By Paul Mackenzie
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Additional info for British War Films, 1939-1945: The Cinema and the Services
The film opens and closes with staged sequences of about seven minutes each in which real Spitfire pilots are shown landing, chatting - in a rather stilted manner - and taking off again to engage the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. The central plot, though, was a heavily reworked account of the career of R. J. Mitchell - played by Leslie Howard - as narrated to the pilot actors by David Niven, finally in RAF uniform while playing an RAF Station Commander who just happened to have been Mitchell's chief test pilot.
128 Combined with scenes of canteen relaxation this helped to reinforce the idea that service in the ranks of the RAF was not the humiliating experience commonly attributed to service in, say, the army. The extent to which the Air Ministry saw this film as an important publicity vehicle was evident at the premiere at the New Gallery Cinema on 16 January 1939, where members of the Air Council, the RAF Central Band, a contingent of airmen from RAF Uxbridge and sundry Air Ministry officials all turned out.
Three months later, however, a report in Kinematograph Weekly suggested that the producers were ON TARGET: THE ROYAL AIR FORCE 37 trying to excuse delays by making the filmmaking itself into a symbol of patriotism. The First of the Few is claimed to be the most inspiring film yet conceived by any producer, and the production of such a film at this time cannot be measured in mere terms of commercial enterprise. 32 Further shooting at Denham Studios meant that it was not until August 1942, almost two years after its inception, that The First of the Few, appeared in cinemas.