THE PEOPLE who produced ''Memphis Belle'' showed courage of a special kind. The idea that someone might dare, today, to do a film about a World War II bomber crew seems incredibly risky. After all, we have all those old war films showing on television. What can the producers of ''Memphis Belle'' do that hasn't been done before, many times over?
Well, they could make an exceptional film, and they have. ''Memphis Belle'' plays a little like the old World War II movies but with a difference. Yes, the final mission plays like so many similar missions in so many similar films, but because today's movie makers are allowed more freedom, these airmen speak a language that was alien to the World War II war movies.
The Memphis Belle, a B-17, became the first ''Flying Fortress'' to complete 25 missions over enemy ground. This accomplished, the men could go home, and because this was May 1943, it was something quite special.
''Memphis Belle'' takes us on that last trip, and the action and suspense are almost unbearable. Matthew Modine plays the pilot, Sean Astin is the bull-turret gunner, Eric Stoltz is the radio operator, Harry Connick Jr. is the tail gunner, Reed Edward Diamond is the top turret gunner-flight engineer, Tate Donovan is co-pilot, D.B. Sweeney is the navigator, Billy Zane is the bombardier, Courtney Gains is the right waist gunner, and Neil Giuntoli the left waist gunner.
On the ground, John Lithgow is a public relations officer, anxious use the returning Belle crew to advantage, and David Strathairn is the commanding officer who gives the film one of its most heartbreaking moments when he has Derringer (Lithgow) read some of the letters sent to him by parents and relatives of some of the boys who will not return from the war.
Those who lived through the war will certainly appreciate the film. Those who are contemporaries of these men, those who fought but didn't fly, will also appreciate the movie; it is easy enough to identify with these people.
''Memphis Belle,'' for which five B-17s were assembled, two here, two from France and one from England (the Memphis Belle is on permanent display in Memphis, Tenn.) was shot in England, at the original locations. It is a film that will probably leave you limp, despite the fact that we have flown these same skies many times before.
''Memphis Belle'' opens here today.
*** The men of the Memphis Belle, a World War II B-17, hope to make their 25th mission and return home.
CAST: Matthew Modine, John Lithgow, Eric Stoltz, Harry Connick Jr., Reed Edward Diamond, Tate Donovan, Courtney Gains, Neil Giuntoli, David Strathairn, Sean Astin, D.B. Sweeney, Billy Zane
DIRECTOR: Michael Caton-Jones
RATING: PG-13 (language, sex)
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes