Memphis Belle (film)
Theatrical Release Poster
|Directed by||Michael Caton-Jones|
|Produced by||David Puttnam,
|Written by||Monte Merrick|
D. B. Sweeney
Harry Connick Jr.
|Music by||George Fenton|
|Editing by||Jim Clark|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Release dates||October 12, 1990|
|Running time||110 minutes|
|Box office||$27,441,977 (USA)|
Memphis Belle is a 1990 film directed by Michael Caton-Jones and written by Monte Merrick, starring Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz and Harry Connick Jr. (in his film debut). It is a fictionalization of the 1943 documentary Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress by director William Wyler, about the 25th and last mission of an American B-17 bomber, the Memphis Belle, which was based in England during World War II. The 1990 version was co-produced by David Puttnam and Wyler's daughter Catherine, and dedicated to her father.
||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (February 2014)|
In May 1943, the crew of the Memphis Belle, a B-17 of the US Army Air Force stationed in England, are grounded while their aircraft is repaired. They pass the time with a game of football while they wait for the return of their comrades from a daylight bombing mission over Europe. The airbase is under the command of Colonel Craig Harriman (David Strathairn), a no-nonsense, practically stoic leader, tasked in keeping the pressure on Nazi targets.
Visiting the airbase is Army publicist Lt. Colonel Bruce Derringer (John Lithgow). Derringer is sent to interview and publicize the Belle crew in preparation of completing their twenty-five missions requirement to complete their tour of duty. Since they are to be the first crew in the 8th Air Force to accomplish such a feat, the base holds a dance celebration in their honor. He is eager to use the crew on a War Bonds tour when they get back to the US. He also believes their success would help the war efforts, and confides to Harriman that many people at back home are upset at the staggering loses the Air Force has endured since they joined the war. Some are beginning to think daylight bombing is ineffective. Harriman, however, openly favors the method.
All of the squadron aircraft arrive back at the airfield. As the Belle crew watches the landings, they become excited for the squadron in anticipation for the dance that evening. But as the last bomber makes its final descent, it starts to suffer engine and landing gear trouble moments before landing. Its belly lands and skids along the airfield for several hundred yards and explodes, killing its crew. The Belle crew watch briefly as the plane burns, yet they are not shaken by the ominous scene. The loss of fellow airmen is so common for them, that they nonchalantly rummage through a dead crewman's luggage before it can be shipped home.
The ten-man crew of the Memphis Belle is:
- Captain Dennis Dearborn (Matthew Modine), Pilot. A humorless and socially inept perfectionist, Dennis worked for his family's furniture business before enlisting. He named the aircraft after his girlfriend and keeps a black-and-white snapshot of her in the cockpit. He is openly teased by his crew for his unwavering professional attitude during preflight checks, and inflight briefings which the crew have reviewed dozens of times. Regardless, he proves to be a competent and capable leader.
- 1st Lt. Luke Sinclair (Tate Donovan), Co-Pilot. The carefree former lifeguard believes himself to be undervalued by Dennis and desires to get his hands on a gun at least once - which he does, with terrible consequences - but proves himself at a critical moment during the mission.
- 1st Lt. Phil Lowenthal (D. B. Sweeney), Navigator. Phil is nervous before their final mission and, convinced that he is doomed to die, drinks too much at the party and later distributes his possessions to the rest of the crew.
- 1st Lt. Val Kozlowski (Billy Zane), Bombardier. While everyone believes the confident, self-assured Val to be a doctor, it is later revealed that he attended only two weeks of medical school before enlisting.
- SSgt. (T/3) Danny "Danny Boy" Daly (Eric Stoltz), Radio Operator. An earnest Irish-American, Danny was editor of the school paper, a valedictorian, and joined up right after graduating college. He is often seen taking pictures of his crewmates with a small camera which he frequently takes on missions, and writes poetry in a notebook. When his crewmates pick on a group of rookie airmen, frightening one of them to the point of vomiting, he shows compassion by reassuring the airman, also a fellow radio operator.
- SSgt. (T/3) Virgil "Virge" or "Virgin" Hoogesteger (Reed Diamond), Top Turret Gunner and Flight Engineer. Virge worked for his family's restaurant and plans to open a chain of identical restaurants after the war despite his crew-mate's warnings that such an unheard of enterprise could never succeed. He is constantly teased for not having lost his virginity, hence his nickname. However, he manages to spend the evening with a young Englishwoman he met at the party.
- SSgt. Richard "Rascal" Moore (Sean Astin), Ball Turret Gunner. The diminutive, often crude Rascal considers himself a ladies' man (without much success) and delights in teasing his crew mates, especially Virgil and his virginity. He becomes increasingly nervous of the ball turret's tendency to jam during combat.
- SSgt. Eugene "Genie" McVey (Courtney Gains), Right Waist Gunner. A religious and superstitious Irish-American, Genie carries a St. Anthony's medal on missions for good luck, and has a tendency to lose it. His fellow waist gunner, Jack, often teases him for his superstitious nature, calling him "Genie the Weenie".
- Sgt. Jack Bocci (Neil Giuntoli), Left Waist Gunner. A hot-tempered Chicago hoodlum, Jack appears to look out only for himself but proves surprisingly kind to his fellow waist gunner Genie. He's always eager for a fight, and will often sweet talk to his gun whom he affectionately calls "Mona".
- SSgt. Clay Busby (Harry Connick, Jr.), Tail Gunner. After his father lost the family farm in a poker game, the laconic Clay earned money playing the piano in a New Orleans cathouse. A talented singer, he performs "Danny Boy" (dedicating it to his crewmate) at the party before their final mission. A gambler himself, Clay is frequently asked by his crewmates what the odds are if they survive the mission that day, of which he seldom predicts favorably.
The morning after the party, the officers of the squadron are informed their target for the day is the city of Bremen, Germany. Almost immediately, the experienced officers in the squadron exchange worrisome looks. Earlier, it was established that city was previously attacked a month earlier, and a quarter of the squadron was lost. For this mission, the squadron will be leading the attack with another 350 aircraft in their bomb group.
After a delay due to poor weather over the target, the Memphis Belle and her squadron are airborne. They are soon assembled in formation with bomb group and their escort of North American P-51 Mustang fighters. They face frequent harassment by defending German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters along the way to the target over Germany. Eventually the escorting fighters, low on fuel, turn away, while the bombers continue alone.
Back at the base, Harriman and Derringer have harsh words after the latter starts decorating the mess hall for a celebration upon the Belle's return. Derringer accuses Harriman of being cold-hearted and concerned only with advancing his military career. In response, Harriman brings Derringer into his office and angrily dumps a pile of letters on his desk - replies received from grieving families of lost airmen that he himself had written to. The anguished voices of those families are heard over actual black-and-white footage, taken by both sides of the air combat over Europe.
Meanwhile, the bombers have suffered significant losses during the mission. The German interceptors focus their attacks on the leading aircraft in the formation. The first lead plane, Windy City loses its engines and explodes right in front of the Belle. The bomber manages to fly through the debris unscathed, but frightens a few of the crew, especially Phil who becomes more terrified when he sees blood on the nose window. Afterwards, they rather callously discuss how the Windy City crew died so quickly, and reminisce about a few of her crew members whose faces they know, but names they can't remember. Their memories are soon filled with grief as they silently contemplate the dangerous nature of their duties.
More attacks ensue, and the replacement lead plane, C Cup, is forced to break formation when its nose is crippled by a Bf 109. The crew of the Belle watch in horror when they see an airman fall out of the stricken aircraft without a parachute. The Belle is then tasked to lead the formation to the target.
Finding the target (an aircraft assembly plant) becomes difficult. Val can not see the target through the bomb sight due to a smokescreen. Dennis aborts the initial bomb run and orders the formation to circle around for another attempt, in spite of heavy anti-aircraft fire and the extreme possibility of suffering more casualties to the squadron. Meanwhile, Luke has become increasingly anxious to do something other than sit in the co-pilot's seat and watch the battle around him. Before they took off he secured an agreement with Clay to fire the tail gun when things got hot. His motives are in the hopes the women back home would find him more desirable if he had actually killed a Nazi. When the moment arrives, Luke gets his wish and shoots down a Messerschmitt. But, his moment of triumph turns to tragedy when his defeated target smashes into their wingman Mother & Country, the same flight of rookie airmen the Belle crew had teased the night before. The bomber is instantly sliced in half. In desperation, Danny tries to raise the stricken aircraft on the radio. The only response heard are their screams of terror, while Luke, struck with immense guilt, watches them sink through the clouds.
On the second run, Val spots the assembly plant through a gap in the smokescreen and the bombers successfully hit their target. But, once clear of the anti-aircraft fire, they are again engaged by fighters. Rascal's ball turret jams more than once during the mission, and each time he calls for help from Virgil. The turret is eventually destroyed, but Rascal is spared thanks to his safety strap, and Virgil. The attacks continue, blasting a hole in the fuselage, tearing off a large chunk of the tail, and setting the number four engine on fire. Danny is injured in the attacks, which puts Val in a difficult position when the crew enlists his medical "expertise" to save the injured radioman. Meanwhile, Dennis and Luke skillfully drop the aircraft into a steep dive and put the fire out, despite great risk of losing the aircraft.
Back at base, the remaining squadron aircraft return from their mission, much to the dismay of the ground crews, without the Belle. They wait anxiously for the celebrated aircraft and her crew to return.
As the pilots prepare the Belle for landing, Dennis orders them to toss their guns and ammo overboard to lighten their weight, while Val and the enlisted crewmen discuss what to do with Danny. Val, being the only officer with medical knowledge, recommends dumping Danny over German occupied territory believing he'd had have a better chance of survival if found by German soldiers who would take care of him as a prisoner of war, but the other crewmen vehemently object to such an act. Phil interjects and pleads with Val not to throw Danny out, to which he agrees. He cares for Danny the rest of the way.
As the plane looms closer to base, Dennis orders the landing gear dropped. But only one wheel descends due to electrical failure caused by battle damage. With time running out, Virgil and Jack try to lower the immobile wheel manually with a hand crank. Soon Phil joins them. Having gained new confidence after surviving the mission, he takes over the crank and manages to lower the wheel inches from touchdown. The ground crew, and a slightly humbled Lt. Colonel Derringer, race to greet them with jubilant cheers. The crew exits the battered plane, finally by Dennis, who discovers a bottle of champagne that Danny had smuggled on board. He shows it to the crew, and joyously sprays it on them in celebration. In the final scene they celebrate their victory with Danny on an ambulance.
The film closes with a dedication to all airmen, friend or foe, who fought in the skies above Europe during World War II.
With the exception of the aircraft names, this film is fiction based only very loosely on fact. The characters are composites, the names are not those of the real crew of the Memphis Belle and the incidents shown are supposed to be representative of B-17 missions in general. Indeed, the characters and situations of the film bear little resemblance to the crew of the actual Memphis Belle, the nature of her final mission, the accuracy of strategic bombing, or Allied policy on the bombing of civilians. No optimistic official celebration on the evening before the Belle's 25th mission occurred, and there was no special welcome for the crew when the mission was over. The final, 25th mission of the real Belle was to Kiel, Germany, before being flown back to the United States.
Five real B-17s were rounded up for the filming of Memphis Belle, out of eight that were airworthy during the late 1980s. Two were located in America (N3703G and N17W), two were in France (F-BEEA and F-AZDX), and one (G-BEDF "Sally B") in England. Since the original Memphis Belle was a B-17F model, almost all of the B-17s used in the film were heavily modified to look like earlier F models, having chin turrets removed, new tail turrets installed and being painted olive drab green. During filming, two B-17s portrayed the Belle (one was the movie version of the "Memphis Belle" (N3703G) and the other was "Sally B" (G-BEDF) for scenes requiring pyrotechnics such as smoke and sparks indicating machine gun 'hits') whilst the rest had nose art and squadron markings changed numerous times to make it appear there were more aircraft.
For the fighters, seven P-51 Mustangs were used, although P-47 Thunderbolts were the escort at the time in 1943. Five of the P-51s were painted in the markings of the first USAAF Merlin-engined Mustang squadron to operate in Britain (a few months later in 1943 than the actual mission) and as there were no surviving flyable Messerschmitt Bf 109s, Luftwaffe fighter aircraft were represented by Ha-1112s, a Spanish version of the Bf 109 (which were also used to represent Bf 109s in the 1969 film Battle of Britain) in mid-war generic paint schemes.
Ground sequences for the movie (including take off and landing scenes) were filmed at the non-operational RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire, England with a period control tower and vehicles being placed on site. Flying sequences were flown from the airfield site of the Imperial War Museum Duxford. All the extras for the film were obtained from auditions held in the area, and included current and former members of the Royal Air Force. The filmmakers also used Pinewood Studios to shoot interior scenes and to shoot various models of B-17s.
A B-25 Mitchell was used to film the majority of the aerial scenes with several fixed and trainable cameras also mounted on B-17s and fighter aircraft for action shots. A TBM Avenger (with its tail section painted the same olive drab tones used on the B-17s) was used as back-up for a short time when the B-25 became unservicable during filming.
The movie pilots were warbird display pilots coming from the UK, USA, France, New Zealand and Norway, the roster changing several times as pilots had to return to their full-time jobs during filming. The flying sequences were devised and planned under the co-ordination of Old Flying Machine Company (OFMC) pilots Ray Hanna and his son Mark, who also acted as chief pilots for the fighter aircraft used and flew the camera-equipped fighter and TBM Avenger aircraft during filming.
Notable filming incidents
One of the French B-17's (F-BEEA) used as a filming platform hit a tree and a pile of gravel during takeoff from Binbrook and was destroyed by the subsequent fire. The crew of ten escaped, with two of them suffering from serious injury and three from minor injury.
Whilst lined up on runway 21 awaiting takeoff a puff of smoke was observed by a ground engineer from the vicinity of engine three which he conjectured could have been due to an overboost. The aircraft commenced its ground roll and after about 100 yards swung slightly to the left, which the commander (the handling pilot) corrected with the rudder and by reducing power to number 3 and 4 engines. Once corrected full power on all engines was resumed but the aircraft swung right. The commander applied corrective rudder and reduced power to number 1 and 2 engines, but this was not immediately effective and the aircraft left the runway before straightening, parallel to the runway. Knowing that the aircraft was capable of being operated from grass landing strips, the pilot opted to continue the take off, however, after 4-500 yards and at an airspeed of 90-95 MPH the aircraft swung right and its course was obstructed by a tree which hit the left wing and a pile of gravel which hit the number 4 propeller. The aircraft yawed to the right and came to rest in a cornfield, the fuselage broke into two places aft of the bomb bay and caught on fire. 
|Memphis Belle (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)|
|Soundtrack album by George Fenton|
|Released||October 1, 1990|
|Recorded||Abbey Road Studios,
CTS Studios, and
"The Chestnut Tree", written by Tommie Connor, Jimmy Kennedy and Hamilton Kennedy appears in the movie but not on the soundtrack album. The upbeat version of "Danny Boy" performed by Connick at the party is not found on the soundtrack album; a slower version performed by Mark Williamson appears instead. The film score, by George Fenton, was nominated for a BAFTA award for Best Original Film Score in 1991.
The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack album was recorded at Abbey Road Studios, CTS Studios, and Angel Studios in London, England. Included is Glenn Miller and His Orchestra performing "I Know Why (And So Do You)".
- "Londonderry Air" / "Front Titles: Memphis Belle" (traditional / George Fenton) - 3:50
- "Green Eyes" (Nilo Menendez, Eddie Rivera, Eddie Woods) - 3:25
- "Flying Home" (Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Sydney Robin) - 2:57
- "The Steel Lady" (Fenton) - 1:44
- "Prepare For Take Off" ("Amazing Grace") (traditional) - 2:39
- "The Final Mission" (Fenton) - 3:51
- "With Deep Regret..." (Fenton) - 2:02
- "I Know Why (And So Do You)" (Mack Gordon, Harry Warren) - 2:55 - performed by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra
- "The Bomb Run" (Fenton) - 1:30
- "Limping Home" (Fenton) - 2:25
- "Crippled Belle: The Landing" (Fenton) - 3:26
- "Resolution" (Fenton) - 1:06
- "Memphis Belle" (End Title Suite) (Fenton) - 7:37
- "Danny Boy" (Theme from Memphis Belle) (Frederic E. Weatherly) - 3:20 - performed by Mark Williamson
- Robert Morgan, The Man who Flew the Memphis Belle. N.Y.: New American Library, 2002.
- Boeing B17G Flying Fortress, F-BEEA 11-89 (pdf), Air Accident Investigation Branch
- "soundtrackcollector.com". soundtrackcollector.com. Retrieved 2010-10-11.
- "CD Universe". CD Universe. 1990-10-17. Retrieved 2010-10-11.
- Memphis Belle at the Internet Movie Database
- Memphis Belle at Rotten Tomatoes
- Memphis Belle at Box Office Mojo