In an era of affectation, the Hollywood war story became a main staple – part propaganda (encouraging young men to enlist), part sentimental pastiche to ma, apple pie and old glory, long may she wave. Arguably, there are as many stories about the ‘Great War’ as there were enlisted men; boys, actually – brave, foolhardy and full of ambition and ego; also crippling anxiety and bouts of abject fear, shaken in their faith and tested in their resolve. Such extremes build character, so they used to say. Without a doubt, they robbed the greatest generation of their youthful optimism. Today, you are a man, my son. God help you!
While those who remained behind were transfixed by stories of such heroism – glorified in LIFE and Look magazines, and, deified all out of proportion by the Hollywood machinery that made combat seem glossy and glamorous to keep the army/navy/marine gristmills humming with new recruits; only those young upstarts who actually became men overnight – and lived to tell about it after the war - knew the real price to be paid for freedom; never free and always questionable at the point of a gun. We’ve all heard this drill before. It still sounds appealing on the surface: no guts, no glory. Alas, too many guts spilled needlessly for the sake of honor tend to sully the notion of war as a gallant pursuit, fought for the noblest virtues; rather than a struggle of vices between nations.
The real story of the Memphis Belle is, arguably, a tale of old-time gallantry; a Boeing-built B-17F-10-BO that, by today’s aviation standards, was a rickety deathtrap, flying blindly into a caliginous horizon. She was delivered to Bangor, Maine in the fall of 1942, deployed to Prestwick, Scotland shortly thereafter, then later still, to Bassingbourn, England; destined to see some of the worst aerial combat before she lumbered home a bullet riddled wreck of her former self. That she came back at all is a minor miracle; one of all too few achieved by the Allies during the first part of the war. With the exception of its namesake, director Michael Caton-Jones’ Memphis Belle (1990) bears strikingly little resemblance to the misadventures of its real-life counterpart; the Hollywood machinery at large, and Monte Merrick’s screenplay in particular, still unable to set aside the mythologizing of WWII for the unvarnished truth.
No, Memphis Belle – the movie – is a glam-bam with a killer ensemble cast of then, virtual unknowns (mostly); many since gone on to have more promising careers. It’s a delicious notion; to take some bright-eyed newcomers and present them as the epitome of the all-American flyboys who set girls’ hearts (particularly those of a certain generation) aflutter. And purely as spectacle; Memphis Belle isn’t a bad movie. It’s just an abysmal mangling of actual history. Caton-Jones and Merrick have forsaken the real crew of the Memphis Belle for composite archetypes; every last one a ‘goodtime Johnny’ we can root for – but especially, when the chips are down.
There’s art house fav, Matthew Modine, rather miscast as Capt. Dennis Dearborn; to whom solemnity and perfectionism strike an uncompromising chord with the rest of his ten man crew. It wouldn’t hurt Dennis to smile; although he’s arguably forgotten how. Life back home is, after all, somewhat joyless; except for the girl he left behind, and, after whom the plane, presumably, has been christened. Predictably, Dennis has his rivals; notably, plucky 1st Lt. Luke Sinclair (Tate Donovan) who also happens to be his co-pilot. Luke’s a bit of a prima donna: what with good looks and an unspoiled outlook on life, breezing through on his charm and vanity. To hear Luke tell it, he should have been the Memphis Belle’s pilot. He’s just itching for a chance to show what he’s made of, although – as it just so happens – it isn’t the stuff of heroes either.
There’s also the Belle’s navigator, 1st Lt. Phil Lowenthal (D. B. Sweeney), a decidedly morose and edgy sort who nearly blows their entire mission with an impromptu attack of the nerves. Phil would make a good flyer, if only he could shake the morbid notion he’s about to die on every mission they’ve ever flown. He hates having his picture taken - done as part of an ill-fated PR campaign, pressed on by Lt. Col. Bruce Derringer (John Lithgow); unable, even to crack a smile or pretend he has anything but sullen contempt for the air force and the war. “Beggin’ yer pardon, sir, but what is there to smile about?” Phil inquires. And he’s absolutely right. War is hell…although no one would ever suspect as much from watching Memphis Belle. No, this movie is populated by some very marginal ‘clean cuts’ in bomber jackets who look more like the Allied propaganda poster art from the period than the actual guys who flew such missions at their own peril.
Take 1st Lt. Val “Valentine” Kozlowski (Billy Zane) as a good example; his slick quaff of jet-black hair neatly pressed beneath his cap and Gable-esque pencil-thin moustache (that’s where any and all comparisons between Zane and Clark Gable begin and end); Val double-duties as this Memphis Belle’s bombardier and doctor. There’s just one problem – Val was only two weeks into medical school when he was drafted. Like Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy in Gone With The Wind (1939); Val ‘don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ babies’…or anything else even remotely related to the medical preservation of human life. Not to worry, however. For although Val – like the others – will be tested, he’ll manage to do right by his limited knowledge and save the life of fellow crew member, SSgt. ‘Danny Boy’ Daly (Eric Stoltz); the Belle’s Radio Operator, hit by sniper fire and briefly left for dead before experiencing a miraculous in-flight resurrection.
Prior to the Memphis Belle’s final mission, Danny had regaled his crewmen with a listless poem, cribbed mostly from his heart-sore fatalism; his notebook (where he has presumably been toiling over the greatest sonnets since Shakespeare) actually filled with little more than scribbled notations; the dashed dreams of the Belle’s failed writer in residence. Danny’s major passion is photography, and he delights in taking pictures of his buddies. In this movie’s cardboard cutout tradition, Danny is therefore earmarked as the soul of the crew. While his mates razz a rookie airman into tossing his cookies in the latrine, Danny instead illustrates great compassion – or, at least, trivial empathy. After all, there’s less than six degrees of separation between the guy hugging the porcelain and the rest of them; ever so slightly toughened by experience. The veneer of bravery is decidedly thin. But only Danny seems to want to admit this.
The rest of the Belle’s crew is as follows: Reed Diamond as SSgt. Virgil Hoogesteger (Reed Diamond); nicknamed ‘Virgin’ (because, after all, he is) by Sean Astin’s pompous short guy cum lady’s man (yeah, right…like we believe that one); SSgt. Richard ‘Rascal’ Moore. Virge and Rascal have a love/hate bro-mance going on. Both fellas are forced to handle bigger guns; Virge as the Belle’s top turret gunner and flight engineer; Rascal, facing certain death when his ball turret repeatedly jams during a harrowing aerial dogfight. Monte Merrick’s screenplay gives us a bit of backstory on each of these boys, but they really are unrepentantly one-dimensional; Virgil’s aspirations to open a chain of restaurants across the country (remember, franchises were virtually unheard of until after the war – no McDonalds, or Burger King) repeatedly deflated by his fellow crewman. It makes for a running gag during the first half of our story. Mercifully, Merrick’s predictable screenplay allows Virge to ‘lose his cherry’ (as Rascal puts it) with Faith (Jane Horracks); a comely English lass of, presumably, some virtue and a lot of amorous experience, who helps Virge steam up the cockpit the night before the Belle’s perilous bombing raid over Bremer, Germany.
Finally, we have Courtney Gains’ right waist gunner, SSgt. Eugene McVey (Courtney Gains), and Neil Giuntoli’s left waist gunner, Sgt. Jack Bocci; a pair of non-descripts – necessary to the flight, though hardly the plot – and Harry Connick Jr.; transparently made the Sinatra wannabe as SSgt. Clay Busby; the Belle’s tail gunner who has his moment at the hanger dance, interrupting a particularly embarrassing moment for Bruce by serenading the room with ‘Danny Boy’, after Bruce proposes a toast and ‘hip-hip-hooray’ for the boy’s safe return even before they’ve left the ground. Silly Lt. Colonel…doesn’t he know – especially in movie-land terminology – this can all but seal the fate of the Memphis Belle?!? Not to worry. Monte Merrick’s screenplay knows all the clichés; most of them ensconced like storm signals along the misty horizon. I mean, when Merrick cannot even be faithful to the particulars of the Belle’s last mission (it was over Kiel – not Bremer) what hope is there for sincerity elsewhere?
At least Stuart Craig’s production design and Norman Dorme’s art direction aspire to verisimilitude; employing five genuine B-17s, heavily modified to resemble the earlier B-17F class, with P-51 Mustangs convincing subbing in for P-47 Thunderbolts – the actual fighters used in 1943. As no viable Messerschmitt Bf 109s were available, Craig and Dorme make the best of using Ha-1112s; the Spanish equivalent (similarly used in the 1969’s Battle of Britain). To fly these antiquated planes, producer David Puttnam sent out an open call, amassing an impressive roster of A-class pilots from the UK, America, France, New Zealand and Norway; all under the supervision of ‘Old Flying Machine Company’s father/son team of Ray and Mark Hanna.
Cast and crew shot most of the airfield footage at Binbrook in Lincolnshire, Craig and Dorme constructing a period control tower to augment the site, populating the surrounding area with vintage cars, Red Cross ambulance trucks and motor bikes. Finally, the extras were culled from current and former members of Britain’s Royal Air Force, the shoot eventually moving to Pinewood Studios for interiors; also to photograph models of B-17s for some of the more complex aerial special effects. Memphis Belle’s flying sequences have not dated well – the blue screen SFX looking fairly obvious; photographed under decidedly different lighting conditions than the live action footage. It’s easy to spot the juxtaposition of David Watkin’s full scale aerial photography with the process model shots concocted at Pinewood. Jim Clark’s editing makes a valiant attempt to cut away at precisely the moment the eye becomes suspicious.
Memphis Belle opens with a rousing main title by George Fenton, fading up on some fluffy white clouds nestled against the wild blue yonder. It’s a romanticized theme, interwoven throughout the rest of the narrative, and immediately revealing that any resemblance to the perils endured by these gallant lads and the movie’s depiction of them is purely coincidental. It’s May 1943, and the crew of this Memphis Belle is grounded at their RAF base with light repairs. It’s been a valiant run of twenty-four successful bombing raids across enemy lines. One more and these boys can go home. To pass the time, Capt. Dearborn and his men engage in a spirited game of touch football; the mood light-hearted and testosterone-injected.
Only airbase commander, Colonel Craig Harriman (David Strathairn) remains stoically less than optimistic; understanding all too well the death warrants he repeatedly signs every time he sends these men across the sea to do battle with the Nazis. Harriman comes in conflict with Army publicist, Lt. Colonel Bruce Derringer, who completely underestimates the potentiality for disaster. To him, the war is still about making men out of boys and heroes out of men; giving the public at home what they want to hear and see to bolster the sale of war bonds and raise recruitment levels back home.
The crew of the Memphis Belle holds a particular fascination for Derringer, who delights in setting up a LIFE magazine photo-op and interview with each of its members. Capt. Dearborn is apprehensive about informing his men of the prospect they are about to be made famous. He sees absolutely nothing extraordinary in any of their lives – except, they continue to tenuously hang on, despite the odds against them. Lt. Phil Lowenthal is even more reticent about posing for pictures. A cynic who believes he is tempting fate once too often by pretending at bravery, Lowenthal very reluctantly allows for a few photos, but staunchly refuses to cooperate in the interview.
On the other end of the spectrum is 1st Lt. Luke Sinclair; vain and self-serving. Luke’s used to lapping up more than his share of the attention back home; the bronzed Apollo of the beaches back home – a lifeguard to whom woman have readily thrown themselves at his head. Being co-pilot on the Belle really doesn’t suit Luke’s style. He would have much preferred Captain, or at least gunner – a real chance to satisfy his overweening ego. Luke loves the limelight and clashes with Dearborn over his decision not to tell the rest of the men about the LIFE magazine shoot. But Dearborn wants his crew clear-headed, free of distractions, and, ready to rumble.
Regrettably, the war hasn’t been going their way – not yet – the Allies sustaining considerable casualties. Of course, this has put a real damper on spirits back home. Some in the government have even begun to question the validity of daylight bombing raids. As Harriman and Derringer await the return of their latest airborne squadron, the Belle’s crew begins to get excited about the dance planned for that evening. Alas, the mood turns rancid when one of the returning B-17F’s experiences engine and landing gear trouble, making an emergency crash on the tarmac. The B-17F’s fuel tanks rupture and the plane bursts into a hellish ball of orange flame, killing everyone inside.
As the dance commences, the boys choose to set aside their anxieties and blow off some steam with a roster of hostesses and WAC’s brought in from the local village. Having had quite enough of fellow flyer, Sgt. Richard ‘Rascal’ Moore’s goading about his virginity, Sgt. Virgil Hoogesteger decides to take one of the gals back to the Memphis Belle’s cockpit, where the deed is, alas, committed under the old cliché of ‘this might be the last night of my life’. Lt. Val ‘Valentine’ Kozlowski leaves the dance to take a stroll around the darkened airfield, nervously shouting into the night sky that he doesn’t want to die. Back at the hanger, Derringer is spared the embarrassment of jinxing the Belle’s crew with a cheer by Sgt. Clay Busby, who instead serenades the attendees with a mournful chorus that morphs into a swing trot rendition of Danny Boy.
The morning after the party, the officers are debriefed. Their target is a munitions factory in Bremen, Germany. It’s easy to spot from the air, but surrounded by civilian homes, a church and a school. There’s cause for consternation, as Bremen was the target of another failed bombing raid, sacrificing a quarter of the squadron. After a temporary delay brought about by inclement weather, Capt. Dearborn is given the green light to prepare his crew for the mission, the Belle escorted on her tour of duty by some P-51 Mustang fighters. It isn’t long before the Belle and her cohorts are attacked by German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters. In the ensuing dogfight, several planes are lost and the Mustangs – low on fuel – turn away – leaving the bombers unattended for the rest of their mission.
Harriman and Derringer have harsh words after the latter prematurely authorizes the preparation of the mess hall for a victory celebration. Derringer accuses Harriman of only being concerned with advancing his own military career. In reply, Harriman forces Derringer to read a litany of compassionate correspondences he has written to the families of airmen killed in the line of duty. This sequence is heavy-handedly realized by Coton-Jones, and more than a tad distracting; dissolves and overlapping voiceovers, accompanied by grainy B&W footage of bombers engaged in battle. We get the point – some of these brave fellas are not going to live to see the end of the war. But the tenor of the moment is more forced than genuine, as is Derringer’s about face reaction to the experience of reading these letters in Harriman’s presence. Surely, he could not have been so obtuse for so long!
We return to the Memphis Belle; dense cloud formations forcing Capt. Dearborn to bypass his target and prepare another approach. Luke is incensed. Apparently, his definition of bravery only goes so far. And Dearborn’s call seems to be needlessly courting disaster and tempting fate. Nevertheless, Luke is both honor and duty bound to obey his captain’s wishes. When rear gunner, Clay Busby requests more ammunition, Luke takes it upon himself to enter the rear of the plane. Earlier, Busby had agreed to allow Luke his moment in the spotlight – to fire his gun and shoot down at least one Nazi plane; thereby satisfying Luke’s own grisly sense of honor. Regrettably, he gets such an opportunity when an advancing Messerschmitt engages the Belle. Luke’s aim is spot on. Tragically, the enemy plane he mortally wounds spirals out of control, slicing through the body of their wingman, containing the rookie pilot and crew.
The Belle takes the lead and drops its payload on Bremer, destroying the munitions factory. Unfortunately, another aerial assault takes out Rascal’s ball turret. Rascal survives – barely – thanks to being tethered by his safety harness. He is rescued by Phil who has recovered from yet another bout of paralytic fear. But Danny has been severely wounded. Phil begs Val to attend Danny’s wounds, forcing Val to confess he is not really a doctor – rather, a medical student who barely completed two weeks of studies before the draft. Nevertheless, Val is the only one who can save Danny. Momentarily, Val contemplates throwing Danny out of the plane with a parachute. Under military law, the Germans would be required to attend Danny’s wounds as a prisoner of war. Phil is reluctant to comply, however, as Danny is in and out of consciousness. He may pass out and fail to pull his ripcord. Val overcomes guilt and fear, at one point resuscitating Danny after he stops breathing.
Now, the Belle faces yet another obstacle – the failure of its landing gear. Low on fuel and heavily weighted, Capt. Dearborn orders his crew to toss their guns and ammo out the plane. Sgt. Eugene McVey frantically works to manually loosen the landing gear, narrowly escaping a perilous fall through the open bay. Virgil and Jack assist in the effort. But time is running out. Back at base, Harriman and Derringer await the Belle’s return. With each passing moment, it seems more unlikely anyone will make it back alive. Only now, Derringer has more than just his own shallow interests for publicity at heart. After a few nail-biting moments, Capt. Dearborn manages to narrowly avoid clipping the tops of some trees, the wounded Belle coming down with all her landing gear intact and rousing cheers from the waiting men on the ground. As the crew exit their badly battered plane, Danny is taken to hospital where, presumably, he will recover from his wounds; Capt. Dearborn cutting loose and saturating his crew with the bottle of champagne Danny had smuggled on board to celebrate their victory.
Memphis Belle isn’t awful, but it’s hardly engaging for more than a few moments at a time. Monte Merrick’s screenplay is riddled in clichés and hyperbole, rendering even the film’s dedication – to all the men who fought the aerial war – a rather moot point. This isn’t a story about what really happened; rather, what might have, had a Hollywood wordsmith taken hold of the scenario. To be clear; not all war stories on film are truthful. But at their crux, most exhibit a kernel of authority and respect for the actual events they’re attempting to depict. Memphis Belle just doesn’t seem to bear up to that level of authenticity. It has the superficial appearance of truth without actual fidelity to the historical record.
On the other hand, it is refreshing to see American airmen depicted as just that – men, of a certain age and immaturity who, nevertheless, rose to the occasion when their country called. The definition of gallantry has changed. It isn’t extraordinary people achieving unfathomable goals, but rather ordinary individuals finding a level of extraordinary courage from within, reacting altruistically to circumstances beyond their control.
The cast is competent, but just that. It isn’t entirely their fault. We don’t really get to know these guys as we should; again, Merrick’s screenplay giving us one or two lines meant to take the place of carefully paced character development. When the movie deigns to try and evolve its characters beyond cardboard cutouts, Memphis Belle begins to hint at aspiring to be a better movie than it actually becomes. What’s lacking here is a general appreciation for delineating between characters. The montage of interviews done for LIFE magazine are supposed to give us backstory and insight, when all they actually do is establish the most threadbare outline on which the audience is expected to hang the rest of its personal investment in these men who may not live to see another day. Bottom line: there are better war movies out there than Memphis Belle.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is more than competent, but also a tad problematic. David Watkin’s soft textured cinematography is understated; partly to create a ‘historical’ look; also to conceal the blue screen SFX. This is decidedly an upgrade from Warner’s old 1998 DVD, which wasn’t even enhanced for 16:9. Fine detail is wanting in long shots, although superbly rendered in medium and close-ups. Grain also tends to be more exaggerated in long shot. The color palette – with very few exceptions - favors the earth tones. While no artificial sharpening or edge effects are present, there is some minor image instability. Alas, color balancing also appears marginally off.
Flesh tones, as example, can appear pinkish in one shot and garishly orange in the next – not from scene to scene, but from shot to shot. Warner’s anemic bit rate, 22.5 GB on a BD-50 for this transfer, appears to have been a concession to accommodate William Wyler’s vintage documentary on the real Memphis Belle. Perhaps….but the doc is in abysmal shape, suffering from severe color fading. It’s obvious nothing’s been done to remaster this vintage doc for inclusion herein. Originally released in theaters in Dolby Stereo, Warner has upgraded Memphis Belle’s audio to DTS 5.1. We’re limited by the source material. Hence, the new 5.1 never opens up the sound field. Dialogue and effects are adequately integrated, so, no complaints here. Extras are limited to the aforementioned doc and the movie’s original theatrical trailer – a fairly lousy marketing ploy.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)