Catherine Wyler's father inspired 'Memphis Belle'


October 14, 1990|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — Washington-- When movie producer Catherine Wyler stepped onto the English airfield set for her first major feature-length film, the just-released "Memphis Belle," she had a sweetly startling revelation:

She knew things. Hundreds of things. Things she didn't even know she knew.

She knew there would be a hassle over the credits. She knew there would be disasters on the set. She knew there would be a certain point of no return at which she'd eat, sleep and breathe nothing but the production.

"It was stunning to me the amount of odd things I knew," she says in her Washington town house, the East Coast counterpart of her home in Beverly Hills. "Something would happen and instead of thinking, 'Oh my God!', I would know that this kind of thing happens a lot."

It happened, after all, in the '40s and '50s and '60s, in films like "Wuthering Heights" and "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "Ben Hur" and "Funny Girl" -- and, perhaps, in all of the films created by her late father, the legendary film director William Wyler.

"I learned so much from him that I didn't know I knew until I got in the middle of it."

Not the least of which was the story of the Memphis Belle, the American B-17 bomber that was the first to survive its 25 missions over German-occupied Europe during World War II, a "Flying Fortress" on which her father flew five missions to produce his 1943 documentary, "The Memphis Belle."

Ms. Wyler's new movie, co-produced by David Puttnam ("Chariots of Fire," "The Killing Fields"), is a fictionalized account of that 25th and final mission and was "inspired" by her father's documentary, a propaganda film made for the U.S. Army Air Forces to be shown back home and help the war effort.

For that film, Mr. Wyler enlisted in the Army Air Forces, where he produced several government films, learned to operate both a machine gun and a camera at 20,000-plus feet and subzero temperatures. He crouched in the ball turret on the underside of the bomber upon takeoff and landing -- against regulations because of the danger -- to get the most dramatic view of the runway. One of his small crew of cameramen was killed during a mission.

"He was a daredevil, an adventurer," says his daughter, who is married to Richard Rymland, owner of the Baltimore-based Rymland Development Group. "He wouldn't miss a chance to do something like that, even knowing how dangerous it was. When you see what it was really like, it's pretty shocking."

Ms. Wyler, 45, came across the wartime picture while working on her own 1986 documentary about her father's career, "Directed by William Wyler," an award-winning film she produced fearing her father and his body of work were being forgotten.

While working at Columbia Pictures in 1987 as a senior vic president in charge of movies based on true stories, she showed her documentary -- along with her father's "Memphis Belle" -- to Mr. Puttnam, then CEO of Columbia.

"I had a good true story in my own attic," she says of her father's decades-old World War II film. "It was pretty much of a collective 'Eureka!' Here was a true story that was a good basis for a feature film."

When she left Columbia a year later, after Mr. Puttnam did, she bought the property from the studio and took it back to Mr. Puttnam for production with Warner Bros.

When they started making "Memphis Belle," the producers thought of it strictly as an adventure movie, perhaps a way to acquaint a younger generation with what their grandfathers had been through, perhaps a way to convey the idea of teamwork that they believed had been lost

But the timing of the release of "Memphis Belle" -- in the midst of the Persian Gulf crisis in which thousands of young American men and women have been sent overseas and are poised for war -- has given it a special resonance.

Perhaps most poignant for today, says Ms. Wyler, is the portrait of youth at war depicted in her movie. "One thing we were not going to do was have everybody be 35 like they were in all the old war movies," she says. "That was one of the first tenets of making this movie. I never thought about it as a message, but it's become a message since the Gulf crisis. It's really a message to the country, perhaps to the world that, 'Don't forget, these are the kids who go.' "

She and the mostly all-male cast (including Matthew Modine and John Lithgow) and crew spent last summer and fall shooting the film on an airfield in England, having amassed an unparalleled collection of actual World War II fighter planes for the dangerous and intricate aerial scenes that dominate the movie. Although the real Memphis Belle is enshrined at a memorial site in Memphis, Tenn., five other restored B-17s were located and flown over for the film.

But Ms. Wyler says her movie, like her father's, "is about people as opposed to hardware," in this case, the relationships among the 10 young crew members.

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