Once more unto the breach of history and film with Memphis Belle (1990). It is one of the first modern movies I can remember that I saw as a young ‘un and enjoyed. I was naïve. Outside of the name of the B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft and the fact that it flew twenty-five successful missions, the first to do so, very little of this took place. As usual, this is simply par for the course for Hollywood. At the same time, this is not to say that the film is without value. It is more about the experience of being in a B-17 over Germany at a point in the war when the Luftwaffe could still put of a stiff resistance to the Allied bombing campaign. Furthermore, even though the ultimate bombing run of the title plane took place at night, the Americans carried out their missions mostly during the day as seen in the film. As you might be able to tell from a plane called a “flying fortress,” these were flying machines that were difficult to miss when flying alone, never mind in the huge formations sent over Europe. It is remarkable that any survived one mission, let alone twenty-five.
We are introduced to the fictional crew (they changed their names, for some reason) of the Memphis Belle right away. There are too many to focus on, so I will introduce them as we go along. The rank-and-file members are out near the landing strip when the latest flight of bombers sent to drop their payload on target across the English Channel begin returning to their base in England. The ragged condition they land in is a stark reminder of the dangers they face. Watching from the control tower is Colonel Craig Harriman (David Strathairn), who anxiously counts them as they arrive, painfully noticing losses. In the midst of this tense situation enters the exuberant Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Derringer (John Lithgow). He has been sent by the Army to prepare a celebration for the crew of the Memphis Belle, who are about to complete their twenty-fifth mission. It is clear that Colonel Harriman wants nothing to do with these proceedings. The only reason he listens at all to the junior officer’s requests is because there is the promise of the benefits of the plane’s success. Lieutenant Colonel Derringer envisions a big publicity tour back in the United States, which will sell many war bonds. In the lead up to this, the officers on board are interviewed separately. The no-nonsense pilot, Captain Dennis Dearborn (Matthew Modine) is joined by navigator, Lieutenant Phil Lowenthal (D. B. Sweeney), in being uncomfortable with the attention. On the other hand, co-pilot, Lieutenant Luke Sinclair (Tate Donovan), and bombardier, Lieutenant Val Kozlowski (Billy Zane), eagerly anticipate the promised fame they are assured to receive once they return to their country. It is Lieutenant Lowenthal who has the most trepidation. He is convinced that one more bombing run is going to end in his death. Thus, during the on-base dance the night before they are set to fly, he proceeds to get as drunk as possible. The next morning, hoping to avoid having to go out with the rest, he appears severely hammered. It is his best friend and the person serving closest to him on the plane, Lieutenant Kozlowski, that finds the befuddled navigator. Lieutenant Kozlowski helps sober up Lieutenant Lowenthal, and together they go to breakfast and subsequent briefing. Here, they find out that they will be tasked with destroying a factory deep in the heart of Germany, which fills them with a sense of dread. Nonetheless, they obediently go to their plane, endure a delay due to weather, and take off. Along the way, they are met with German fighters sent to shoot down the bombers before they reach their target. For part of the flight, they are assisted by friendly fighter planes sent to defend their formation. Unfortunately, their range does not match those of the B-17s, and eventually they are on their own. The next obstacle is anti-aircraft flack fired from the ground that commences as they get closer to their target. Their mission is made more complicated when, while looking through the sights, Lieutenant Kozlowski cannot see the factory due to cloud cover. This causes them to pass over, forcing Captain Dearborn to make the decision to send the formation back around for another try. This time, the target fortuitously appears from behind the clouds, and it is bombs away. Now comes the hard part: getting home. More planes are lost, and the Memphis Belle’s belly gunner, Staff Sergeant Richard “Rascal” Moore (Sean Astin), is nearly killed when his ball turret is ripped away. Another attack leaves the radio operator, Staff Sergeant Danny “Danny Boy” Daly (Eric Stoltz) severely wounded. Also, the plane has taken a lot of damage, and is left with two functional engines during the home stretch. The lack of power leads to them falling behind the rest, and there is trepidation back at base that they did not make it. Fear not, for they do, hand cranking out the final wheel just before touchdown. We leave our heroes at this point.
Memphis Belle is more about heroism of performing these missions rather than the historical fact of the title plane. Many bombing crews lost their lives early in the war, and the film humanizes their experience. Still, I am not sure why they had to pick such a legendary aircraft. Lieutenant Colonel Derringer’s planned celebration of the crew may have been fictional, but famed Hollywood director at that time, William Wyler, did a documentary on their exploits. Hence, it is not like they picked an obscure story to tell. What should be appreciated, though, is the way the film shows each crew member dealing with what they are facing. They all do their duty, though with varying degrees of dread. The one coping mechanism they all seem to have in common is in believing that luck has something to do with their survival. Of particular interest for this reviewer is the one avowed Catholic on the crew, Staff Sergeant Eugene “Genie” McVey (Courtney Gains). He carries with him a St. Christopher medal, who is the patron saint of travelers. My Catholic readers will no doubt be familiar with this practice. It is his attitude towards it with which I quibble. When his fellow waist gunner, Sergeant Jack Bocci (Neil Giuntoli), seemingly throws Genie’s medallion out of the plane during their mission, Genie is despondent until Danny Boy offers a lucky rubber band. The time and place that God wants to take us unto Himself is not a matter of luck. This is Catholic Catechism 101, so much so that I wonder why they bothered having Genie be a member of the Faithful. I understand the superstitions that can arise. However, God has power over all situations, and when it is time, as they say, it is time. There should be peace in this, although this is admittedly easy to say having never been so close to a life and death moment. I just pray that I can face it as God would like.
I found Memphis Belle on Amazon Prime, if you are interested. There are certainly better World War II movies, though it is not bad. It has a curious relationship with its history, though the dangers it depicts are perhaps a close approximation thereof. Just be thankful that we do not have to face such dangers ourselves, and I pray that we never will.