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During World War II several top Hollywood names volunteered to film combat documentaries. The prestigious director William Wyler put himself in harm's way for The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, a morale-building picture that brought the experience of daylight bombing missions home to the American public. The British flew their missions at night while the American 8th Air Force suffered appalling losses bombing in broad daylight. Even with their war machine crumbling, the Germans managed an excellent defense. Some American raids lost forty or fifty B-17's, each of which carried a crew of eight to ten men. Wyler and his camera experts went along to document the missions from the airman's POV. We're told that Wyler lost much of his hearing during these flights. 1
1990's Memphis Belle (no "The") is a fiction film about the famous aircraft that became the first American plane to finish 25 full missions. That was apparently the magic number at which flyers could rotate out of their tour of duty. As German defenses weakened the odds got better, but in 1943 surviving 25 missions was considered an iffy proposition. The men of the Memphis Belle were made the focus of a publicity campaign; when they finished they would tour America at War Bond rallies. 2
Producer David Puttnam had wanted to make a movie about English flyers but this subject was considered more commercial. William Wyler's daughter Catherine shared producing duties and filming took place in England. Although everyone gives the show a good try, it falls short in a number of ways. Its best audience would surely be people unfamiliar with older Hollywood films about B-17 bombing missions. Henry King's Twelve O'Clock High, for instance, is a far better and more complex look at the same basic subject.
On an airfield in England, the crew of the Memphis Belle learn from Lt. Colonel Bruce Derringer (John Lithgow) that when they finish their 25th mission, they'll have to play heroes for the war effort's publicity program. The news isn't taken very well. Commanding Officer Col. Harriman (David Stathairn) thinks the special attention will aggravate the already nervous atmosphere on base, where fliers go up on daily suicide missions. Derringer has to dial back planned festivities that set the Belle's crew apart as something special. The flyers on the ship affect an assortment of attitudes. Captain Dennis Dearborn (Matthew Modine) is an easygoing, somewhat humorless fellow who just wants to get the job done. Co-pilot Lt. Sinclair (Tate Donovan) is bored. He makes a deal to change jobs in mid-flight, so he can man the tail gun. Navigator Phil Lowenthal (D.B. Sweeney) is a neurotic convinced that he's going to die. Bombardier Val Kozlowski (Billy Zane) brags of being a doctor but in reality washed out before even beginning his studies. "Danny Boy" Daly (Eric Stotz) is the poet of the outfit. Top Gunner "Virgin" Hoogesteger (Reed Diamond) is the butt of jokes because he admits to never having slept with a woman. Belly Gunner "Rascal" Moore (Sean Astin of the Lord of the Rings movies) picks on Virgin but freaks out when his ball turret gun mount jams, locking him into the claustrophobic capsule just before going into action. The Waist Gunners "Genie" McVey (Courtney Gains) and Jack Bocci (Neil Giuntoli) bicker like children. Genie is a superstitious crybaby and Jack is thoughtless but has a good heart. Finally the Tail Gunner Clay Busby (Harry Connick Jr.) is a relaxed musician, singer and gambler. He's always giving odds about things... like their chances for survival.
Barely recovering from a wild squadron party, the crew of the Belle takes off to bomb Bremen, a difficult target. German fighters knock out the planes in formation ahead of them, so Captain Dearborn must lead the entire mission. When clouds obscure the target they're forced to make a second pass. But Val is able to drop his bombs, and guide the entire force to drop theirs, over the proper target area.
Everything seems to go wrong on the return flight home. They are repeatedly attacked, suffer casualties and must make desperate life-and death decisions. They fall behind after losing a couple of engines, and aren't back at the field at the appointed time. That's when Col. Derringer begins to understand the gravity of the missions as communicated to him by Col. Harriman. A lot more is at stake than just a publicity stunt.
Where does Memphis Belle go wrong? Its heart is certainly in the right place. The main problem is that viewers of 1990 interested in a WW2 movie were looking for a new perspective of some kind: more realism, a different angle, something to augment (or contradict) what we were so familiar with from before. What we get is a primer-level movie with more clichés than the originals. The movie's details aren't particularly accurate and the attitude toward the whole bombing strategy ignores questions posed by experts, some of which were addressed in the interesting 1949 picture Command Decision. No Air Group ever experienced anything like a mutiny, but many individual fliers cracked up under the strain. As hinted at in Twelve O'Clock High, tensions could get out of hand over perceived favoritism or persecution due to personality conflicts.
Instead we get a mission jammed with one each of every possible dramatic situation. Captain Dearborn stares at the "Memphis Belle" insignia on his plane, remembering his wife back home. Danny Boy reads poetry to the group before the mission, and everybody listens respectfully. Busby has already shown himself to be Frank Sinatra material by singing at the big dance party. Before takeoff he helps a nearby farmer get his tractor going. The message is that these boys are the salt of the Earth.
In real flights the crew mostly sat quietly and tried to keep from freezing, and then endured maybe twenty minutes of intense, terrifying action. During this flight there is no letup of high-tension events. Danny Boy radios encouragement to the rookie in the plane next door, only to see it knocked out of the sky. Luke Sinclair's itch to fire a gun results in a hit on a Messerschmitt plane, but with a traumatic side effect. Poor Rascal gets stuck in his ball turret, and begins to panic. The fake doctor Val is called upon to help when one crewmember is gravely wounded. Engines go out. Phil shakes free of his depression and throws himself into the team spirit. Another engine catches fire and the extinguishers don't put it out. On the approach to the field, only one landing gear will come down.
All of this seems forced and theatrical. The flyers look their proper ages (most were under 24) but when they swear it's not particularly convincing. Even Matthew Modine's aloof Captain Dearborn seems to be emoting in a vacuum. Eric Stoltz manages to give a really great performance, showing us why director Michael Caton-Jones would enlist him five years later for his excellent Rob Roy. But the director can't seem to muster an "American attitude" for his characters. Put David Straithairn and John Lithgow together and something better their tepid scenes really ought to emerge. Neither actor even begins to do anything with their role.
A big part of the problem is a screenplay that never gets inside its subject. We know nothing is working when this flight team is explaining rudimentary facts about the mission to each other, even after they've flown 24 of them. We're booted out of the feeling of reality because someone thought 1990 audiences needed to be told everything that's going on. We're instead grateful for some fine bits of acting on a smaller scale, or Harry Connick Jr.'s bravura singing scene. It's his first movie, and his crooning brings the big party scene to life.
Memphis Belle uses some real aircraft in the flying scenes but is then let down by some truly unconvincing special effects. Although hundreds of bombers are on this mission we never feel that more than ten are involved. Some of the air to air special effect shots (models? digital images?) are just terrible, with poor animation showing planes cut in two and airmen falling out, all of which looks too cut & dried and optimized for the camera. It's just not very good.
I showed Memphis Belle to my young kids when it was new. We enjoyed it, mainly for some of the character comedy and extreme situations. It's an un-killable story; we all want to see the men get back alive. It's at least better than that awful Amazing Stories TV episode where a cartoon wheel saves a returning bomber piloted by Kevin Costner. That has to be the biggest miscalculation of anything Steven Spielberg ever put his name on. And face it -- knowing what we know now it's tough making an upbeat movie about aerial bombardment in which so many civilians died, even if the enemy is Adolf Hitler. We take our heroes where we can find them.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of Memphis Belle is an excellent encoding of this handsomely shot picture. The lighting Director of Photography is the celebrated David Watkin, and no opportunity for a great shot is passed up.
The big plus is an extra, the full 45-minute William Wyler film The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress that won the Oscar for Best Documentary. The impressive film stays clear of jingoistic fervor as it tells the story of the 25th mission of the real flying fortress. It was sourced in both 16mm and 35mm during many flights, not just the last one. Wyler documents the roles of the men on board. We get a good idea of the cramped spaces on the plane, where most of the interior is reserved for bombs. Although a fairly hefty plane for the time, each bomber had a fairly limited payload, so putting the bombs directly on target was the crucial problem.
The movie would seem to want a real restoration, as the only copies I've seen of it before this were pretty terrible. This encoding is better by far but is still no beauty. It strongly conveys the personality of the director -- Wyler respects his subject matter and the privacy of his 'stars', the noted crew. The post-flight celebration is limited to a pair of awards ceremonies, one in which the crew meets the Queen and King of England (the one with the speech impediment, in The King's Speech) while wearing their scruffy work clothes. Wyler's 'wave the flag' content is less pronounced than that in the wartime films of George Stevens, and way more restrained than the WW2 film work of John Ford.
An original trailer is present as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Memphis Belle Blu-ray
1. The Army Air Corps had their own cameras on board many planes to study and improve on the missions. The films weren't usable in a normal sense in that they only shot two or three frames per second and were projected back the same way. My father said it was pretty unpleasant to review a film of a flight where a member of an aircrew had been killed. It was like watching a security tape from a convenience store murder.
The jerky image showed the waist gunners waiting, springing into action, and firing -- and then suddenly there'd be holes in the fuselage and blood on the walls and one of the men would be in two pieces on the deck with his buddy stunned and struggling to pick himself up. Something they don't tell you in WW2 movies (especially enlistment boosters) is that the ammunition fired in aerial combat was not something one would load into a rifle, but much bigger rounds to pierce airplane engines and rip up the steel airframes. If hit, an airman could be blown to bits. Those guns in the wings of fighter planes aren't called machine guns, but machine cannon.
2. One of the cynical horrors in the book and movie Catch-22 is that, every time an air crew actually survives the number of missions to rotate out, the evil Colonel Cathcart arbitrarily ups the number of missions required. I need to see that movie again!
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.