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Film / The Memphis Belle

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The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress is a 1944 documentary feature (just barely feature length, 42 minutes) directed by an uncredited William Wyler.

It is an account of the 25th and last mission of the Memphis Belle, a B-17 bomber that was part of the 324th Bombardment Squadron of the United States 8th Air Force during World War II. The Memphis Belle is shown taking part in a raid on the submarine base at Wilhelmshaven, Germany, on May 15, 1943. Pilots and crew attend a briefing in which the target is revealed and the plan of operations is explained. The Belle, along with all the other bombers in the squadron, takes off and goes on its raid. The Belle has to brave German anti-aircraft fire and fighter attacks before dropping its bomb load. Although the squadron takes a lot of casualties, the Memphis Belle makes it back safely to its base at RAF Bassingbourn, England, and the crew is greeted by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

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William Wyler was an active-duty major serving in the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Force. This film, as well as the subsequent war bond drive that the crew of the Memphis Belle went on, served to make that ship the most famous American bomber of the Second World War. 46 years later William Wyler's daughter Catherine produced a fictional feature film, Memphis Belle, which was loosely inspired by this film and the crew of the real Memphis Belle.

See also Twelve O'Clock High, another film about the 8th Air Force. See also Report from the Aleutians, a similar documentary from John Huston about the Army Air Force in the Pacific theater.


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Tropes:

  • Aside Glance: After surviving a harrowing raid, "they're in no mood to have their picture taken," so we see several members of the 324th giving the camera annoyed sidelong glances.
  • Buzzing the Deck: The Belle "cuts the grass" of English farm country in celebration of a safe return.
  • Cool Plane: Those B-17s could take one hell of a licking. One plane is shown to have landed at Bassingbourn with its tail fin shot away. Another plane lost its whole nose.
  • Fighter-Launching Sequence: Well, a bomber launching sequence. It's still pretty dramatic.
  • Manipulative Editing: The film gives the impression that all of the combat scenes were taken during a single raid. While the bulk of the film is the May 15, 1943 raid, footage from other bombing raids is included. Wyler and his crew did not carry sound recoring equipment; the spellbinding sequence where the airplane intercom chatter is heard during combat was actually recorded by the crew of the Belle after the fact, for the movie.
  • Narrator: Heard throughout, often addressing the audience directly.
  • Nose Art: Not just the iconic swimsuit girls adorning the nose of the Memphis Belle—there's actually a montage of all the nose art in the squadron. One plane has a painting of a skunk spraying Hitler with the caption "In Der Fuhrer's Face".
  • Second-Person Narration: The narrator sometimes addresses the audience as "you", saying that you might have dozed off in high school but you will definitely be paying attention when the CO gives the briefing for the bombing raid. On other occasions the narrator speaks of "we". The idea is obviously to make the viewers feel part of the mission and the war.
  • Title Drop: It is the name of the plane, after all.
  • Vehicle Title: Memphis Belle is the name of the plane.
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