Sunday, March 13, 2011

Memphis Belle

 After the atrocity of Toolbox Murders it was a real pleasure, and relief, to watch something decent! I saw Memphis Belle in the old State theatre in 1990 several years before it closed down. I remember it vividly as back then the State would have periodic movie-athons and play about four or five movies in one night and charge a set rate for all.
 God those were the days! Things have changed so much and theatres do nothing like that anymore. The State's movie-athons would start about eight at night and go to about three in the morning. It was great, and it was interesting to watch the audienece thin out as those who wanted to see only one or two particular movies had left and the die hard movie goers were left. Suffice to say yours truely was amongst the hardy last!!
 I don't recall any of the other movies that played along side Belle. I do remember that it played as a new release and was screened first. This of course is a movie that is right up my alley in terms of content and genre. With my interest in military history I was an eager twenty year old in 1990 to see it. Well I can say it didn't let me down and even twenty years later it is seared on my memory.
 Overall Belle is a very accurate representation of the American stategic bombing campaign of WW2. There are a few historical inaccuracies but in light of what the movie was trying to portray I don't have much of a gripe with them. Firstly the fighters that escort the bomber stream are P-51 Mustangs which weren't in service in 1943, the year the movie is based in. This is a shame of historical license because these same fighters later turn for home as they haven't the range to escort the bombers to their destination. 
 Any one who knows their aircraft will be well aware that the Mustang had incredible range and later in the war escorted bombers to extreme ranges and back. What the movie is portraying is historical fact in that in 1943 the Allies did not have an aircraft that had sufficient range to escort the bombers. Although actual Mustangs in the film, what is being represented is the P-47 Thunderbolt. It is a shame the makers didn't use the proper aircraft for authenticity as there is quite a number of Thuderbolts left flying in the world.
 I appreciate the difficulties in making an historical film of this nature but I wish film makers would take more care in their endeavours if they are serious about the subject matter. Besides the minor detail of the Amercan fighters I can't fault Belle at all. It captures the times and men very well and doesn't try to glamorise or judge them. It attempts to paint them as the ordinary young men they were.
 As a film it touches on all the important aspects of the daylight bombing campaign. The fear, the comradeship, the death and loss of comrades, etc. It does very well in compressing so much into a short time frame.
 Twenty years later Belle still looks good even though some of the special effects have obviously dated and do show. I remember vividly the detail and accuracy the effects had back in its day and praised it for its realism. One scene shows a German fighter blowing the nose off a B-17 and the bombadier falling out with no parachute on. This happened and I have read many acounts of this type of event which horrified anyone who witnessed it.
 There is no glamour here. All the things that happened to the Belle are very real and occured daily over occupied Europe. The scene where a German fighter is hit and slices through a B-17 are true and I have seen photos of planes that have survived such an incident and made it back to England virtually cut in half. Shrapnel hits, fires, stuck bomb bay doors and under carriages are all portrayed here and happened. The flak is terrifying, the fighters quick and menacing, as it must be remembered the Germans weren't up there to play tiddlywinks, they meant business, and the comabat scenes portray it superbly. This one of those rare films that what you see actually happened. I have always had high regard for this movie for its realism.
 Memphis Belle pre-dated Saving Private Ryan by about eight years. It isn't as bloody as Ryan but its realism and authenticity are just as good. I have always liked this movie for its ungarnised, unsentimental view on a bunch of young men during the bombing of Germany. I can't use the term 'war film' for Belle as it is mis-placed. I prefer 'historical drama' as it is portraying real events and does so in a very good manner in that is trying to bring to the attention of a newer generation what it was like to fight and die over the skies of  Europe.
 Memphis Belle is not a great film in the classic sense. But it is in the sense that it isn't just for entertainment and viewing pleasure. It is history within a fictional account, and for me this a damn fine movie and an accurate portrayel of the subject matter. Somewhat dated visually but still a good watch.
Click here for a synopsis and more:

 I strongly suggest a visit to wikipedia's page to as it is quite comprehensive and has some good links to pages about the strategic bombing campaign.
 If anyone disputes my facts or would like to read a very good book on the American bombing campaign of 1943 I refer them to Thomas Coffey's excellent book Decision Over Schweinfurt. It gives a very good account of the trials and tribulations of that year and is both approachable and authorative.


  1. I remember seeing this on first release and being impressed with its clear-sighted realism and lack of emotional bombast.

    I didn't realize the filmmakers had made such significant inaccuracies, and you'd think with the amount of people involved in the production of a feature film, it'd be a fairly quick and easy job for somebody to do a bit of fact-checking before the cameras roll.

    Still, I'm in complete agreement with your assessment on this film, and I'll certainly keep an eye out for the Thomas Coffey book that you recommend - sounds like an interesting read.

  2. Thanks Neil. It would be interesting to know why the makers went these these inaccuracies as they were so easily avoidable.