“Memphis Belle” is a war movie directed by Michael Caton-Jones loosely based on the WWII war documentary by William Wyler. How loosely based will soon be apparent. The movie was co-produced by Wyler’s daughter Catherine. It cost $23 million and made $27 million. That’s one million dollars per historical error.
The movie is set in the summer of 1943 at an air base in England. An Army public relations officer, Lt. Col. Derringer (John Lithgow), is there to inspire the home front with a story about the first B-17 crew to complete the 25 missions tour. He introduces us to the men via voiceover. They are a melting pot of American warriors. A heterogeneous unit – imagine that. The enlisted consist of a virgin, a reform school graduate, a Catholic boy, a ladies’ man, a farm boy, and a poet. The Captain is a clean-cut and by the book. His co-pilot is the opposite. The bombardier had four years of medical school, or so he says. The navigator is morose and cowardly. According to Derringer, the American public is questioning the idea of daylight bombing. Since the Memphis Belle is undergoing repairs, the crew has a front row seat for a crash landing that ends up in disaster. Could this be a portent?
The next scene is a big dance in a hangar which is a pretty good period piece with 1940s clothing and British birds. There is a chanteuse crooning Swing music and lots of jitterbugging. In an homage to 1940s Hollywood, Clay (Harry Connick, Jr.) gets on stage to sing “Danny Boy”. This reminded me of Ricky Nelson in “Rio Bravo”. The morning briefing explains that the target is Bremen. It is emphasized that the factory is surrounded by a hospital, school, residential area, and petting zoo (I added that last one). Thank God we had precision bombing which if applied properly would avoid hitting anything but the factory.
Montage of preparation – arming, fueling, etc. There is a delay in take-off so Danny (Eric Stolz) can recite one of his poems ( actually “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” by W.B. Yeats ). Nice touch, Danny Downer. The take-off is majestic with appropriate music. Cinematic magic turns the five available bombers into at least eight and CGI into more for the formation shots. The mission is the kitchen sink of anything that could possibly happen to a bomber in WWII Europe plus a few that could only happen in a Hollywood film. Perhaps a list would make this clear.
1. The Memphis Belle almost collides with another B-17 in a cloud. This movie would have sucked if the collision would have occurred!
2. A small number of German fighters (actually Spanish Ha-1112’s masquerading as Me-109’s) attack and then run away so we can move on to the next problem.
3. The lead bomber is shot down so the MB has to take the lead. How cinematically convenient!
4. There is a hole in the wing which causes them to lose a lot of fuel. Start the clock.
5. The target is obscured and Capt. Deerborn makes the decision to bring the entire squadron back around to avoid hitting the petting zoo.
6. Rascal’s (Sean Astin) ball turret gets shot out from under him and he is left dangling.
7. There is a fire on board.
8. Danny is wounded and only med school volunteer Val (Billy Zane) can save him.
9. A fire in an engine forces Deerborn to crash dive to put it out.
10. One wheel won’t come down (hey, isn’t that what happened to the crash-landing bomber from the opening?)
11. The fuel runs out so they are down to one engine.
12. Virge almost falls through the bomb bay.
Here is another list – clichés in “Memphis Belle”.
1. There are command issues between Deerborn and his co-pilot Luke (Tate Donovan).
2. Virge talks about his future plans of opening a chain of hamburger joints.
3. Virge has sex in the plane.
4. The crew rags some rookies from “Mother and Country” – can I have your stuff when you get shot down? Ha! Ha!
5. Phil (D.B. Sweeney) thinks his number is up.
6. The ground crews wait for the bombers to return and count them as they do.
This is one of the corniest war movies ever made. At one point, Deerborn talks to the “Memphis Belle” in a schmaltzy and wooden way. Wooden would be the best description of Modine’s performance. The rest of the cast reminds of “Platoon” in its potential, but does not stand up to the comparison well. The script does not help them. The dialogue is sappy and the performances are too sincere. After bombing the target (perfectly), Deerborn says “Okay boys, we’ve done our job for Uncle Sam, now we’re flying for ourselves.” Modern actors dropped into a cliché-ridden 1940s war movie plot. They did buy into it and I bet some of them are embarrassed by their participation. I imagine they had fun filming it and it sure was more pleasant for them than the “Platoon” cast. No boot camp for these pretty boys.
The effects are a mixed bag. The five B-17s add a lot of authenticity (one of them was destroyed in a take-off when it clipped a tree and burned completely). The interior of the bomber looks like the real deal and the routines are proper. The air combat is fine with decent radio chatter (unlike “Red Tails”, to name but one). There’s lots of action which fits the goal of mindless entertainment. Unfortunately, the CGI is inferior and jarring. The word “fake” comes to mind. One bit of corn that works effectively is narration of some letters from relatives of lost men over actual footage of bombers going down.
In conclusion, “Memphis Belle” is the “U-571” of air combat movies. Corny. Cliché-ridden. Predictable. Tactically farcical. More importantly, I would describe both of them as obstacle porn. A continuous string of problems to be overcome by the heroes. If you are into that kind of entertainment and could care less about accuracy and realism, break out the pop corn and turn off your brain.
“Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress” is the celebrated documentary about the first bomber to complete 25 missions in the 8th Air Force. It was directed by William Wyler (“The Best Years of Our Lives”) who at the time was a major in the U.S. Army Air Forces. He bravely flew on several missions and ended up losing hearing in one ear. One of his cinematographers was killed in action. Wyler won best documentary for “The Fighting Lady” which was about an aircraft carrier.
His “Memphis Belle” is in Technicolor which must have enhanced the message intended by Wyler. The purpose of the documentary was to bring the air crew experience home to the home front and inspire the public at a time when support for the bombing campaign was waning. The narration is very propagandistic and anti-German. Where the movie is dedicated to all the airmen who fought in the skies over Europe, Wyler dedicates his film to only the 8th Air Force.
The doc covers the last mission from briefing to kissing the ground on return. The basic arc is used in the movie, but obviously the 1990 reenactment adds a lot of Hollywood. The doc does take a few liberties of its own. The MB was not the first bomber to complete 25 missions. It was chosen early on as the potential first because Wyler felt that Capt. Robert Morgan had a reputation for competency (and survivability) and he liked the name of the bomber (Morgan’s girl-friend). Ironically, the back-up plane in case the MB did not make it (Hell’s Angels), actually won the race to go home after 25 missions. As far as the last mission, in the doc it is against Wilhelmshafen and is fairly hairy. The flak and fighters variety. Most of the footage seen in the film (parts come from at least six other missions) was shot on a B-17 named Jersey Bounce because the MB was under repair. It was the MB crew on board, however. Speaking of which, none of the characters in the movie match the names or backgrounds of the actual crew. Most importantly, the last mission of the MB was a milk run (against submarine pens at Lorient, France) which would have been boring for a documentary and death to a feature film. Wyler was a Hollywood director, after all. It does strike me as a bit unethical for a documentarian. The documentary is much better quality than the movie, but you have to get past the jingoistic narration.
MOVIE = C
DOCUMENTARY = B