Leslie Howard's last film was one that he starred in, produced, and directed, in England called The First of the Few; in the U.S. called Spitfire. The British title relates to Winston Churchill's words: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
It is the story of R.J. Mitchell, who designed the Spitfire, a plane which helped win the Battle of Britain.
The Spitfire had several advantages. It was difficult to shoot down since the planes flew higher and faster than what the Germans had. Also, it was easy for the Spitfire to refuel since they were on home ground, whereas the Germans had to return to Germany to refuel. In part, it was designed by Mitchell due to his concern that the British military could not stand up to the German military.
Mitchell's brilliance was in combining elements that had been invented earlier to make one fabulous plane. He had some false starts, but he ultimately succeeded. In 1931, his design, S.6B, won the Scheider Trophy Competition and started things off. The plane later broke the world speed record.
We don't learn too much about Mitchell himself. He was dedicated to his work to the point of exhaustion, so it's doubtful he had a hot social life.
Unlike Howard's upper class, even-tempered Mitchell, the real Mitchell was athletic, lower class, and easily angered. Howard made his acting choices deliberately as Mitchell's family spent a lot of time on the set.
Howard costars with David Niven as his pilot, who provided some lighter moments. And if you like that sort of thing, there is a lot of aerial footage.
Mitchell died of rectal cancer in 1937 at the age of 42, so he didn't see all of his plane's success.
Howard died in 1943 on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines/BOAC Flight 777, which was shot down over the Bay of Biscay by the Luftwaffe as the plane flew from Lisbon to the UK. He was 50.
This is a strong propaganda film, well acted and well directed. It was filmed at an active fighter station, Ibsley, and the extras were real Battle of Britain fliers, and the film also showed the real people working on the plane.
Anyone interested in Mitchell, his son wrote two books: R.J. Mitchell: World Famous Aircraft Designer, and R.J.Mitchell: Schooldays to Spitfire.
As an aside, because this was a propaganda film, Niven was released from his MGM contract in exchange for distribution rights. When Samuel Goldwyn saw the film, he realized Niven was in a supporting role and re-edited the movie, cutting 40 minutes.
This is a similar story to what happened to Tyrone Power when MGM borrowed him for Marie Antoinette. When Zanuck saw that Power played a supporting role, he never lent him out again, and Power was offered some huge films as in 1939 he moved into the top 10 box office stars. I think Niven was luckier, though he and Goldwyn fought for years.