Of course, that "Memphis Belle" took its story (and stretched the heck out of it) from the real Memphis Belle, and the real Memphis Belle was chronicled in William Wyler's in-the-midst-of-WWII American propaganda documentary "Memphis Belle: A Story Of A Flying Fortress." Reading Mark Harris's wonderful "Five Came Back", which tells the story of American film directors who enlisted in the glorious cause to make movies in the name of the war effort, it shamed me to realize I had never watched Wyler's version. As Harris so thrillingly weaves it, Wyler went right up in the Belle with all the boys, even if daylight bombing was an incredibly risky concept, to garner his footage.
The footage is gripping and the stylistic touches only enhance the footage, so much that the 41 minutes (don't do it, Nick!!!) fly by. The film opens with idyllic shots of the English countryside before quickly pivoting to show that countryside overrun with ginormous B-17 bombers as the narrator, Eugene Kern, his voice reminiscent of a more schoolmasterish Orson Welles, making the word "bombers" as melifluous as it is portentous, intones about how England has become an "aircraft carrier", and how this is a new kind of war front. "THIS," and he truly bits with a deep baritone befitting all-caps, "is an air front," and this phrase is repeated at least twice more throughout.
Though Wyler incorporated footage of several different air runs, not that my novice eyes could ever tell, he has a convenient device around which he can sculpt a narrative - that is, the Memphis Belle is making its 25th bombing run into enemy territory. If it survives, its entire crew gets to go home. And so the film, in a wonderful bit of exposition madness imposed over a massive map, lays out the mission to Wilhelmshafen, Germany in precise detail. We meet the men of the Memphis Belle, though barely, and it really doesn't matter, because even the briefest detail when the real-life stakes are clearly so high resonates with thundering grandeur. "Tail gunner," Kern recites, "Sgt. John Quinlan of Yonkers, New York. Clerked for a carpet company but he quit December 8, 1941."
|Can you follow all that?|
In "Five Came Back" Harris documents how Wyler had originally intended an ending decidedly grave in tone, only to be overrided by The War Department since, after all, the film's primary motive was to be used as propaganda wrapped in the Stars & Stripes. And so, the Memphis Belle makes it back safe, everyone smiles, and they get to meet the Queen. Every war is well that ends well. These concluding passages, however, stand in stark contrast to the preceding material, to the somber voice modulation of Kern who, I swear, is trying his damndest to scare us off from ever wanting to bomb anyone.
I remember when "Memphis Belle" rousingly wrapped up that I was filled with a rush of wartime evangelism, because I was 13 and I was naive and I assumed that going to war must be just like this movie. It must mean I'll pack up my lucky charm and my notebook of poetry and Harry Connick Jr. will sing "Danny Boy" and whimsy will fill the airfield. That seems so much more propagandistic than watching the B-17's launch in Wyler's documentary and listening to Kern declare "in a few hours when they come back...(pause)...IF they come back." Imagine going to enlist with that rattling around in your head.