Memphis Belle

by Craig Wallace

Featuring high-flying heroics and death-defying bravery, the fictionalized film Memphis Belle centers around the crew of an Air Force B-17 bomber and their last mission over Germany in World War II.

The bomber named the "Memphis Belle" attracted attention in 1943 when Hollywood director William Wyler served in World War II as a military filmmaker. While in Europe, Wyler flew five hazardous missions with the crew of the original "Memphis Belle." Armed with his footage of the plane and crew, Wyler created a popular 1944 documentary entitled, The Memphis Belle.

In 1990, a dramatic movie based upon the documentary takes a longer, in-depth, and personal look at the fears and emotions of the nine crew members facing the stress of their last bombing mission. If they complete their 25th mission, they will be furloughed back to the States. Outstanding performances by a stellar cast, including Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, and Harry Connick Jr., combine with amazing photography and stunning effects to create a heroic story of the "Memphis Belle." This much celebrated B-17, the only one to successfully complete 25 missions without loss of crew, is on display at Mud Island in Memphis, Tennessee. It is a fitting memorial to all the brave men who volunteered for the war effort in World War II.

As the movie begins, the crew is awaiting the return of other bombers from the daily raid. The audience is introduced to the crew by narrator, John Lithgow. The names used in the movie are fictional, but the characters closely resemble the actual crew members. As the story develops, a leitmotif emerges as crew members repeatedly display their superstitious fears about their last mission; they fear that they may not be successful. In fact, at a dance, John Lithgow's character rashly announces that the crew will be going on on their final mission and the crew immediately ask comrades not to cheer because "it's bad luck."

After receiving their orders, the crew members prepare to start their final raid. Most of the crew members hope for a "milk-run," but as fate would have it they are ordered to bomb a factory in Bremen. Before take-off, the weather halts the mission. The crew members relax for awhile, but then get the signal to go.

The target is an exceptionally difficult one, deep within Germany. It is in the middle of a civilian zone with a hospital, school, and playground nearby. The air battle is fierce and when clouds cause difficulty in viewing the target, the "Memphis Belle" is forced to circle and go through the air pattern again. After a close brush with death, the bombardier eventually see and bombs the target. The difficulty, however, is just beginning as the crew attempts to make it back to the base in England.

By now, the crew has one injured member, only two of three engines are running properly, and faulty landing gear threatens a safe landing. In true Hollywood fashion, the crew gets the landing gear down just before landing safely to a crowd cheering them home.

The Memphis Belle is a touching motion picture that engages the audience. Viewers will enjoy the 1990 version, but should also compare it to the 1943 documentary, which is excellent. Two works in print that readers will enjoy are The Memphis Belle by Menno Duerksen and Memphis Belle by Monte Merrick.