There is something about Memphis Belle that, for some reason when I stumble across it on television I find myself watching it. I do not know why, but in between the story or the casting it feels like something which captures a bit of the esprit de corps that soldiers (or in this case, airmen) share in a unique experience of risking one's life for country. It does not do so by beating one over the head with it, which may be why I like it, but I digress.
The film is inspired by William Wyler's documentary "A Story of a Flying Fortress," which recounts the Belle's 25 successful air missions in World War II without losing a soldier. Wyler's daughter Catherine produced the film which Monte Merrick (8 Seconds) adapted into a fictionalized screenplay that Michael Caton-Jones (The Jackal) directed. The film looks at the crew of the Belle and their dealing with their final flight, but secondarily a Lieutenant Colonel (John Lithgow, This Is 40) brought in to document and publicize their tour, runs into small opposition from the airfield commander, Colonel Harriman (David Strathairn, The Bourne Ultimatum).
The crew of the Belle is full of actors who have since gone on to be familiar to many. Dennis (Matthew Modine, Full Metal Jacket) is the Captain and perhaps the stodgiest of the bunch; his second in command, Luke (Tate Donovan, Argo), wants to do more for the crew but is also somewhat bored in his role. Danny (Eric Stoltz, Mask) is the radio officer and serves as the crew's spiritual center to a degree, while Clay (Harry Connick Jr., Dolphin Tale) is the tailgunner and an aspiring crooner. Val (Billy Zane, Titanic) is the bomber but learning to be a doctor, and his friend Phil (D.B. Sweeney, Taken 2) is the navigator but also has a sense of dread around the last mission. The remaining four members of the crew work in close quarters as gunners and frequently tease one another in one manner or another. Gene (Courtney Gains, Can't Buy Me Love) and Jack (Neil Giuntoli, The Shawshank Redemption) work on the sides of the plane, while Virgil (Reed Diamond, Homicide: Life on the Street) and Rascal (Sean Astin, The Lord of the Rings) work the top and bottom turrets. The crew has to take out a high value target in Germany for their final mission.
Memphis Belle looks like a production were the primary cast spent a chunk of time together and such, each knows the other's personal nuances and what to cater to, and what weaknesses to pick on as part of joking or teasing. This comfort each has with their character is immediate and requires little in the way of adjusting and gives the filmmakers a chance to avoid 20 minutes of exposition, focusing on the mission and the stresses involved. And each of the members of the crew has a scene or even two where they get a chance to shine.
While I enjoy the film I do admit it is not without fault, primarily the lack of focus within the second act. Memphis Belle during that middle third is a film where man confronts mortality or doubt of self, serves as mentor to the ill-destined newcomers on another plane for the trip, or pushes along with the bombing mission at hand. It is as if the film is a juggler trying to have as many balls in the air as possible yet always dropping one and starting over after three seconds. It tells its story somewhat halfheartedly.
Still, for as light and having a storybook type of feel that it has (you do know what is going to happen as the film plays out), the knack that Memphis Belle has of showing how the troops deal with vulnerability and how they play off of one another is something that I guiltily turn to because it is captured effectively for me. It may have been dwarfed by other, grander World War II productions made in the years since but I think that it broke ground that not many had seen in a war film at that point. Perhaps that is the legacy Memphis Belle possesses.
The AVC encode that graces this 1.85:1 widescreen transfer release is nice. Film grain is present through the film and whether it is the greens of the grass around the airstrips or the browns and blacks in uniforms, it all looks natural with little qualms over saturation or crushing. Image detail is decent through the film and does not suffer from any prolonged moments of DNR or smearing. All in the entire disc looks good.
I was partly looking forward to the DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track to see what it could bring to Memphis Belle but as it turns out, it does not do all that much. Sure, the subwoofer fires in some scenes and some channel panning is present in others, but it feels like its inclusion is a little more of a representative experience than an immersive one. Dialogue is consistent through the film, but directional effects are a little scarce. It is a solid soundtrack but dusted with some unfulfillment.
The big extra is the Wyler documentary (40:01), which was an old Motion Picture Unit, Armed Forces sponsored film. It is basically a shorter version of the feature, with lots of voiceover, sometimes dramatically told, read and captioned, and includes quick biographical notes of the crew. The trailer (1:41) completes things.
I think in showing how nervous and superstitious some of the troops in Memphis Belle were that it tended to be somewhat ahead of itself in that regard for other films in the genre, even if the principal story is the tiniest bit thin. Technically, the film looks good and sounds decent, despite my wanting it to sound better, and on the eve of a 25th anniversary, the lack of substantive extras is a mild letdown. Definitely worth checking out if one has not to this point.