Memphis Belle (1990)

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones

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Memphis Belle is a pretty straightforward World War II film, but I was smitten with it.  Maybe it’s the cast, composed of welcome and familiar faces like Matthew Modine, a young Harry Connick Jr., Eric Stoltz, Courtney Gains, Tate Donovan or Sean Astin, as well as the always calming presence of David Strathairn (dude is in everything), or maybe it’s… well I don’t know what else it could be.

From a plot standpoint the movie is lean.  The first third or so introduces us to this vibrant cast of characters, setting up the brotherly bond between them all in a manner similar to Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One.  The last half or more of the story will follow them on a single mission, their final as a crew of the “Memphis Belle,” a bomber flying straight into the unfriendly skies over Nazi Germany.

This means that there is no back and forth between home and the battlefields, no real momentum shifts for the worse.  We get to spend time with the characters as people, and then we watch them in action.  With the first act shading in their personalities we will care about them all the more once the danger unfolds.

I’m a sucker for many of the actors in this film, so going into it I had a certain affinity for their characters before knowing anything else about them.  Whether it’s Modine’s level-headedness, Stoltz waxing poetic about the world or Connick Jr.’s crooning, I was ready to just hang out with them.  The cast here has a camaraderie that not all films like this can muster.  Each character is vivid, developed and no one is forced to play the villain.

Instead we watch the young men grapple with the life or death stakes of their line of work.  At times they may antagonize the group or make mistakes, but this only further humanizes them.

The story opens with the narration of John Lithgow while we watch the crew of the Belle play football by their base.  We think Lithgow might be one of the crew reflecting on this time years down the road, like the Stephen King surrogate character in any number of Stephen King stories (Stand By Me, for example), but soon we learn that he is a character of this time.  Lithgow plays a high-ranking out of touch Lieutenant who means to prop up these young man for a tour back home after their final mission.  He is a military publicist, and he wants to parade them around, make them famous and raise more war bonds.

The movie establishes these men as heroes of a certain ilk but also makes clear the powers that be which tell us who to regard as heroes.  We then may question why some are made heroic even as we are told to see these men in a certain light.

As their mission soon approaches, however, we see their faults and the ways they butt heads with each other.  It’s as if we are quickly deconstructing the myth which the movie sets up in the first few minutes, only to then build them back up as we see the danger they fly through.

I suppose the movie then lets us know that not all soldiers are necessarily these superheroes which they are meant to be, but then it says, actually yes, these men are heroes, but they’re just ordinary men who answered the call to duty.  At the same time their eventual success feels a bit lucky when we see how easily other bombers are shot out of the sky.

So maybe it’s that some of these soldiers were inevitably going to be regarded in such a light simply because they survived and did what they were asked.  It’s a numbers game, when you step far enough back, and the generals who put such missions into place knew that some of their targets would hit and others wouldn’t.  One of the bombers, in fact, is run by a rookie crew who are all killed when their plane explodes.

War movies in general have a tough line to walk when they want us to leave feeling all warm inside, as this one does.  There is a certain nostalgia to the inherent brotherhood of these platoons, but they are so close to death that some people never quite come back. The horrors of war aren’t easy, I imagine, to wash off your back when it’s all said and over, though Memphis Belle makes it seem possible.

Maybe that’s disingenuous, but I think this is how the soldiers who survived might remember such a thing, to focus on the heroism because leaving any room for doubt or to remember just how close they were to dying (let alone watching others die) might be too much to bear.

Up Next: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), Wildlife (2018), Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

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