It's May 1943 at a US Army Air Corps base in England. The four officers and six enlisted men of the Memphis Belle - a B-17 bomber so nicknamed for the girlfriend of its stern and stoic captain, Dennis Dearborn - will soon start their twenty-fifth mission, having completed their previous twenty-four successfully with nary an incident, while fewer and fewer other planes are coming back from their missions at all. If they complete their next mission successfully, they will be the first Army Air Corps B-17 Crew to complete their tour of duty. Visiting communications officer Lt. Col. Bruce Derringer wants to publicize and highly tout their accomplishment, even before it happens, as a long term good news campaign at a time when there is little good news to report. Derringer's plan is against the wishes of the base commander, Col. Craig Harriman, who would prefer to treat the ten as any of his other hard working men. The previous success of the Memphis Belle is despite the disparate natures ... Written by
The traditional, patriotic World War 2 film was popular in both America and Britain throughout the fifties and sixties, long after the war itself was over. In the late seventies, eighties and early nineties, however, it went into something of a decline in both countries. In Britain, this was connected to a decline in the British cinema itself, which only occasionally had the financial resources and self-confidence to make pictures on a large scale. (The best British war film of the period was 'Hope and Glory', which concentrated on the Home Front rather than on actual combat).
In America, the decline of the war film probably had more to do with post-Vietnam syndrome which led to patriotic sentiment and the military being viewed for a time with some suspicion. There were a few disguised war films, such as 'Top Gun', which had modern American fighter pilots battling an unidentified enemy in a fictitious war, or the 'Star Wars' trilogy which, even if George Lucas disliked the analogy, was widely seen as either World War Two or the Cold War translated into outer space. Genuine war films, however, were few and far between, although there were a number of exceptions, and TCM recently broadcast two of these as part of the D-Day sixtieth anniversary celebrations, 'The Big Red One' from 1980 and 'Memphis Belle' from ten years later.
Of these two, 'Memphis Belle' is closer in style and in spirit to the traditional war film. Like many other war films it follows the fortunes of a small, tightly-knit group of fighting men. The group in this case is the crew of an American B-17 bomber based in England in 1943; the producer David Puttnam originally wanted to make the film about a RAF Lancaster bomber, but no British studio was interested and Hollywood has never taken much interest in the British war effort. The crew of the 'Memphis Belle' have already flown twenty-four successful missions; one more, and they will have completed their tour of duty (the first American crew to do so) and will be able to return home. (The name 'Memphis Belle' was taken from that of the first aircraft which completed twenty-five missions in real life).
The film follows the men on their twenty-fifth mission, an attack on the German city of Bremen. The raid is a difficult one; the bombers meet strong opposition from German fighters and anti-aircraft gunners, the plane is damaged and one of the crew is seriously injured. This leads to a tense finale which leaves the audience wondering whether the crew will be able to make it back to base. The main glory of the film lies in its exciting depictions of aerial combat, among the best ever filmed (although those in 'The Battle of Britain' made over twenty years earlier are also excellent). As in that film, the combat sequences in 'Memphis Belle' were achieved by the use of real aircraft and models rather than by computer-generated special effects.
We are introduced to each of the crew, each of whom is presented as a distinct and different personality- Dennis, the conscientious pilot and captain, the depressive Phil, Val the medical student who pretends to be far more knowledgeable than he really is, the poetic intellectual Danny, and so on. Trying to make each crew member an individual character in his own right was perhaps a mistake, as this meant that there are too many actors in leading roles for the viewer to concentrate on. The crewmen all emerge as half-formed characters with no fully-formed ones; it might have been better to concentrate on, say, four or five crew members and to tell their stories fully, with the others only playing supporting roles.
The film touches on the moral dilemmas of the bombing campaign rather more than earlier films on this subject might have done. Rather than take the risk of hitting a nearby school, Dennis insists on flying round (thereby increasing the risk of his aircraft being shot down) until he has a clear view of the intended target, a German aircraft factory. There is also a sub-plot involving a rather unpleasant Air Force officer who is eager to exploit the Memphis Belle and her crew for propaganda purposes, and his clashes with the base commander, who finds this distasteful and who is more concerned about the heavy casualties his unit is suffering.
These elements aside, there is little in the film that could not also be found in earlier films about the World War Two bombing campaign, such as 'The Dambusters' or '633 Squadron'. That does not, however, necessarily mean that the film is anachronistic, as some have complained. Fashions in film-making may come and go, but this cannot alter the fact that the Second World War provides innumerable examples of heroism and drama which are capable of being made the subject of a good film. That was as true in 1990 as it was in 1950 or 1960, and remains true even today. I myself found 'Memphis Belle' to be both exciting and, at times, moving; a fine tribute to the men whose bravery inspired it and a worthy addition to the corpus of war films. 8/10
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