Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Memphis Belle, The (1944)

Director: William Wyler


America celebrates it airborne heroes in this documentary about an illustrious bomber and its crew. A common practice of the US War Department during World War II, this government commissioned “documentary” depicts the story heroism of the brave fighting men that put their lives on the line to protect freedom and fight the good fight for their nation. This tale shares the accomplishments of one particular bomber crew that first reached a certain number of missions that earned them their tickets back home.

The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress is a documentary depicting a common mission day for the crew aboard a US bomber, focusing on the celebrated final mission of one particular ship before its retirement. Being the crew of bomber during World War II was one of great danger with many planes experience damage or even casualties if they survived their missions. In order for a plane and its crew to earn decommission, essentially retirement of the plane and a return ticket home for its crew, it was required that the plane accomplish 25 bombing mission .Up to this point not plane ever lasted that long, until the The Memphis Belle came along.

With actual 16mm footage captured from real bombing missions over enemy territory this picture shares the story of The Memphis Belle on its successful 25th and final bombing mission, this one over Wilhelmshfen, Germany. The picture depicts all the anxieties and drama of flying such a mission and the adulation of returning with a mission completed. For the first time with such great clarity and understanding we, the audiences, can watch this heroism. Complete with experience of watching on coming anti-aircraft fire, battling oncoming German fighter planes, and even watching the falling of fellow aircraft during the mission this film does its best to bring home the struggles of air warfare to the movie screen. In the end the crew completes their mission and return to base is celebration, garnering a visit from the King and Queen of England in congratulations for their great accomplishment.

Now The Memphis Belle does not fall under the category of a “short” and it would not have the draw of a mainstream feature film, but it was a motion picture that was fashioned for a specific purpose in mind. Produced by the War Department under its  “First Motion Picture Unit” company, and distributed by major studio Paramount Pictures, this feature was constructed as a purely morale building movie. This falls in line with the definition of propaganda. Depicting our braves boys fighting the good fight and coming out on top was imperative to the efforts of building positive confidence for the greater American population back home.

Directed by the deeply respected Hollywood filmmaker William Wyler, this picture has a bit of fantasy along with the captured facts within the capsule of celluloid. Wyler in looking for a morale building story centers on The Memphis Belle as it closed in on its 25th mission. Other planes came within reach of this magic number, but eventually met their demise. However, Wyler gravitated to “The Memphis Belle” because he felt a attraction to the aircraft and its name and began planning the eventual shooting of this picture.

With the aura of the film being based around this one aircraft it would appear that The Memphis Belle and its crew would receive some sort of special treatment, which in some senses could be considered true. However, there was still a war to fight, and there remained that definite treat in which Hollywood would never be able to fake or necessarily defeat. There were still missions to be carried out and a real war to win, and a little movie was not the priority for the Air Force. So in most was the Memphis Belle was not treated an more special than any other craft. It was just lucky enough to survive all of its missions and have it documented here in this polished up capturing of the celebrated moments.

In planning of the documentary Wyler had three cinematographers to film the mission’s actions. There was of course B-roll footage shot prior of crafts taking off or men working various jobs on the ship itself while no in the air. Assuring the crew that his cameras would not be in the way, these filmmakers captured, without sound, 16mm color footage of the very real dangers any bomber saw in any mission over Germany. Beginning with the crossing over the sea to the first appearance of enemy flack, shrapnel inducing explosives, we see the ever present danger these men must endure to carry out even a simple bombing run.

Beyond these actual hand held moments of action, the feature fleshes out the story.  Anxious crewmen are seen awaiting the return of The Memphis Belle and other fellow bombers back at the base, and upon arrival we witness a visit from His and Her Royal Majesties, King George IV and Queen Elizabeth congratulating the crew.

As with many documentaries, especially of that time, some of the film is very staged. In fact the mission depicted in the picture was actually The Memphis Belle’s 24th mission, one short of its final which was accomplish shortly after, yet before the film’s release in April of 1944. However, this picture does illustrate much of what was real of these missions. Even one of Wyler’s cinematographers while shooting images of The Memphis Belle from another craft was shot down and the footage lost. Another cinematographer was injured for the shrapnel and was attended to after they landed. This feature was produced in the middle of danger.

After the real life moments were captured the film began to take shape as Wyler and the US War Department would edit the picture, dressing it up all nice to manifest a tale of how well the war effort was going. The film is not all adulation as it portrays enough gruesome reminders of the cost of war with injured men and even casualties, to remind audiences that freedom is not free.

The Memphis Belle, the film and the plane itself would become a symbol of the American Air Force. It celebrates the heroism and bravery of those that fought and succeeded for the US. The motion picture was yet another tool of American propaganda, serving its purpose to boost morale and fade into the background after the war was won. The plane itself has been kept and preserved by the US Air Force, and as of the release of this post resides in Dayton, Ohio receiving much needed care, hoping to one day be on public display as a vestige of heroism in World War II.

Despite the documentary being of relative obscurity, it lives on a reminder of the war and how it was presented to the American public during that time. It would inspire a 1990 feature film retelling of the heroism of the men aboard the flying fortress, which met little fanfare. Being that this orginal documentary was directed by one of the business’ more celebrated filmmakers adds to its mystique as it found itself a permanent home in 2001 at the Library of Congress as part of the Nation Film Registry for its cultural impact in motion pictures in American history.

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