As we all know, a big part of the Second World War was each side bombing the other for various purposes. Britain and the United States tagteamed their bombing of German war production sites; the Brits went at night, but the Americans chose to drop their bombs during the daytime. Both actions were risky, but daytime bombing was vastly moreso. Roughly two out of three American airmen were killed, so many that bomber missions were limited to twenty-five per crew.
The first crew to make twenty-five with all its members intact was the Memphis Belle. William Wyler filmed a documentary about them (read my review here), and almost fifty years later, his daughter, Catherine, produced the 1990 ensemble film of a fictionalized Memphis Belle crew and mission. The story takes place over two days and is a study in Murphy’s Law.
It all opens on the airfield, where the other flyers, including the Belle‘s crew are playing football and waiting for the bombers to come back from the day’s mission. John Lithgow’s trademark dry twang introduces us to the crew, and they’re all types. There’s lady’s man, Rascal (Sean Astin), lifeguard Luke (Tate Donovan), farmer and cat house crooner Clay (Harry Connick, Jr.), doctor Val (Billy Zane), bundle of nerves Phil (D.B. Sweeney), reform school grad Jack (Neil Giuntoli), devout Catholic Eugene (Courtney Gains), future restauranteur Virgil (Reed Diamond), Irish American Danny (Eric Stoltz), and the unfailingly serious Captain Dennis Dearborn (Matthew Modine).
Everyone’s mood changes from elation to horror when the last bomber to come back only has two wheels down and blows up from the friction. There’s nothing to do but clear the field and clear out the deceased’s belongings of anything embarassing, like porn, or perishable, like chocolate, before it’s sent back to the States.
Public relations officer Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Derringer (John Lithgow) is getting the Belle’s crew ready for a spread in Life Magazine and a bond tour. He’s promised these guys will be wined, womened, and songed from one end of the country to the other. It sounds great, but Dennis doesn’t want the crew to know until afterwards because they need to concentrate on their jobs, especially since their target is the very tricky Bremen.
At the dance that night almost everyone deals with their fears in one way or another. Phil is totteringly afraid and knocks back one drink after another. Danny keeps taking everyone’s pictures. Rascal tries to pick up a pretty English girl, but Virgil has better luck when he describes his method of making hamburgers to her. And almost everyone kids the rookie crew of the Mother and Country, who are about to go out for their first real mission.
The highlight, although not an unpredictable one, is when Clay gets Derringer out of an awkward attempt at cheering by singing “Danny Boy.” It’s Harry Connick, Jr., of course, so naturally it’s a great moment. In sharp contrast, Phil is outside screaming at the moon. Val has to go find him the next morning and shove him through a quick hangover cure, which gets a bit gross, but we won’t go into that.
The Belle’s mission is delayed by weather, which means everyone has to sit around and wait for things to clear. Danny regales the group with some poetry (Spoiler alert: It’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” by W.B. Yeats, only it leaves out four lines) and in the hush that follows the group finds out they can take off.
The Memphis Belle‘s last mission is not exactly a routine flight. Among other obstacles, equipment acts up, fuel has to be pumped by hand from engine to engine, a crew member sitting in for another results in horrific consequences for one of the other bombers, nerves are strained to the breaking point, and they keep having to make passes over the target because there’s too much cloud cover for accuracy. There’s not much question of whether or not the Memphis Belle will get back, but in what state they’ll come back is the movie’s question.
Memphis Belle is a movie I’ve grown up on. Sure, it’s predictable, but it was also kind of an eye-opener. If anyone has only seen Production Code-era World War Two movies, it can be a little jarring and unbelievable to hear these guys spouting the uncensored version of SNAFU, but that’s closer to how it really was. The movie is more accurate than it’s given credit for, using original planes and building sets from original B-17 plans. The cast and crew even spent three weeks filming at Duxford Royal Air Force Base, which had recently been abandoned but is now an active airfield and museum. Even though the Belle actually flew out of Bassingbourne, Duxford had the right look and was pretty much intact.
Well, the film was accurate in most respects, anyway. There were still a lot of vets around in 1990, including eight of the ten members of the Memphis Belle‘s crew. Robert Morgan, who piloted the bomber, enjoyed the film, but according to Entertainment Weekly, chuckled at its long series of unfortunate events: “Those guys had more things happen to them in that one mission than happened to me in my whole tour.”
Amazingly enough, the plane that stood in for the Memphis Belle, which was originally a training plane, is still operational, although it doesn’t fly anymore as of 2020. The insurance costs are really high, plus the parts have to be manufactured by hand, and the owner, David Tallichet recently passed away. It’s one of only thirty-five B-17s left in the world. Currently, the plane sits in the Kissimmee Gateway Airport and its future is uncertain, although Tallichet’s family is firmly committed to preserving the plane.
I was very excited and fortunate to tour the plane when it came to Sacramento in 2013, and the whole experience was a mix of “Sean Astin sat there,” and “Harry Connick, Jr. sat there,” and “D.B. Sweeney walked there,” plus gratitude for what these bomber crews were able to do. We were also able to see the plane fly, which was an oddly familiar adventure. I’ve heard the sound of the B-17 engine so many times that to be there when one took off and flew right over my head was almost home-y, and since the engines had to rev up and the plane taxied for what felt like forever, there was a lot of time to savor the experience. It reminded me of the Doolittle Raid, when the B-25s didn’t have time or space to rev or taxi.
What was also cool is that there was a man there who helped build bombers at the Boeing factory in Seattle, and the women who were with him giggled when I thanked him for his service. The way he smiled at me, though, said he understood. These were beautiful airplanes, we certainly wouldn’t have won the war without the people who built them, and what these bomber crews did was incredible.
The real Memphis Belle is also preserved, but barely so, as it sat outside for many years and was picked over for souvenirs. It’s even rarer than its movie counterpart, being only one of three B-17Fs left in the world, and is a treasured exhibit at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
Memphis Belle may not be a groundbreaking or surprising film, but it did what Catherine Wyler hoped it would, which was take the audience on a B-17 mission that many flyers never returned from. In that sense, especially as time keeps passing and survivors keep passing on, it’s an uniquely valuable experience.
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