Memphis Belle Fliers Rumble To Hell And Back In A Moving Serenade To The B-17

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

'Memphis Belle'

Starring Matthew Modine and Eric Stoltz.

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones.

Distributed by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13.

*** "Memphis Belle" isn't that rarity, a movie about World War II. No, it's something more rare still: It's a World War II movie.It's the real thing -- a gung-ho, rah-rah encomium to team spirit, the wisdom of leadership and the unimpeachable sanctity of national goals. It's never heard of irony or revisionism -- or Vietnam. That historians now conclude the strategic bombing initiatives of the 8th Air Force over Germany -- which the film illustrates -- were tactically useless and ineffective doesn't bother it in the least.

In other words, it's a state-of-the-art '90s movie with the Zeitgeist of 1944, the story of a desperate journey, about men who were expendable, and went to hell and back.

And it must be said that no film in years has captured the grace and terror of B-17 culture and combat quite so believably. At its best, the movie is a serenade to the big bird: It puts you in the long slender ships in the thin air over Germany and makes you feel both the exhilaration and the terror. For the ship itself is a character in the movie, and director Michael Caton-Jones loves to prowl her nooks and crannies and take us to places we've never been, at least not in a movie. And the production has managed to assemble the world's last squadron of 17s by raiding airplane graveyards the world over, as well as a few enemy Messerschmitt-109s and a few Mustang P-51 escorts. So as a documentary re-creation it far excels anything that's come before and anything that will come later.

When the planes are actually in battle -- with German nightmare fighters knifing through their formations, the sky a jamboree of explosions and tracer bullets, the sounds of the doomed screeching desperately over the intercom, other bombers burning and sliding from formation -- "Memphis Belle" has the terrible clarity of a nightmare. You are there, and it makes you glad you weren't there. And it's all sort of true.

That's because the film's relationship to "truth" is somewhat problematical. There really was a B-17 called "Memphis Belle," which was the first in the 8th Air Force to complete the required 25 missions over Germany and then returned home, crew intact, to a rousing X-rated (or, rather, NC-17-rated) bond tour. That airplane now rests in a park by the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tenn. But this isn't the story of that airplane.

It's the story of every airplane, but it's also the story of no airplane.

In reality, the Belle's last mission was to L'Orient, France, and not a single shot was fired at her. In David Puttnam and Catherine Wyler's version, the mission takes the craft, with a new, fictitious crew, deep into Germany, where the war pursued them the livelong day. It's kind of the mother mission, a summing up of all B-17 experiences, a "truth" told in symbolism.

But the strategy pays diminishing dividends. As convincing as the film is in its first third and as thrilling as it is in its middle third, it becomes somewhat bombastic in its last third, as the crises mount faster than they do on a soap opera, and one by one each crew member has his moment of quiet terror and loud heroism.

And the movie also loses track of one of its most interesting aspects. At some level, it seems to be about the co-option of genuine heroism by public relations. John Lithgow plays a smarmy Air Corps colonel from the Department of Tactical Publicity who wants to sell the story to the folks back home, turn the flight into the '40s equivalent of a miniseries. He's a modern figure -- a cynic, more drawn to style than content, a professional reducer of irreducibilities -- a packager. In short, the very devil himself.

Yet he is lost as the movie progresses and becomes one cacophony after another; the theme is abandoned, the dramatic arc is not completed.

Every other conceivable one is, however, and then some. The screenplay, by Monte Merrick, labors mightily to give each crew member a distinct identity, but only fitfully succeeds, and for that reason the oily Lithgow remains the most prominent figure, seconded only by David Straithern as the group commander, a man dedicated to duty but not entirely without compassion.

Big star Matthew Modine is surprisingly muted as the clumsy, competent pilot whom nobody really likes very much. Meanwhile, Billy Zane, an amazing Clark Gable look-alike, is the most vivid of the officers, as the bombardier. Of the enlisted men, Eric Stoltz as the poetic radio operator comes across the most fully dimensioned. Other crew members quickly degenerate into single characteristics -- there's the Scared One (D. B. Sweeney), the Shallow One (Tate Donovan), and Harry Connick, continuing the Trini Lopez tradition, as The One Who Can Sing.

But the movie, despite its irritating flaws, is still engaging and at times stunningly exciting -- and it's very moving. They may have to wash you out of the theater with a hose.

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