by Burl Burlingame
Nov. 9, 1990
It was a serious war, World War II — the big time, the major leagues. Americans who fought it were convinced they were all that stood ground before the forces of darkness. They had to win. Otherwise, evil would seize the planet. It was worth any sacrifice.
That’s wildly simplified, but any strategist from von Clauswttz to Giap will tell you that soldierly motivation is indispensable to victory. If a soldier believes in a purpose higher than his paycheck, he’ll fight not only to win, but to crush the enemy absolutely.
It was true in World War II. It was also the last time American citizens were united in what they felt was a noble cause, a great tide that swept the world. There’s a substantial difference between beating back fascism and in pounding on an impoverished nation on the other side of the world, which is essentially what we did in Vietnam.
The path of history was altered because of American dedication in the ’40s. There were countries that suffered higher losses — Russia was nearly wiped out in the process — but the crucial difference was that these nations were fighting for their existence. Americans didn’t have to get involved. They did it because they felt it was right. The attack on Pearl Harbor was just the starter’s pistol.
It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. It matters what the soldier believes.
This is a roundabout way of getting into the movie “Memphis Belle,” the World War II bomber saga now playing in local theaters. It’s not a great movie. It’s awkwardly paced, has moments of extremely false notes, and some of the special effects are frankly terrible. It does, however, cross thresholds rarely encountered in movies about the war.
It attempts to show what it was like for a certain type of warrior, the bomber crewman These were guys brought together from all types of backgrounds, forced by circumstance to work in harmony, to endure numbing temperatures and howling death, defending someone else’s country. “Memphis Belle” is a British-made film, and that’s fitting, as the real Memphis Belle and thousands of other American-made weapons and lives pulled England’s bacon out of the fire.
The Belle was a real aircraft, a Boeing-made B17F, essentially a lumbering brute that hauled a load of bombs, gas and weapons, with just enough men aboard to make everything work. Any kid who remembers “12 O’clock High” can name all 10 stations — pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, engineer/top turret gunner, radio operator, right- and left waist gunners, ball turret gunner, tail gunner.
The real Belle, named after a girlfriend of the pilot’s, was the first B-17 to officially finish a tour over Europe, which at the time was generally 25 missions. For the final mission, Hollywood filmmaker William Wyler tagged along and filmed a documentary, which won an Academy Award.
Wyler used the mission and the airplane as metaphors. The feature film “Memphis Belle” does the same thing, and uses the same last-mission framework, with Wyler transformed into an oily Army public-relations officer.
The crew in the movie are all fictional creations, and the punishment that Memphis Belle endures on her last mission is exaggerated beyond belief. But once you understand that it is essentially a tribute to these brave crews, and that movies tend to heighten reality — not repeat it — the movie transcends it’s own terms.
Conflicts between crew members are torqued up as well, with any number of cliches thrown in to keep things humming. There’d be no way to tell these 10 guys apart without this overwriting, not in under two hours. The actors are all fine, though they look too young. They were young in real life, sure, but a few missions tended to age a chap quickly, as did Depression dining.
What’s memorable about the film is the high degree of accuracy. There are a number of gaffes, due primarily to filmmaking compromises — the escort fighters, for example, are P-51 Mustangs rather than the more proper P-47D Thunderbolts or Mk.9 Spitfires.
Mustangs are available, the other birds aren’t. The real Memphis Belle had a Vargas pinup painted on both sides of the nose, wearing a red bathing suit on one side and blue on the other. In the movie, both suits are red, probably so audiences wouldn’t assume the propmaker got his signals crossed.
“Memphis Belle” is a reminder of the few years during which the world teetered, and what it took to set it aright. It was pivotal to those involved — never again would Americans agree on anything, but that’s the price you pay for democracy.
Speaking of metaphors, the real Memphis Belle wound up in a Tennessee public park, vandalized, stripped and defaced over the years It wasn’t until two years ago that the B-17 was restored. Things change, attitudes don’t.