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  Memphis Belle (1943)
The Internet Movie Database: Memphis Belle, The (1943)

THE MEMPHIS BELLE (by William Wyler)

Film comment by Mark R. Leeper

This year's (1990) MEMPHIS BELLE directed by Michael Caton-Jones is a popular film describing the last mission of the first B-17 to complete its assigned twenty-five missions. What has not been mentioned anywhere is that MEMPHIS BELLE is a partial remake of a previous film called THE MEMPHIS BELLE. The original was directed by one of Hollywood's great directors, William Wyler, who directed such films as MRS. MINIVER, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, THE DESPERATE HOURS, THE BIG COUNTRY, BEN HUR, and FUNNY GIRL. After he completed MRS. MINIVER, Wyler enlisted in the Army Air Corps only to be assigned to make documentaries about the day-to-day business of the Army Air Corps. He made two; one was THUNDERBOLT and one was THE MEMPHIS BELLE. The latter was bout the B-17 crews stationed in England who bombed Germany and used as a focal point the last mission of the Memphis Belle. The Discovery Channel on cable just happens to be running Wyler's MEMPHIS BELLE this month.

[The following paragraph will include some spoilers about the 1990 movie.]

Wyler apparently went on several bombing missions to create the documentary, though he has what is at best only a minute or so of footage from the Belle's final flight, and that is from the landing and taken from the ground. The 1990 films seems to have much exaggerated the danger of the final mission. The following are apparently inaccuracies of the later film:
- There were no injuries on the Belle on her final mission. When she landed the crew was grinning from the windows and the glass nose. There is a reference to a transfusion in some places but it is not the Belle. The Belle had no fires, did not have to throw out its guns, and was not losing fuel.
- In the original most of the planes are not named for or illustrated with pictures of sexy women. More common are names like "Old Bill." The nose paintings usually show cartoons of nasty things happening to a frightened- looking Hitler.
- The 1990 film shows some spectacular collisions. The original film does not, but probably would not mention the dangerous mishaps.
- The 1990 production could get only eight planes. The original gives more of a feel of an armada.
- The crew looks considerably older in the original. There are references to crew members in their late teens, but most looked more like mid-thirties.
- The Belle was not assigned to Bremen; it was assigned to the submarine pens at Wilhelmshaven.
The Wyler documentary is worth seeing and makes a worthwhile supplement to the movie. After the documentary there are interviews with crew members who flew the B-17s. The contention is made that this is one of the best- designed planes ever built. Every architectural element has a backup so if it were shot away the backup takes over. The planes could be horribly shot up and still be in good flying condition, as both versions of the film showed. A German flier is quoted as saying that attacking a B-17 was "like making love to a porcupine ... on fire."
Summary written by:
Mark R. Leeper

Genre(s): Drama war

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Last updated June 8, 1995