Memphis Belle

Kansas in August has nothing on the corny appeal of this fact-based World War II aerial spectacle. It's the first film from producer David Puttnam since he resigned as chairman of Columbia Pictures in 1987; before that, he was known for such true-life dramas as Chariots of Fire and The Killing Fields. In the Puttnam tradition Memphis Belle is a grand and rousing adventure, complete with his trademark strong production values, sleek cinematography (from Out of Africa's David Watkin) and a pumped-up score (from Gandhi's George Fenton). Screenwriter Monte Merrick (Staying Together) and director Michael Caton-Jones (Scandal) are shameless at playing on the emotions. It's easy to sneer at the hokey parts – as you could with Air Force (1943) or Twelve O'clock High (1949) – but it's more satisfying to give in to the old-fashioned fun.

The historical basis for the film is the Memphis Belle, an American B-17 bomber whose ten-man crew flew twenty-four successful missions over Nazi-occupied Europe from a base in England. Embarking on its twenty-fifth and final mission in 1943, the Memphis Belle's crew became the focus of a huge army campaign to boost morale. John Lithgow plays the tactless colonel in charge of the campaign; the splendid David Strathairn is the commanding officer, who decries using a life-and-death situation for propaganda. Caton-Jones makes the claustrophobic terror in the belly of the Belle almost palpable. And documentary footage shot by William Wyler – whose daughter Catherine Wyler coproduced the film – adds to the film's authenticity.

But the crew, boys barely out of their teens, are the film's focus. Matthew Modine is very fine as the pilot and leader who talks to his plane before takeoff. Eric Stoltz manages to keep the sweet poetry-reciting radio operator from degenerating into saccharin. Sean Astin provides feisty humor as the ball-turret gunner. And singer-composer Harry Connick Jr. makes an auspicious acting debut as the tail gunner. Tate Donovan as the copilot, Reed Edward Diamond as the engineer, D.B. Sweeney as the navigator, Billy Zane as the bombardier and Courtney Gains and Neil Giuntoli as, respectively, the right- and left-waist gunners also manage to build characters out of cliché. The vigorous young cast enhances the excitement of the flight sequences, which are spectacular. Movie rah-rah has rarely been this entertaining.

From The Archives Issue 590: November 1, 1990
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