Memphis Belle was originally conceived by its producer, David Puttnam, as a film about a British aircraft bomber and its crew but the film was transformed by its American financial backers into a story of "the youthful crew of a celebrated American B-17 Flying Fortress". Puttnam lamented the fact that because of this a British story could not be told in the way he had conceived it and in all probability would now never be told."
There are only five real B-17 flying in the movie. Two were flown in from the US, two came from France, and one was already based in England. One of the French airplanes crashed during filming. Although everyone onboard survived, the aircraft was a total loss in the post crash fire. Only one of the airplanes was a genuine F-model, like the real Memphis Belle, accurate to the time the story is set. All others were G-models, that came later in the war. Two different airplanes played "Memphis Belle" during the movie, one of which is in real life named Sally B.
The plane which portrayed the Belle in the movie is actually a converted B-17G, while the real Belle is an F Model. The G Model has a chin turret, which was removed for the film and for the subsequent appearances made at airshows around the United States. The plane is owned by David Tallichet, who has repainted the plane to match the real Memphis Belle (the Warner Bros. paint scheme is not accurate, thus avoiding any legal concerns over duplicating the earlier scheme). Forgotten in the post-war rush to disarm, the real "Belle" was rescued off a salvage yard at Altus, Oklahoma in 1946 by an alert Memphis citizen who convinced the city fathers to reclaim the bomber before it was scrapped. The "Belle" was displayed at several locations in Memphis from 1948 to 2003, and was then transported to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in October 2005 for restoration and eventual display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
The pilot of the real Memphis Belle was Robert K Morgan. After reaching the rank of Lt. Col. he lead the first B-29 formation over Tokyo. The name of Morgan's B-29 was "Dauntless Dotty". The mission was the first bombing of Tokyo by US bombers since the Doolittle raid of April 1942.
The real Memphis Belle has been restored and was displayed at Memphis, Tennessee from 1987 to the present. In 2004, it was to be sent to the Air Force Museum outside Dayton, Ohio to be part of its WWII display, but several congressmen from Tennessee put a hold on the move. In September 2005 it was decided to move the Belle to Dayton as originally planned after the organization that took care of it decided they could no longer afford to do so.
The navigator of the real Memphis Belle was Charles Leighton. From Flint Michigan, he retired as a teacher and counselor. He saved the Belle and more B-17's after identifying false German radio beacons designed to lure unwary B-17s into harms way.
The bombardier of the real Memphis Belle was Vince Evans. Hollywood writer for Bogart, friend of Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Stewart, June Allyson. Restaurant operator, race car driver. Completed 2nd tour of duty aboard B-29's with Morgan in the Pacific.
The ball turret gunner of the real Memphis Belle was Cecil Scott. From Altoona, PA. "From down there I could see everything." He fired at a great many German fighters and achieved one "Damaged" credit. Retired from Ford Motor Company after 30 years.
Joe Giambrone was the crew chief of the "Belle". He kept the Belle Flying through six months of combat. Replaced nine engines, both wings, two tails, both main landing gear, and more. From Hulmeville, Pennsylvania, he retired as Construction Co. Office Manager.
The church seen in the movie is a two-sided prop. It represents the Little Stukeley church close to Bassingbourn airfield (original site of 91 BG) and was added as a link to the Wyler's documentary of 1943. Further links include the farmer with horse-driven machine and the man with harmonica sitting on a bomb trolley. Since Bassingbourn was still operated by RAF, filming was done at Binbrook, recently vacated by the RAF. Modern facilities were hidden from cameras or dismantled. New "old" control tower was built.
There was originally a part written for the Memphis Belle's ground crew chief called "Les". He had a number of scenes with the Captain detailing the condition of the plane etc. The actor remains in the film, and is listed in the credits, but keeps only one line: "It's only got one wheel down." He is not specified as the crew chief of the Belle at any time in the finished cut, meaning his one line makes him look like a glorified extra.
The Sally B, one of two B17s portraying the Belle in the film, is the last airworthy B17 in the UK. She is based at RAF Duxford, Europe's premier aviation museum, and is part of the USAAF WWII Memorial Flight making dozens of appearances across the UK and North Europe. She is maintained and run by volunteers and relies solely upon donations.
The film's opening prologue reads: "In the Summer of 1943, a fierce battle raged in the skies above Europe. Everyday, hundreds of young airmen faced death as they flew their bombing raids deep into enemy territory. Fewer and fewer were coming back."
The Memphis Belle was named for Margaret K. Polk of Memphis, TN. Although she and Robert K. Morgan broke off their engagement after his returning to the US, they remained friends for life. Polk died April 5, 1990. Her obituary, titled "The Memephis Belle, Margaret Polk, dies", appeared April 6, 1990 in the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal. It runs almost 23 column-inches.
In the movie, the last mission of the "Memphis Belle" is a daylight mission flown on 17 March 1943. The Dam Busters (1955) is about an RAF mission that was flown on the preceding night, 16/17 March, 1943.
The real Memphis Belle is an early-production B-17F model. The aircraft used to portray the Belle in the movie is a B-17G modified to look like an F. To do this the chin turret (used on G-models and the last 100 F-models) was removed, the "football" radio antenna under the nose was moved forward, and the enclosed waist- and radio gunner positions were replaced with the open windows found in F-model B-17s. However, the top turret is still the "high-roof" type of a B-17G, and the nose perspex window is a non-ribbed single piece with no guns mounted in it. All B-17Fs had at least one mount for either a .30- or .50-caliber machine gun in the perspex window (many had more than one, the actual Belle has two .30s), while the Gs mounted two .50-cals in the chin turret instead.
The aircraft's appearance is not exactly like the actual Memphis Belle. The nose art, style of the bomb markers indicating completed missions, group ID markings (DF-A), and tail number (124485, USAAF serial number 41-24485) are accurate. The script font of the plane's name is different from the original, which uses plain yellow block letters. The plane in the movie has a fairly clean OD green/sky gray paint job (USAAF standard in 1943), while the real Belle had a more mottled finish at the time due to fresh paint being applied over patched bullet and shrapnel holes (this is sometimes mistaken for a camouflage pattern).
Bombardier 1Lt. Val Kozlowski (Billy Zane) is depicted looking through the Norden bombsight and releasing the bombs with the salvo switch when he sees the target in the crosshairs. In real life, the lead bombardier would find the target in his sight long before the release point, lock his sight onto the target, enter all relevant data on the bombs and known crosswinds, and then the sight would fly the plane to the release point and drop the bombs automatically. Bombardiers on other planes would hit their salvo switches when they saw the lead bomber drop their bombs. If done right, the system was capable of pinpoint accuracy. In combat conditions however, unrecognized crosswinds, battle damage to the autopilot system, and turbulence from flak bursts could all affect accuracy. As a result, some targets were hit perfectly, while other were literally missed by a mile.
The footage that plays while LtCol. Derringer reads Col. Harriman's letters is actual film footage from USAAF combat photographers and Luftwaffe gun cameras. It shows B-17s and B-24s in combat, usually taking heavy damage or being shot down.