finest hour” of the plane. However, everything from the origins through to contemporary usage and the revival of interest in the plane are explored – one example is the fact that it investigates the fact there were women pilots who transported them from the factories to the air hangers, something which is not mentioned in many documentaries or war films.

It also tried to show a more human side of war – despite being dedicated to the machine, it showcased the impact of war on the pilots, and dealt with the fact that, at the end of the day, this plane was a weapon designed to kill other people.

The soundtrack and cinematography were, on the whole, fairly well done. Generally the music is handled well and reflects the mood (sinister music for ominous events, slower ballads for more moving moments, and fast paced and heroic sounds for such moments) – and it really helped carry the day, although there were moments when the interviewee blended a little too well with the soundtrack. What was interesting was that there was hardly any footage of the German side of things – Hitler makes a grand total of about 50 seconds on screen, and the first German video footage appears nearly 30 minutes into the film. This was a little curious, as when the Focke-Wulf planes made an appearance as a brief nemesis there was some footage from the other side and of those planes – likewise with the V1’s.

Then again, much film has been destroyed, lost, or never taken in history – perhaps this is one of those instances. Regardless, it is a curious choice to have such limited footage from the other side.

Working against the documentary was a problem that happens to many documentaries out there – especially those that try to cover a long stretch of history that is full of different stories: the problem of not having enough screen time to examine issues closely. There were numerous “sub-documentaries” in Spitfire – and each of those could have been a documentary in of themselves. The potentially clandestine origins of the engineering ideas and the hurtles that needed to be overcome; the famous Battle of Britain; the Mediterranean experience; women and non-British pilots in the cockpit; and many more ideas were picked up and briefly talked about, before gliding into a new section. It was a shame, because it felt as though they couldn’t decide what to cut, and so felt left everything in, even if it was only for a few minutes.

Overall, a solid documentary that falls victim to all documentaries – namely, the issue of having to cover too much history in too little time; and the issue of romanticising the past. However, despite this, it is a good film and well made – and, when the interviews are included, something quite enjoyable to watch as well as informative.


Spitfire is in limited release now.

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