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
I first saw this movie on video round about 1991, when I was about seven years old or so. I enjoyed it then, because it had airplanes in it, and there was nothing particularly offensive or difficult for a seven year old boy to understand.
Watching it again some nineteen years later, I'm struck by the exact same things. It's a very family-friendly war movie, earnestly trying to show us the difficult lives of American bomber pilots in Europe in 1943. The cast of characters come out of a guidebook for writing war movies, complete with The Religious One ("There's always a religious one," says John Lithgow's character), The Scared One, The Good-Luck Charm, The Smartass, and The Captain. The screenplay hits all the familiar notes: the crew pulling together for one last mission, overcoming obstacles, bonding as a surrogate family.
The actors all do a good job. Reed Diamond, Sean Astin, Matthew Modine, and Eric Stoltz are the most noteworthy (and how young they all were in 1990!), plus Lithgow and David Strathairn on the ground. Modine is almost funny as the straight-laced pilot who seems uncomfortably aware of just how boring he really is. Stoltz stands out in the thankless role of the all-around nice guy who gets wounded.
The flying scenes are exceptional. Real B-17s were filmed at real wartime airfields, and there's a bare-bones authenticity about a lot of it. The scenes inside the Memphis Belle, where most of the movie takes place, do an excellent job of showing you how cramped, cold, and noisy a place like that could be. Not to mention dangerous: the action scenes when German fighters attack the bombers flick by at a very fast pace, which must be something like what the bomber crews experienced. All this, of course, has been cleaned up for movie audiences: real bomber crews would never have taken off their oxygen masks or engaged in the lengthy conversations and horseplay featured in the film.
So it's a sincere and generally harmless movie, saturated in nostalgia, motivated by a desire to pay tribute to its subjects. That leads it into clichéd territory, leaving me with the feeling that the producers dusted off a screenplay dating to the 1950s, only adding a few lines here and there for modern audiences. Not entirely a bad thing, mind you, but not all that it could have been. Notable, however, is the total absence of the sort of flag-waving patriotism we've come to expect from period war films: there's nary an American flag in sight, and the film is dedicated to all the pilots and aircrews who lost their lives in the war -- not just the Allies.
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