Moral clarity appeals to film's producers

October 12, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

MEMPHIS — Well, no sir, he doesn't quite get it.

The old man, tan and fit enough, seems somewhat bemused by all the fuss. To him it was a job. He did it. He survived it. He went on with his life.

"I just worry," says Robert Morgan, pilot of the B-17 "Memphis Belle" for 25 harrowing trips over occupied Europe and Germany 1943, "that there might be some people who believe we actually did all that."

The confusion is understandable. The Belle was the first 8th Air Force Flying Fortress to survive 25 missions, and its last one was recorded by Hollywood filmmaker William Wyler, shooting documentaries for the Army. The boys went home to find themselves stars of a bond tour ("Now there's a movie you couldn't make," recalls Morgan with a sly grin) and of Wyler's acclaimed film. And then the war was over. And then everyone forgot.

Now it's 1990 and everyone's remembering, because one of Wyler's daughters, Catherine, convinced her former employer David Puttnam to co-produce with her the story of that last mission, except that, in typical movie fashion and unlike her father's documentary, this one has been front-loaded with heroics, with endless drama and close calls, with episodes that didn't happen. At least not to the real Memphis Belle.

Think of it this way. The 8th Air Force probably flew 10,000 planes in 200,000 sorties over Europe between 1942 and 1945, each of them, for its participants, an odyssey of risk, death and heroism. But on 10 of those missions, literally incredible things happened, and the movie "Memphis Belle" re-creates all 10 of them on one airplane for one mission.

For David Puttnam, this wasn't a problem, it was a necessity.

"Well," says Puttnam, the legendary producer ("Chariots of Fire") who had a brief try at running Columbia Pictures before being forced out, "I believe what we did was dramatically valid for the making of a film. Nothing of what we did was a falsification. You just have to make that kind of decision."

For Puttnam, making the film was an attempt to make a movie that he calls "anti-cynical."

"It seemed about time," he said. "I'd seen 'Top Gun' and I'd been impressed by the pyrotechnics but I'd been left empty. I thought, Why don't they put all that energy into a film you care about?' You know, try and do it with real characters. I wanted to get back to the moral clarity of 1943 and a situation without ambiguity."

He said he was also tired of "superhero" movies and wanted to do a movie with a different ethos. And he wanted to do away with the myth of the 35-year-old war hero.

"The average age for these men was 19 for the crew and 22 for the officers. It was essentially a children's crusade."

But younger members of the production had varying interpretations of the film. Matthew Modine, who stars as the Robert Morgan analogue, a character now called Dennis Dearborn, says it's not a war movie at all, at least not in the normal sense of being jingoistic about national war aims.

"None of us would have been interested in making that kind of movie," he insists. "None of us want to make a movie that tells you how to think. This is a film about working together. And it's not about heroism at all; it's about survival."

Right in the middle is the film's 32-year old Scottish director, Michael Caton-Jones.

"I wasn't interested in jingoism at all," he says. "But on the other hand, it would be revisionist to make an anti-war film set in 1943. I was more interested in the emotional texture than in climbing up on the soapbox, but at the same time I wanted to show the disgusting glamour of war. The B-17 was the highest tech there was in 1943, and we had to get the majesty into the film."

As for the larger issue of facts vs. truth, Caton-Jones emphatically comes down in favor of truth.

"The spirit is more important than the facts. It's a pure entertainment."

The movie originated with Ms. Wyler, who, as a vice president at Columbia under Puttnam, came across her father's documentary while researching and producing a documentary on him.

"I grew up hearing about the war," she said, "and clearly, for the men who'd been there, it was like nothing else. The intense emotion was obvious. And now that I've been to an 8th Air Force Reunion, I see it."

Ms. Wyler saw the potential of dramatizing and fictionalizing her father's original film, feeling that "getting that intense emotion would make it special."

Yet, she says, "when we started, there was a lot of incredulity that we were really interested in World War II. Now, it seems, we're in a situation where we have a clear sense of why we were there. In World War II, the issues were clear, and all the wars since have been so muddled."

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