Shamedown #7: The Memphis Belle

Another month, another Shamedown. If anyone would like to know what a Shamedown is, please visit Cinema Shame here. Previous Shamedown posts can be found here.

memphis belle
The Movie Projector

The 1990 film, Memphis Belle, is fairly widely known. An ensemble piece starring Matthew Modine, Sean Astin, Harry Connick, Jr., D.B. Sweeney, Tate Donovan, and John Lithgow, among others, the film was produced by Catherine Wyler and followed the last mission of the titular B-17 before its retirement. It was slightly fictionalized, as the names of the crew members were all changed, and certain aspects of the story were condensed.

Less widely known, however, is the original 1944 film produced by Catherine’s dad, one William Wyler, for the War Department and distributed to the public by special arrangement with Paramount Pictures. Unlike the feature film, Wyler’s movie was strictly documentary, so much so that Wyler really put himself and his crew on the line to portray Memphis Belle: A Story of A Flying Fortress. Realism was Wyler’s byword, although there were still a few tweaks for clarity purposes. Also unlike the feature, Belle isn’t long on shock value, but the film makes the horrors and tensions of war very plain.

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William Wyler with dramatist Terrence Rattigan conferring about Memphis Belle. (American Air Museum in Britain)

One of the ways the film draws viewers in is via second person narration. Tom Wolfe was a big fan of this method, and B.P. Fallon also used it to great effect in his travelogue, U2: Faraway So Close, but it’s a little unusual to see it in a documentary. Second person ups the immediacy of the film, even for those who have no connection to bombers or the Air Force.

The film starts out by showing some of the preparations for the mission: checking the plane, making sure it’s loaded, and in the case of the pilots, co-pilots, navigators, and bombadiers, attending briefings. While the guys who were filmed seem very cool and confident, the narration makes it clear that these men felt fear: “Sometimes your face turns white when you find out {where you’re going.} Sometimes the feeling that you won’t come back tightens your insides.” It also emphasizes that these were young men, in many cases just out of high school. The crew of the Memphis Belle, like all companies, though, was a diverse group, of all educational levels, from all over the United States, and all mechanically inclined.

Memphis Belle Crew
The crew of the Memphis Belle. (HistoryNet.com)

Flying in bombers was a dangerous business even without enemy fire. First of all, the planes had to fly high enough so that the naked eye couldn’t see them coming, leveling off at 25,000 feet. Naturally, it gets cold at that altitude, around forty degrees Farenheit below zero, and crews had to bundle up. Since the cabins weren’t pressurized, the crew had to wear oxygen masks once they reached 10,000 feet, because the air becomes thinner and thinner from that point on.

the-memphis-belle-a-story-of-a-flying-fortress
Silver In A Haystack

The film outlines the battle plan for that day, and in a nutshell it’s this: Three squadrons head over to Germany, each bound for specific targets. The idea is to snooker the Germans into making bad guesses about Allied movements. When the Memphis Belle flew the mission portrayed in the film, there are approximately a thousand Allied planes involved. The Green and Red Squadrons were to draw fire away from the White Squadron (which the Memphis Belle was part of), and the mission’s main objective is to bomb the town of Wilhemshaven. The White Squadron is the only group to carry bombs.

When the Belle crosses over into enemy territory, they have to contend with thick fields of flak, but it’s not until they go to bomb their targets that they’re at most risk, because for obvious reasons they can’t dodge any fire from Nazi planes. Amazingly enough, the film calls the actual dropping of the bombs “the easy part.”

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This was taken aboard the plane used in the 1990 feature film. It was a later model than the real Belle, but it shows how vulnerable Wyler would have been filming next to the waist gunners.

According to HistoryNet, Wyler established himself by the waist gunners instead of at the front of the plane because he could get more vista. Having been on a B-17 myself, I totally understand this–the main cabins of these planes were relatively spacious, whereas the cockpits and the nose were naturally cramped. On the other hand, Wyler was exposed at this part of the plane because waist gunners had very little cover, but he would have known this going in. Like the crew, Wyler had a job to do, and the risk was merely a footnote.

Wyler was able to capture even more authenticity by having the Memphis Belle‘s crew shoot footage with 16mm cameras when they weren’t doing anything else, so when the pilot or co-pilot are shown, for example, it’s them filming each other. It makes perfect sense, because no one would have known the ship better than the pilots and crew. Wyler also included some of the crew’s conversation during the mission, although it was re-recorded later.

Back at the base, the other airmen and ground crews wait for the squadrons to return, and they count. The movie implies that twenty-nine out of thirty-six planes in the Memphis Belle‘s squadron came back, but doesn’t really confirm the number.

Molesw-hellsangels
The crew of the Hell’s Angels. (Wikipedia)

Bomber crews in the European theater of war were supposed to fly twenty-five missions over Germany, but the casualty rate was high–it’s estimated that America lost 160,000 airmen, or two out of three, during the strategic bombing phase of the war, and roughly 33,000 planes, or one in eighteen. The Memphis Belle wasn’t the only bomber to make it to twenty-five successful missions, and they weren’t the first, either–that distinction went to the crew of the Hell’s Angels, who were being filmed by Wyler’s second unit. What’s more, they reached their milestone in April of 1943, and the Memphis Belle‘s last mission took place in May. It’s unclear why the Memphis Belle got the accolades, though. Maybe Wyler’s film was still subject to Production Code rules, which would have meant that a name like Hell’s Angels was verboten. Another reason was that the Belle was the first to make twenty-five missions with its crew intact, which was certainly very unusual.

The other point about the film that was less than authentic was that while it appeared to be about a single mission, Wyler actually rode along on five. I guess they figured the routine was monotonous enough that no one would notice.

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The real Memphis Belle, partially restored. (General Aviation News)

After their final mission, the men of the Memphis Belle returned to the United States, first for a war bond tour, and then to train other bomber crews. Their plane has been undergoing a meticulous restoration, and as of May of this year been put on display at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. Wyler’s film, while not to-the-letter authentic, still reflects some of the dynamic of working in a bomber crew.

And another Shamedown down. Thanks for reading, everyone, and hope to see you tomorrow, when we’ll have the first of our Atomic Age Fridays!

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