In the summer of 1943, a fierce air battle raged in the skies above Europe. Every day, hundreds of young airmen faced death as they flew bombing raids deep into enemy territory. Fewer and fewer were coming back.
Memphis Belle is a 1990 war movie based on the real-life story of the first bomber crew in the US 8th Air Force to complete a full tour of 25 missions over occupied Europe.The movie follows the crew as they attend a squadron dance the night before their final mission, giving us the opportunity to meet them and some of the other crews (notably the rookies who will be flying next to them the next day), before dropping the news on them: they've all been expecting an easy target to ensure the crew will successfully complete the tour, but the target is actually Bremen, a heavily-defended aircraft factory wedged between a hospital and a school.Watching their progress is Army Public Relations man Lt. Colonel Derringer, who plans to take the men on a publicity tour of the USA when they return. The officers have been told, but the pilot—strait-laced Dennis Dearborn (Matthew Modine) opts not to tell the men, to keep their minds on the job.Of course, none of that will matter if the flak or the fighters get them first...The Crew
Capt. Dennis Dearborn: Pilot (Matthew Modine)—Quiet, mild and obsessed with doing things by the book.
1st Lt Luke Sinclair: Co-Pilot (Tate Donovan)—Loud, brash and devil-may-care.
Lt Phil Lowenthal: The Navigator (D.B. Sweeney)—Morbidly convinced he's going to die.
Lt Val Kozlowski: Bombardier (Billy Zane)—Smooth-talker who claims he's been to medical school
Sgt Danny Daly: Radio Operator (Eric Stoltz)—Cheerful, red-headed Irish-American with a sensitive side. To be sure.
Sgt Virgil Hoogesteyer: Top Turret/Flight Engineer (Reed Diamond)—"The Virgin", obsessed with hamburgers.
Sgt Eugene McVey: Left Waist Gun (Courtney Gains)—The religious one, from Cleveland.
Sgt Jack Bocci: Right Waist Gun (Neil Giuntoli)—Tough South Side type. Teases Eugene.
Sgt Clay Busby: Tail Gunner (Harry Connick, Jr)—Hick farmboy with a hell of a singing voice.
This film provides examples of:
A Father to His Men: Dennis likes to think of himself as this. The others respect that he gives it his all, but they also mostly think he's a bit of a dork.
Acting for Two: By the planes. There weren't that many B-17s still flying when this movie was made, so they painted different markings on the left and right sides, so that they could play one plane when filmed from the left, and a different plane when filmed from the right.
Special Effects Failure: In some scenes, especially the takeoff sequence, both sets of nose art are visible on camera at the same time.
Airstrike Impossible: Bremen is known to be a murderously well-defended target. And when poor visibility prevents them from being able to make the drop on the first try, they decide to swing around and try again, which in Real Life usually meant an even worse run through prepared defenses, the equivalent of taking a second kick at a hornets' nest.
Dennis Dearborn: Everybody, listen! I know you want to drop the bombs and get the hell out of here, but there are civilians down there. There's a school next door, and if we don't drop these bombs right in the pickle barrel, there's gonna be a lot of innocent people killed—
Luke Sinclair: What's the difference?! They're all Nazis!
Bait and Switch: After landing, Dennis (the straight-laced, by-the-book captain) sternly gets out of the plane holding the bottle of champagne that a crew member had snuck on board. Everyone pauses and cringes - and then Dennis pops the cork, sprays the champagne everywhere, and starts celebrating.
The Cast Show Off: Oh what? You're going to put Harry Connick Jr. in a movie and not have him sing?
Chekhov's Gun: In addition to the crash landing, exploding bomber at the beginning, there's the C-Cup losing a crewman, who falls out of the shattered nose with no parachute. Rascal is ordered to put his safety strap on in the ball turret: that saves his life when the turret is shot off, just like the C-Cup nose was.
On a more comedic note, there's the soup that Dennis is drinking on the way to the target.
Coming In Hot: Twice, the film depicts heavily damaged B-17s trying to land on only one main wheel. At the beginning of the film, this results in a horrific crash. At the film's climax, when the Belle itself is coming in with only one engine and a severely wounded crewmember to boot, the crew manages to lower the landing gear by hand crank just in the nick of time.
The first was pure Rule of Drama; a bomber that arrived, badly shot up, with only one wheel down, executed a successful crash landing then exploded, killing all aboard. Likely it was arriving empty with fuel tanks dry; as later shown, a crippled bomber would ditch its guns, ammo and excess fuel to lighten the load. It may have broken up and burned on the tarmac (which would have been even more dramatic), but there would be nothing left aboard that could explode. (Unless they failed to jettison all their bombs, but in that case, they'd have ditched the airplane altogether). Served as a Chekhov's Gun to the Memphis Belle crew, though, when they were caught in a similar situation upon return.
The second was much more justified: the Windy City, which exploded in midair after being hit by Luftwaffe fire. It was visibly shot up on the fuselage and on the fuel tanks, and fire was visible inside. Since it was carrying a full fuel, bomb and ammo load, an interior fuel fire would have been catastrophic, and that likely destroyed the plane.
Craig Harriman: I have twenty-four crews up there. They are all special to me.
Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Luke wants to have a go at firing the guns, and succeeds in shooting down a German fighter—which inadvertently crashes into the rookie crew's bomber. Like this.
No One Gets Left Behind: When one of the crew is injured, out-of-his-depth medic Val favors throwing him out of the plane with a parachute on, figuring that even if he's captured, the Germans will at least tend to his wounds and not just let him die. They decide to keep him on board.
Reality Is Unrealistic: Veterans complained that the crew in the movie talked too much, acted unprofessionally, and showed too much concern for their fate. In reality, bomber crews were notoriously fatalistic, having determined that after reaching the halfway point in their tours-of-duty, they were living on borrowed time.
Stock Footage: To add to the drama, footage of bombers being shot down is shown while Derringer reads letters from the families of dead crewmen.
Also the footage of the bombs detonating on the ground uses period footage of bombing raids.
Took a Level in Badass: Phil, the navigator. Before the flight he's a drunken wreck convinced he's going to die, and he spends the first half of the flight in terror that he's going to be killed. The turning point is when he tries to drop the Belle's bombs himself, rather than let the pilot and bombardier take them over the target again. Once they've gone round again and dropped the bombs, Phil mans up spectacularly, decides that he doesn't want to die, urges bombardier Val to look after Danny and crouches over the open bomb day doors to hand-crank the left main landing gear as they come in on final approach. It works, and he saves the plane.
Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Originally titled Southern Belle, the script was altered to reflect the real Memphis Belle after Catherine Wyler signed on as producer. Her father, William Wyler, filmed a documentary for the Army Air Force in 1943 in anticipation of the Belle's crew being the first in the 8th Air Force to complete their tour-of-duty. The character of Derringer is loosely based on William Wyler. Rather than an accurate portrayal of the real Memphis Belle - whose final mission was a milk run - the movie is an amalgamation of actual wartime experiences, all combined into a single mission.
War Is Hell: While quaint in comparison to war movies such as Saving Private Ryan - the 1990s being a time where war movies weren't quite so cynical - the sequence where letters are read over actual combat footage is particularly moving.
World War II: The movie depicts, with reasonable accuracy, an US Army Air Force strike of the Second World War's Combined Bomber Offensive. It is one of very few films to successfully portray this campaign with real aircraft; other notable examples include 12 O'clock High, The War Lover, and The Dam Busters.