I’ve watched Memphis Belle again after avoiding it for a number of years. Why would I avoid a movie with airplanes in it? Well, because I grew up watching William Wyler’s 1944 documentary of the same name. That there was a B-17 flying out of England in 1943 that was the first to complete 25 missions, and that it was named Memphis Belle are the only similarities between the two motion pictures. As it happens, I watched Wyler’s MMemphis Belle last night.
The dramatic movie is Hollywood schlock. The Belle’s last mission is a matter of historical record, as are the names of the crew. But Michael Caton-Jones did not use any of their names. The whole story is fictional. One of the characters is severely wounded during the mission. Actually, the real Memphis Belle flew with her original crew throughout her deployment, and there was only one minor wound. IIRC the crewman only reported it because he was ordered to, it was that minor. And the aircraft is shot up pretty badly. Now, the real plane did take a few hits; but in the movie they’re talking about losing a wing due to an engine fire, half the tail is shot away, and one of the landing gear would not extend. These types of damage did occur to B-17s and other aircraft during the war, but this is not how the Belle’s 25th mission went. Yeah, yeah, ‘dramatic license, blahblahblah’. If you’re making a fictional movie, please use a fictional aircraft and a fictional mission!
Another annoying detail is the costuming. The officers’ hats are clearly British-pattern. Avirex/The Cockpit made (still makes?) accurate reproductions of the ‘50-Mission Crush’. Why spend the money and effort to make the headgear – wrongly – when they could just buy them ‘off the shelf’? And there’s this one extra… You know it’s bad when you notice someone who shouldn’t be noticed. Like Ted Turner’s shot in Gettysberg. The guy just didn’t act well, and he sticks out like a sore thumb. (FWIW, he’s the guy in Aviator shades, standing on the control tower near the end of the film.) Must be somebody’s relative. Or else Caton-Jones was not paying proper attention to the scene.
If you have never seen Wyler’s documentary and you don’t give a rodent’s rectum about accuracy, you may like this film. It’s trite, but not as bad as some. But if you do appreciate accuracy or have ever seen Wyler’s film, I can’t really recommend it.
What about Wyler’s film? Wyler flew five missions on the real Memphis Belle to gather footage. All of the combat footage is real. The rest of the footage revolving around the crew was staged. But it did use the actual people involved. Memphis Belle 1944 is a propaganda film. It tells the story of the Belle’s 25th mission so as to generate money for war bonds and to show how the U.S. was kicking some Heine arse. And it does it well. It’s a very stirring piece of work.
The 60th Anniversary Collector’s Edition DVD came as a two-disc set. The first disc had an ‘HD Widescreen’ version and a full-frame restored version. Now, films at the time were shot in 4:3 format. Whence the widescreen? Obviously a marketing ploy. That wouldn’t be bad except for two things: First, the footage was not restored. It was full of scratches and dirt, and the colour were washed out. Secondly, it ended a few seconds too soon and cut off the last bit of narration! Sloppy. But the original-format version was very nice indeed. The colours were as vibrant as they could be without being overdone. Most of the scratches and dirt were removed. The audio was good. Best of all, they fixed something that has always bothered me since I first started watching this documentary every time it was broadcast. The original editor ‘flopped’ some of the footage. There are a few scenes that are obviously reversed, including numbers and lettering. I’m very happy they fixed these goofs in the restored version. And of course, the movie goes all the way to the end, instead of being clipped like the widescreen version.
The DVD extras are good and bad. The second disc contains outtake footage that was not used in the film. (Else they wouldn’t be called ‘outtakes’!) We can see multiple takes of many of the familiar shots. There’s a lot of footage and scenes that were not used in the finished film. Unfortunately, most of this footage has no audio. it would be interesting to hear it. (That’s the ‘bad’ in ‘good and bad’.) Still, the images are interesting from an historical standpoint as well as a filmmaking one. There are two versions of a ceremony after the 25th mission; one in B&W with audio, and another in colour without audio. One of the audio clips shows the crew about to enter the aircraft. The pilot clumsily delivers patriotic lines about flying their ‘26th mission’ to go back to the States to drum up public support on their bond drive. Very clumsy. It’s a good thing they cut that bit out of the original film.
One of my favourite extras is Winning Your Wings starring (then-) Lieutenant James Stewart. Stewart climbs down from a BT-13 Valiant and addresses the audience in his inimitable folksy way as if he were in the cinema with them. (Well, hello! Looks like I’m in the movies again… [Removing parachute] ‘Don’t go away while I get this thing off.’) He also interacts (through his narration) with other characters in the film. He goes on to describe how you can join the Army Air Force and become a part of the team, no matter if you’ve completed college, if you’re still in high school, are married, or single. If I were alive and of age back then, I’d rush right out to sign up! (Incidentally, Jimmy Stewart eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier General, in 1959.)
Another featurette is Mission Accomplished: The Story Of The Flying Fortress. As you may guess, this is another ‘Victory is assured!’ type propaganda film displaying one of our 'baddes’t machines. The cool thing about this film is that the B-17s are the early models (could be B-17As). The later Forts, like the Memphis Belle, were ten feet longer and had much larger tails.
If you like authentic WWII films, Wyler’s documentary is a ‘must see’. I recommend the full-screen version on the 60th Anniversary Collector’s Edition, as it is the cleanest and has the best colours of any version I’ve seen. And the extras are worthwhile as well.