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Film / Memphis Belle

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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 World War II movie directed by Michael Caton-Jones, loosely inspired by 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. Although some elements of the plot are accurate (Memphis Belle, tail number 41-24485, was assigned to the 324th Bombardment Squadron, 91st Bombardment Group (Heavy), whose insignia are prominently displayed), the characters are fictional and the mission depicted is based on several different air strikes in 1943-44.

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 (John Lithgow), 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.
  • 1st Lt. Phil Lowenthal: Navigator (D.B. Sweeney)—Morbidly convinced he's going to die.
  • 1st Lt. Val Kozlowski: Bombardier (Billy Zane)—Smooth-talker who claims he's been to medical school
  • Staff Sgt. (T/3) Danny Daly: Radio Operator (Eric Stoltz)—Cheerful, red-headed Irish-American with a sensitive side. To be sure.
  • Staff Sgt. (T/3) Virgil Hoogesteyer: Top Turret/Flight Engineer (Reed Diamond)—"The Virgin", obsessed with hamburgers.
  • Staff Sgt. Richard "Rascal" Moore: Ball Turret (Sean Astin)—Obsessed with sex. Teases Virgil.
  • Staff Sgt. Eugene "Genie" 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.
  • Staff Sgt. Clay Busby: Tail Gunner (Harry Connick Jr.)—Hick farmboy with a hell of a singing voice.

This film is not to be confused with The Memphis Belle (aka The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress), the 1944 documentary by William Wyler focusing on the Real Life crew of the real-life Memphis Belle. Compare with Fortress (2012), another film about a B-17 crew in 1943.

This film provides examples of:

  • 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 was never done. First, it is very hard to have a formation of 300-plus Forts make a 360 degree turn. Second, such a maneuver would alert all flak batteries as to the actual target. Third, such a maneuver would keep the force under fighter and flak attack longer than need be. In actuality, bomber crews were briefed on a primary, a secondary, a tertiary and targets of opportunity. If the primary target was unable to be hit, the primary became the IP to set up on the secondary. If the secondary were unable to be hit, it became the IP for the tertiary, and if that were unable to be hit, the force commander (NOT the pilot of the lead aircraft) would issue an order to go after targets of opportunity. Failing that, the mission would be aborted and the crews would dump their ordnance in either the North Sea or the English Channel. The mission would count toward tour completion, as the crews would have been in combat, and were over enemy territory.
  • All Germans Are Nazis: Invoked by Luke, when trying to argue against Dennis' decision to circle around for another pass on Bremen.
    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!
    Dennis Dearborn: Luke, shut up!
  • Amazing Freaking Grace: The crew (which includes Harry Connick Jr) sing "Amazing Grace" in harmony on the way out to the plane, which leads to George Fenton's instrumental rendition of the piece.
  • As You Know: Dennis reviews several B-17 crew duties and tactics for his men. These guys were on their twenty-fifth bomber mission, and would have known these all by heart. It's obviously done for the benefit of the audience.
  • 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.
  • Big "NO!": Luke lets one out after the German fighter he shoots down crashes into the Mother and Country.
  • Book Ends: The film opens with the crew of the Memphis Belle watching a heavily damaged B-17 coming in to land with only one wheel down - the plane crash lands on the single wheel and explodes shortly afterwards. At the end of the film, the Belle herself is in the same predicament - but the crew gets the second wheel down just in time.
  • The Cast Show Off: Oh what? You're going to put Harry Connick Jr. in a movie and not have him sing?
  • The Chains of Commanding: Colonel Harriman is deeply affected by the deaths of the men under his command. When informed his squadron's next target is Bremen, he pleads for his unit to be sent elsewhere, noting their horrific losses on a previous mission to the city. Later, when Derringer scoffs at the notion that all of Harriman's crews are important to him, he pulls out a stack of letters from his desk - the Colonel has written to the families of every crewman lost and saved their replies.
  • 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.
  • Closest Thing We Got: Turns out Val only completed two weeks of Medical school—but he's the only one who can save a seriously wounded Danny...
  • 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.
  • Cool Plane: The famous B-17 Flying Fortress.
  • Desk Jockey: A couple variations.
    • Lt. Col. Derringer is a classic example - a public affairs officer who's never seen combat and is woefully out of touch with those who have despite his efforts to be encouraging.
    • Col. Harriman, the 91st's CO, remains behind during the mission, but is clearly concerned for his crews.
    • Played with in the case of Luke. As co-pilot of the Belle, he faces the same risks as the rest of the crew, but as he has no responsibilities besides assisting in flying the plane, he still feels like a desk jockey. His arrangement with Clay to come back and fire his guns is specifically so he'll have something to brag about when he gets back home.
  • Despair Event Horizon: The night before, Phil has a terrible premonition that this mission will be the one that will kill them all. He is seized by panic several times and only recovers from this terror at the end of the mission.
    • Seeing the blood and entrails of a Windy City crewman wrapped around the Memphis Belle's nose cap probably didn't help, either.
  • Due to the Dead: Col. Harriman writes a personal letter of condolence to the families of every man he's lost. He keeps a desk drawer full of their replies, which he dumps out on his desk (making a very large pile) when making a point to Derringer. Then he demonstrates that he didn't just send out boiler plate, he really has kept track of each one when he picks up one, glances at it and snarls, "This one's from a father whose son got his head blown off over Lorient! Start with that one!"
  • 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. Colonel Harriman, the 91st's CO, acts distant but cares very deeply for the men of his Group.
  • Field Promotion: The Memphis Belle finds herself leading the whole Bomb Group when the two planes ahead of her are shot down.
  • Guy in Back: Eight of them, but most notably Clay, stuck right at the far end of the plane.
    • Rascal, sealed inside the cramped ball turret, is physically isolated from the rest of the crew.
    • Several of the eight non-pilot crewmembers have duties beyond simply manning a gun position. Most notable given the Memphis Belle's mission is bombardier Val, responsible for putting the plane's ordnance on target.
  • Heroic BSoD: Nearly the entire crew has one in the aftermath of Mother and Country going down.
  • Hidden Heart of Gold: Jack spends most of the film acting like a Jerkass, usually yelling at his crewmates when they're messing around, and even apparently dropping the highly religious Eugene's patron saint medal out of the plane. He reveals he cares when after seeing Eugene's concern for him after he thought he'd been severely injured and reveals that he hadn't dropped the medal after all and instead hidden it up his sleeve in a sleight of hand trick. Another instance is when the fatalistic Phil is leaving his belongings to crewmembers: Phil leaves a pen to Eugene and baseball cards to Jack, but Jack says he's more of a football fan after Eugene expressed his desire for the baseball cards.
  • Hollywood History: in addition to a fictionalized crew, the Memphis Belle's actual final mission was to take out submarine pens in Lorient, France rather than an airplane factory in Bremen, Germany.
  • Hope Bringer: the crew are in their Darkest Hour, the plane is coming apart, Danny is badly wounded and possibly dying, all seems lost. Then through the haze the white cliffs of Dover appear on the horizon, Britain is suddenly within touching distance...
    Captain Dearborn (patting the Belle's control column) "Come on baby, just a LITTLE further..."
  • Hope Spot: The opening scene has the crew and their commanding officer watching planes come back from the last bombing run. As more and more arrive, they desperately begin to hope that every airman in the squadron will make it back alive. All of the planes make it back to the landing strip, but one of them is damaged and crashes and explodes seconds after landing.
  • The Homeward Journey:
    • After bombing their designated target, the bomber catches fire, forcing it to drop out of formation. The rest of the movie follows the crippled plane on its return to base.
    • In a literal sense, the crew is flying their last mission before being sent back to the US.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Derringer toasting the coming mission, which is seen as jinxing it.
  • It Will Never Catch On: This conversation with Danny and Virge in the barracks:
    Virgil Hoogesteyer: You see, I'm thinking of opening up a whole bunch of restaurants, exactly like the first one. So you could go to Detroit and get the exact same hamburger you got in Baltimore—
    Danny Daly: Virge, nobody wants to eat the same old food everywhere they go.
    Virgil Hoogesteyer: Well, sure they do! It's comforting!
    (Danny walks away, shaking his head)
    Virgil Hoogesteyer: (looks at his plans again) It is comforting.
  • Just Plane Wrong:
    • The fighters shown escorting the B-17s early in the raid are P-51 Mustangs. Mustangs certainly did escort the bomber raids, but:
      • The film is set in May, 1943, and the first Mustang capable of carrying out the high-altitude fighter escort role, the P-51B, weren't delivered until November of that year (the P-51 and P-51A were introduced earlier, but both equipped with Allison engines that lacked high-altitude performance, making them unsuitable for bomber escort duties and they were instead utilized as low/medium-altitude fighters and ground attack platforms). The Mustangs used for the film were P-51Ds (well, six of the seven were, the other was a somewhat out-of-place Australian CA-18 Mark 22), which didn't arrive in Europe until 1944.
      • The entire reason the Mustang assumed escort duties in the first place was because they had the range to escort the bombers all the way into Germany and back. A mission to Bremen would have been well within the fighter's combat radius. The fighter escorts having to turn back because of their lack of fuel is much more characteristic of the P-47 Thunderbolt (which is the aircraft assigned escort duties during the film's time frame). This however isn't entirely the fault of the film crew. At the time of filming, very very few P-47s even existed in any condition, let alone flying condition. And those that did were of the later models with the bubble canopy. Very few P-47s survived after the war as many P-51s went to fight on in other air forces that were needing planes quickly (and didn't want left-over Bf 109s or Spitfires), or to carry on in air racing. Only recently have enough P-47s been restored that if a remake were to be done, it could be possible to have the right escorts... but there most likely wouldn't be enough B-17s, though CGI would likely make this a moot point.
    • During the start-up and take-off scene, it is implied that the co-pilot of the Memphis Belle is able to start the engines directly by turning on the fuel boost pumps. In reality, the co-pilot would have to turn on the fuel boost pumps and then flip the starter switch to the appropriate engine, wait for a short time and then flip the "mesh" switch to the appropriate position.
    • The Bf 109s seen in the film are Hispano HA-1112s, a Spanish version of the Bf 109. At the time of the filming, no Bf 109s in flying condition even existed, let alone being available for a film crew to use.
    • All but one of the five B-17s in the film are B-17Gs, mocked up to look like B-17Fs (the other is the B-17F N17W, a civilian-owned former cargo plane and crop sprayer which also played a military aircraft in Tora! Tora! Tora!). The film crew did a convincing job of it too, but they still forgot to get rid of the bubble on the nose (in front of the windscreen, which was used for night navigation so the navigator could see the stars), which marks all the bombers as very late model B-17Fs. They also forgot about the Memphis Belle's two additional machine guns in the bombardier's station.
    • The Norden bombsight is depicted in the film as a simple vector bombsight, with the ground moving past the sight due to the forward motion of the airplane, and the bombardier manually toggling the bomb release switch when the target moves through the crosshairs. In reality, the Norden bombsight was a tachometric bombsight, which continually tracked and automatically released the bombs when the precomputed bomb release point was reached. The job of the bombardier was to make the adjustments necessary to keep the crosshairs stationary on the target. Any forward motion of the crosshairs relative to the target would indicate an error in the ground speed estimate, which would cause an error in the calculated bomb release point.
    • Many WWII airmen pointed out that the depicted interior of the Memphis Belle was entirely too roomy for a B-17 bomber.
      • This however is excusable for filming purposes, as the sets needed to ensure there was enough room for the actors, and the camera equipment. Newer films depicting B-17s get around this issue by simply using smaller camera equipment.
  • Made of Explodium: Twice:
    • 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.
      • There is actually a bit of Truth in Television here - the B-17 at the time had issues with its oxygen system that could easily lead to an explosion if the wrong parts of the plane were damaged. It is, however, still highly unlikely to detonate like that after such a landing even if the landing trigger a fire - it's much more likely for Windy City to have been a victim of this issue given how quickly it goes up.
    • 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. The fuel could have been ejected to deal with this, but the plane is slowly yawning sideways and a line notes the cockpit is shotup, implying the pilots are either injured or dead.
  • The Men First: Colonel Craig Harriman might be a stoic commanding officer — but after Army PR Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Derringer accuses him of caring only for results and not the crews, he finally loses his temper, then has Derringer read from a box of letters ... responses to letters that Harriman personally wrote to the family of men who died under his command.
    Craig Harriman: I have twenty-four crews up there. They are all special to me.
  • Midair Collision: See Nice Job Breaking It, Hero.
  • Midair Repair: Multiple.
    • When one of the Belle's fuel tanks is hit, the crew pumps out the remaining fuel into an undamaged tank, ensuring they have enough gas to return home.
    • In a mirror of the opening scene, the crew must hurry to manually crank down the landing gear while the pilots struggle to keep the plane airborne on only one engine.
    • Luke uses one of these as a pretext to briefly take control of the tail guns.
  • New Meat: The crew of ''Mother and Country" is on their first mission.
  • 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. Which leads to a brief My God, What Have I Done?.
  • 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.
  • Non-Indicative Name: "Virgin" has his first time in the first twenty minutes of the film.
  • Oh, Crap!: The wounded 'Belle comes back with one jammed gear... a situation exactly like what occurred the previous day.
    • Even for a bomber crewman, Gene is extremely superstitious. So when Jack throws away his good luck medal, he's convinced he will now never survive the mission.
  • Old-School Dogfight: The first encounter with German planes in the film has the fighter escorts engaging German Bf 109s amongst the B-17s.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Danny Daly tries to pass off lines from An Irish Airman Foresees His Death by William Butler Yeats as his own work.
    • Some of the intercom dialogue during the battle sequences seems heavily inspired by - if not lifted directly from - the documentary The Memphis Belle.
    • William Butler Yeats
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: to try to boost morale at the party after Derringer's three cheers for the crew of the Belle falls flat Clay sings an up tempo version of The Londonderry Air ("Oh Danny Boy").
  • 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.
  • Survival Mantra: Phil repeats "We're not gonna die!" as he cranks down the landing gear.
  • Taking You with Me: The Bf 109 that Luke shoots down takes out Mother and Country, the rookie crew, by ramming them.
  • Token Religious Teammate: The film starts with Derringer reviewing the plane's crew, identifying Eugene as "the religious one", noting there's always a religious one.
  • 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.
  • Total Party Kill: Nobody survives Windy City's fate: they did not have time to bail out before it exploded.
  • Vehicle Title: Memphis Belle is the name of the bomber.
  • 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 to a sub pen in Lorient, France - 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 early 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 Twelve O'Clock High, The War Lover, and The Dam Busters.