Directed by Leslie Howard, a young Englishman designs the Spitfire airplane in time to be used against the invading German Air Force in World War II.
Germany has taken over Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France. Britain stands alone against attack by the powerful German military. Hitler declares that they will take over England too. The voice of Prime Minister Churchill says they will defend the world cause.
On September 15, 1940 hundreds of German planes are flying toward the British isles. The British announce an attack alarm. English pilots get a short break before being called back into the air. A plane overshoots on landing, and men rush over to help the wounded pilot. Another squadron scrambles to their planes, and they take off. Station Commander Geoffrey Crisp (David Niven) talks to resting pilots. They discuss the plane, and Crisp says it was designed by an artist, R. J. Mitchell. Crisp tells the story of how he invented the plane they are flying.
In 1922 R. J. Mitchell (Leslie Howard) is laying on a cliff by the sea watching seagulls fly. His wife Diana (Rosamund John) finds him. He tells her how the birds fly so well compared to humans. He says he will build a plane like a bird. He shows her a diagram, and she reads an invitation to an air show. He says he did not want to make a speech.
At a banquet Commander Bride (Roland Culver) gives a speech about the plane representing Britain in the Schneider race. Mitchell is driving a car and tells Diana he will ask them if he can design a plane. They arrive and hear that the British won. She encourages him to ask while they are feeling good. He tries to talk with Higgins (David Horne) and Bride. Higgins says they are putting him back in the assembly shop to get more practical experience.
A year later seaplanes compete in the Schneider race. Mitchell watches as the Americans win.
Mitchell continues to design airplanes. Crisp comes in and asks the secretary if he can see Mitchell, but she says he must have an appointment. He chats with her as she types. He steps over the rail and asks her to whisper the word “Crisp” to Mitchell. She goes in to his office and asks him about the word, but he ignores her. She goes out and tells Crisp there was no reaction. Crisp starts to leave, but Mitchell comes out and asks who he is. Crisp asks him for a job. Mitchell remembers that he knew him in school and invites him in to his office. Crisp says he has been flying and was in the war. Now he is having trouble finding a job. Crisp calls the secretary a dragon as she approaches behind him. Mitchell asks Crisp to come to dinner. Crisp says he is with a girl, and she is invited too.
In the Mitchell home a young woman has two dogs. Mitchell tells Crisp he has discovered the secret of the birds in flying. He sees a single complete span for the wings. He makes a drawing of a sleek plane with floats, which will hold the petrol. He says he will cool the water in the wings. Crisp says he will fly it. Crisp learns that his date is married. Diana tells her husband of an invitation.
At work Higgins dismisses Mitchell’s designs and model and makes fun of it. He says they use biplanes. They say his plane is too revolutionary and risky. They recognize his ability, but they want a modified Sea Lion. Mitchell says he could give them a plane that would win, but it must be his plane. Mitchell is challenged by Bride and resigns. Mitchell leaves and is followed by Crisp.
In their yard Mitchell and Diana have tea with Crisp. Mitchell says he had no luck with other companies. Diana invites Crisp to stay for Irish stew. Crisp says he will string along with Mitchell. They agree being without a job will be hard for Diana. Mitchell has Crisp listen to his infant boy and hands the boy to him. Mitchell goes in the kitchen where Diana is preparing a pie. She asks what they did when they saw his drawings. He tells her what he said at the board meeting. He says he and Crisp are unemployed, and she says he will get another job. Mitchell gets a call from Bride to build his airplane.
Mitchell makes a model and then the airplane with a single wing. Men push it into the water, and it flies.
At the Schneider air show in 1925 Jimmy Dolittle is flying a biplane for the Americans at 210 miles per hour. Crisp is flying a monoplane and takes off. His speed reaches 230. Crisp passes out, and the plane crashes into the sea.
Mitchell visits the laid-up Crisp in the hospital. Crisp says everything went black on the turn. The nurse tells Mitchell he must go, and Crisp asks for her telephone number. Crisp says he will recover quickly.
In 1927 the Royal Air Force competes in Venice. A telegram from Mussolini welcomes the English to the contest. Crisp gives flowers to a pretty woman and invites her to dinner.
In their hotel room Mitchell paces and denies he is nervous about the race. He answers the phone and learns about a problem in the filter. He says he will be there, though Diana says it is after midnight.
In the hanger Mitchell tells two men they must fit a new piston into the block that night. In the morning they are done. Crisp comes in, and Mitchell gives him advice for the flight. Mitchell says he expects it to go 285.
In the timed race two planes fail to complete. Crisp boards the plane, and Mitchell tells him to take it easy around the first turn. Crisp starts the plane and takes off. Mitchell tells Diana that he must win. Crisp flies back and forth, competing with the best Italian plane flown by Sati. Diana tells Mitchell they won. They made a new record at 281. Crisp is congratulated, and pictures are taken.
Mitchell and Crisp mourn the loss of a pilot. Crisp tells Mitchell he has a great future. Mitchell says he needs a new design and a new engine, but they will need money.
Men at Vickers talk about buying the company where Mitchell works. Bride tells Mitchell their company is being taken over. Mitchell says he will be given new facilities. Bride tells Mitchell he must adapt to what Vickers wants, but the Vickers man agrees with Mitchell.
Mitchell’s new Supermarine S-6 broke the records. At a party Crisp is looking for a girl. Lady Lucy Houston (Toni Edgar-Bruce) arrives and explains why she has a sign on her yacht criticizing the government. Crisp meets Anne Harper (Anne Firth). Lady Houston tells Mitchell that England is in danger. He mentions planes, and she is doubtful; but she says she will remember him. He looks at her sign that flashes “Wake up England.”
Vickers men learn from a government man that they might not hold the contest again because of the cost to the government. They listen to the debate.
Mitchell and Crisp are told that they have no money for the race. An eccentric man talks to squadron leader Jefferson and gives him a note for £100,000 from Lucy Houston.
At the air show in 1931 the British win again with a speed of 340 miles per hour.
Crisp in uniform comes to visit Mitchell, who says he has nothing more to do. Crisp says he needs a holiday. Mitchell tells Diana they are going to Germany.
People watch a glider as a German band plays. Mitchell and Crisp talk with German soldiers who say the Versailles Treaty does not allow them to build engines. The soldiers obey their officer and march off.
At a restaurant in a private dinning room a German officer introduces Mitchell and Crisp. They drink a toast, and Mitchell and Crisp sign a lampshade. Mitchell is introduced to his competitor Willy Messerschmitt. Crisp learns that the woman he is with is married to a German officer. The officers tell Mitchell that they make other planes besides gliders and commercial aircraft. They say the Versailles Treaty is dead. They say what is now and next year are more important than history. They say Hitler coming to power is important. They say they will be overlords by having more guns, tanks, and planes. A drunk German laughs.
Mitchell, Crisp, and Diana walk at night, and Crisp says the Germans are going to do it again.
Mitchell tells the Vickers man what the Germans are planning. Mitchell says he wants to build a fighter plane, but the Vickers man says they must arouse the government.
At the Air Ministry an official tells Mitchell they will give them £7,500. Mitchell says he will design a land plane with a new engine.
Mitchell goes to Henry Royce about his new engine. Royce says he will get his new engine.
Crisp is on a date, and Miss Harper tells him there is something wrong with Mitchell. She tells him he is working too hard. Crisp says he is creating. She asks Crisp to advise him to take a rest. Crisp persuades her to go with him right away.
Mitchell is working at his drafting table, and Crisp comes in. Crisp says he is going home and gives him his coat. Crisp and Miss Harper take him home and tell him to go to bed. Diana invites them to stay for a while. Mitchell advises Crisp to get a wife before it is too late. Mitchell falls asleep in the chair, and Diana brings him soup. She asks him not to work too hard. Crisp asks him to ease up, but Mitchell says he cannot just yet. He says his plane must do 400 miles per hour and carry eight machine guns. He says it will be like a spitfire bird.
The Vickers man tries to summon Mitchell, who is visiting a doctor. He learns he is a sick man. The doctor says he must stop working for a year to rest so he can go on for years. Mitchell asks what will happen if he does not do that. The doctor says it may be a year or less.
Mitchell returns to Vickers and learns everyone likes his design, but it must be ready within a year. Mitchell says it will be ready in eight months because that is all he has.
Men work on the project, and Mitchell has to redesign some things. He comes home early in the morning, opens the window and hears the birds. Diana comes out in a robe and says he is not well and should see a doctor. He says he did. She asks what he said. Mitchell asks if she realizes his work is more important than them. The doctor said he must rest, or he will die. He says he must go on with his work. She asks how long he has. He says he has enough time. She says she got a letter from their son Gordon and reads it to him. She says he should not sacrifice his life for something that may never happen. He sees a newspaper headline about German planes destroying a Spanish town. He says he cannot go on vacation and asks her to understand.
Workers assemble the plane as Mitchell supervises. The plane’s guns are tested.
Mitchell is in a wheelchair in the yard, and the maid comes out with a book. He is thinking of the air show.
Crisp takes off in the new plane. Mitchell is gardening, and the maid tells him he must rest. He gets back in the wheelchair.
Crisp is flying the plane and dives down at a high speed. He flies up to 10,000 feet and dives again, reaching 500 miles per hour. In his chair Mitchell hears the plane and sees it, making a sign to Crisp. The maid complains about the plane flying so low.
Crisp lands and is commended. Air Marshal Bradford gives his compliments to Diana for her husband.
In his yard Mitchell is laying on a lounge, and Diana is called into the house. Crisp arrives, and Mitchell asks if there is news. Crisp is frustrated by the delay, but Mitchell says they need to take enough time. Mitchell says his work on the Spitfire is finished. Now it is Crisp’s work and the fighter pilots’. Diana comes out and says she was just told that they are going to build hundreds of them. Mitchell advises Crisp, pauses, and thanks him. Crisp leaves, giving him a thumbs-up at the gate. Mitchell says they will overcome the barbarians, and Diana says he has been talking too much. Mitchell asks her to thank all the boys. He thanks her most of all. She suggests he sleep and walks into the house. His hand falls, and she realizes he died.
Crisp tells the pilots that Mitch died a happy man, and he would be even happier if he knew what was happening today. They get the call to scramble and run to their planes. They take off in their Spitfires. Crisp is flying too. They learn there are about a hundred German planes approaching. They see the planes and attack them from above, shooting down the German planes. The captain is shot down by a German fighter, and Crisp vows he will get him. He shoots him down and gets the call to come home now. Crisp tells Mitch they cannot take the Spitfires.
This drama depicts the true story of R. J. Mitchell who designed the Spitfire and died of cancer in 1937. Leslie Howard produced and directed this movie, and ironically it was his last appearance in a film. He was working on propaganda against the Nazis and perhaps also on intelligence; but he was killed when a commercial plane was shot down by the German Air Force in 1943.