Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress

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This article is about the 1944 documentary film. For the fictionalized 1990 film, see Memphis Belle (film).
Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress
MemphisBelleDVD.jpg
Directed by William Wyler
Produced by First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces
Written by Jerome Chodorov and William Wyler
Starring The crew of the Memphis Belle
Music by Gail Kubik
Cinematography Harold J. Tannenbaum and William H. Clothier
Distributed by Paramount Pictures Inc
Release date(s)
  • 1944 (1944)
Running time 45 min
Country United States
Language English

The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress is a 1944 documentary film which ostensibly provides an account of the final mission of the crew of the Memphis Belle, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. In May 1943 it became the first U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber to complete 25 missions over Europe and return to the United States.[1]

The dramatic 16 mm color film of actual battles was made by cinematographer First Lieutenant Harold J. Tannenbaum. The film was directed by Major William Wyler, narrated by Eugene Kern, and had scenes at its Bassingbourn base photographed by Hollywood cinematographer Captain William H. Clothier. It was made under the auspices of the First Motion Picture Unit, a branch of the United States Army Air Forces. The film actually depicted the next to last mission of the crew (see below) on May 15, 1943, and was made as a morale-building inspiration for the Home Front by showing the everyday courage of the men who manned these bombers.[2]

Cast[edit]

The crew on the missions filmed included:

  • Captain Robert K. Morgan (pilot)
  • Captain James A. Verinis (co-pilot)
  • Captain Vincent B. Evans (bombardier)
  • Captain Charles B. Leighton (navigator)
  • Technical Sergeant Robert J. Hanson (radio operator)
  • Technical Sergeant Harold P. Loch (engineer and top turret gunner)
  • Staff Sergeant Casimer A. Nastal (waist gunner)
  • Staff Sergeant Clarence E. Winchell (waist gunner)
  • Staff Sergeant Cecil H. Scott (ball turret gunner)
  • Staff Sergeant John P. Quinlan (tail gunner)

Production[edit]

Morgan's crew had not flown all of its missions together. Captain Verinis had originally been Morgan's co-pilot at the beginning of their combat tour but had become a "first pilot" (aircraft commander) in his own right on December 30, 1942, after which he flew 16 missions as commander of a replacement B-17 he named Connecticut Yankee after his home state. Verinis finished his tour two days before the rest of Morgan's crew.

Nor was Morgan's crew the one originally selected by Wyler for filming. He had been following Captain Oscar O'Neill (whose bomber was named Invasion 2nd) of the 401st Bomb Squadron until O'Neill's B-17 and five others were shot down over Bremen, Germany, on April 17, 1943. Morgan was then selected and his crew re-united by the Eighth Air Force to complete its tour together and to return to the United States for a war bond drive. Wyler also informed Morgan when asked that, had the Memphis Belle been shot down on the crew's final mission, Wyler had a backup crew working with another B-17 about to finish its 25 missions, Hell's Angels of the nearby 303d Bombardment Group.[3] Ironically, Hell's Angels actually completed 25 missions first, on May 13 (the date of the 19th for the Memphis Belle).

Morgan states in his memoirs that he was approached by Wyler in late January 1943 after his crew's eighth mission. Wyler told Morgan he wanted to film the Memphis Belle and her crew because of "a certain mystique" to the aircraft's nickname, and that Morgan's reputation as a pilot meant that Wyler would be "in the center of the action...(with) a pretty good chance of coming back."[4] Morgan agreed after assurances from Wyler that the film crew would not interfere with operation of the airplane in combat in any way.

The first mission flown in filming, ironically, was not aboard the Memphis Belle, but aboard the B-17 Jersey Bounce on a February 26, 1943, mission to Wilhelmshaven, Germany. (The Memphis Belle was being repaired after severe battle damage incurred on February 16.) The mission experienced heavy German fighter attacks and two of the 91st group's B-17s were shot down.[5] Despite the hazards, Wyler filmed at least six more combat missions with Morgan's crew,[6] not all of them aboard the Memphis Belle, using a set-up that placed mounted cameras in the nose, tail, right waist, and radio hatch positions. The camera setup is documented in the photograph of the Bad Penny, which Morgan and Wyler flew on a mission to Antwerp on April 5, 1943.[7]

The 16 mm color film used did not include sound, and this was added later in Hollywood. The original crew, during their war bonds drive in the United States, made typical appropriate comments to each other while watching the silent movie in a studio. The result was difficult to distinguish from real combat recordings.

King George VI (wearing a Marshal of the Royal Air Force uniform) and his consort Queen Elizabeth are seen congratulating the crew on May 18, after Morgan's final mission but the day before that of the B-17.

Reception[edit]

In The New York Times review of the documentary, critic Bosley Crowther praised the film as "A thorough and vivid comprehension of what a daylight bombing is actually like for the young men who wing our heavy bombers from English bases into the heart of Germany..." [8]

Impact[edit]

In 2001, the United States Library of Congress deemed the original version "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

The Memphis Belle aircraft is now preserved at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, near Dayton, Ohio.

1990 fictionalized version[edit]

A fictionalized version of the story, Memphis Belle, was produced in 1990 by David Puttnam in England. It was co-produced by Catherine Wyler, the daughter of William Wyler, directed by Michael Caton-Jones and starred Matthew Modine and Eric Stoltz.

Home video[edit]

In 2010, the film was released in high definition on Blu-ray disc by Periscope Film LLC. It is also included with the 2014 Blu-ray release of the 1990 Memphis Belle.

See also[edit]

  • Jersey Bounce, song that inspired naming of several World War II bombers

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Factsheet: Boeing B-17F Memphis Belle." National Museum of the United States Air Force. Retrieved: September 18, 2011.
  2. ^ Orriss 1984, p. 83.
  3. ^ Morgan and Powers 2001, pp. 211–212.
  4. ^ Morgan and Powers 2001, p. 175.
  5. ^ Morgan and Powers 2001, pp. 177–178.
  6. ^ Morgan and Powers 2001, p. 177.
  7. ^ Freeman 1990, p. 36, photograph.
  8. ^ Crowther, Bosley. "The Memphis Belle (1944): Vivid film of daylight bomb raid depicts daring of our Air Forces; Bomb film shows our fliers' daring." The New York Times, April 14, 1944.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Dolan Edward F. Jr. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Evans, Alun. Brassey's Guide to War Films. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2000. ISBN 1-57488-263-5.
  • Freeman, Roger A. The Mighty Eighth War Diary. St. Paul, Minnesota: Motorbooks International, 1990. ISBN 0-87938-495-6.
  • Harwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies". The Making of the Great Aviation Films, General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Morgan, Robert, and Ron Powers. The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001. ISBN 0-451-20594-4.
  • Orriss, Bruce. When Hollywood Ruled the Skies: The Aviation Film Classics of World War II. Hawthorne, California: Aero Associates Inc., 1984. ISBN 0-9613088-0-X.

External links[edit]