This week’s pick is another salute to our WW II flyboys in Michael Caton-Jones’s Memphis Belle (1990). The film stars Matthew Modine (Captain Dennis Dearborn, Pilot), Tate Donovan (1st Lt. Luke Sinclair, Co-Pilot), D.B. Sweeney, (Lt. Phil Lowenthal, Navigator), Billy Zane (Lt. Val Kozlowski, Bombardier), Top Turret Gunner), Eric Stoltz (Sgt. Danny “Danny Boy” Daly, Radio Operator), Sean Astin (Sgt. Richard “Rascal” Moore, and John Lithgow (Lt. Col. Bruce Derringer, an Army publicist writing a story on the crew of the Memphis Belle).
The film is set in the spring of 1943 where American B-17 heavy bombers of the 8th USAAF have been practicing daylight strategic bombing for almost a year against targets within Hitler’s Fortress Europe. The crew of one bomber the Memphis Belle, are the first ever crew to successfully complete their twenty-fifth and final bombing mission before they are allowed to rotate home for R&R.
The film opens where the crew of the Belle are grounded due to their plane under repairs after their last severe mission. As the twenty or so planes from the group arrive back, personnel on the ground can see the battle damage inflicted on the bombers due to enemy guns and shrapnel from air bursts over the target. The last returning bomber’s landing gear is damaged and the plane crash lands on the field. They can hear the men on board screaming as they are trying to get out and then the plane explodes. The men look on as fire and ambulance crews respond to the fiery wreak.
John Lithgow (Lt. Col. Derringer) has a huge interest in the crew of the Belle and conducts personal interviews with each of them as a way to get their backstories and help to create strong images to help sell war bonds and to help on the home front as well. Col. Harriman (Strathairn) doesn’t approve of Derringer’s presence and feels that the exposure the crew of the Belle is receiving is unfair to the many crews who go up everyday and risk their lives for the war effort. Derringer plans a huge party after the Belle completes her final mission which the crew doesn’t know when or where yet.
Later that evening, a party is held for the crew and the men all look back and talk about the times they’ve spent together, about fallen comrades, and the prospects of engaging in sex with some of the young English ladies in attendance to the shindig. Virgil (Diamond) is constantly teased by his fellow crew member Rascal (Astin) who affectionately refers to him as “Virgin”. Virgil has the last laugh and spends possibly his last night on earth with a beautiful young women who returns his affections and is smitten with his inexperience with the ladies. The night is not so great for others such as Lt. Phil Lowenthal (Sweeney) who in a drunken stooper cries out that he doesn’t want to die tomorrow.
The next day, the officers report to an early morning debriefing where they are informed that their target is the industrial German city of Bremen which invokes fear and murmuring from the officers in attendance. When the news is reported to the Sergeants on board the bombers, they all begin to place odds on whether or not they’ll survive. The crew wait patiently around their planes due to fog which has blanketed the target.
The crew of the Belle sit around and converse, wishing to hurry up and get it over with. Tensions mount, and many of the crew begin to anger one another over waiting around for the inevitable. Danny (Stoltz) reads the crew some poetry as they wait and the profound words have a calming, serene effect. A jeep pulls up and tells Captain Dearborn (Modine) that he and the crew are to prepare to take off in five minutes.
The taxi formation of the bombers taking off from the airfield is wonderful. Close-ups on the bombers, their nose art and the bomber’s names share with the audience the different types of crews and the walks of life the men come from. One of my favorite shots in the film. The planes take off and once again the ground personnel look on and wonder, who will make it back again?
The twenty plus bombers fly to thirty thousand or so feet and join other bombing groups who are on the same mission to Bremen. Captain Dearborn calls out for radio and systems checks from the crew in order to make sure everything is functioning smoothly for their final mission. All the men talk over the intercom to one another and ask questions like what jobs they’ll pursue after the war, and what their futures will bring them.
The comedic dialogue and levity are broken when Genie (Gains) announces bandits coming low off of the horizon. Bomber escorts (P-51 Mustang fighters) try to intercept the German 109 fighters which have swooped down on the B-17 formations. The plane’s 50. Caliber heavy machine guns open up on the German fighters which have inflicted considerable damage to several lead planes. Virgil looks through the top turret and sees that the German planes performed a hit & run, and will attack again once they are over Germany.
More attacks ensue and many bombers take a heavy toll as they approach Bremen. After one attack, the plane Windy City explodes midair due to flack. The men on board the Belle talk about some of the men on the plane, yet they find it hard to remember most of their names. This is the common formula in many war films in which its hard for men to accept the fact that their fellows have been killed. One plane, Sea Cup takes lead formation in the bomb run and leads the group over the target. Shortly after another attack occurs, Sea Cup falls out of formation as the lead plane. The rest of the group now look to the Belle as they approach the bomb run over Bremen.
My favorite part of the film is the attack on Bremen and the amazing ordeal which awaits the crew of the Belle. As they pass over the target, Val (Zane) alerts Dearborn that he can’t see the target due to a heavy smoke screen. Luke (Donovan) argues with Dearborn to drop the bombs and for them to turn around before flack gets them. Dearborn tells the crew and group that they are going back around to the beginning of the bomb run in order to get a better view of the target and to avoid as many civilian casualties as possible.
Phil (Sweeney) is at the breaking point and fights with Val who has returned control of the plane back over to the pilot. As the second bomb run commences, the smoke screen lifts and Val releases his bombs as does the rest of the group. Now that the bombing mission is over, the Belle and the rest of the group must head back to England while trying to avoid German fighter retaliation in the process.
Memphis Belle was a huge commercial success in the fall of 1990 which generated twice what the movie was made for, (nearly twenty eight million dollars in the U.S. alone). The film used five real B-17 bombers (only eight in the whole world existed which were airworthy) for the production which was filmed in England outside of Lincolnshire, where many of the extras where actually RAF personnel.
The film is a wonderful representation of the thousands of young American men from all walks of life who sacrificed themselves in some of the bloodiest air battles in history. The end of the film is dedicated to all pilots of whatever nation, who fought and died in the skies over western Europe throughout the entire war.
Memphis Belle is available on DVD through Warner Bros. Home Video and can be rented via Netflix.