Flying in Memphis
Despite its good intentions to highlight the risks and heroics of the brave men who flew dangerous bombing missions deep into enemy soil during World War II, the one thing which you can't miss about "Memphis Belle" is that it is a cliche commercial production. The mixed bunch of characters that fill up the crew of men aboard the Memphis Belle are every stereotypical character you can imagine and the various scenes, the danger, the injuries and so on are all elements used in numerous other War movies over the years. But despite being a commercial movie full of young Hollywood talent there is something rather entertaining about "Memphis Belle" even though there is a lot about it which can be second guessed.
Having completed 24 successful bombing missions the crew of the "Memphis Belle" have one more mission to complete before they will be allowed to return home. Something which the US PR machine hasn't failed to noticed as they plan to capitalize on the crew's success once they complete their 25th and final mission. But the final mission isn't an easy one, with a planned bombing raid over Bremen leading them deep into enemy territory and at greater risk of failing their final mission.
The interesting thing is that "Memphis Belle" is based upon a real plane and crew yet you know that in making the movie most of the truth has been replaced or tampered with in order to create an entertaining movie which attempts to pack emotion and action in equal measures. It succeeds quite well and after a quick intro where we learn the back history of each of the brave crew the movie sort of journeys through a sequence of movie scenes and cliches. What do I mean, well you get the army dance the night before the last mission, the member of crew who loses his virginity and the co-pilot and his faithful dog. Pretty much every moment of "Memphis Belle" feels like it has trawled the depths of various other war movies and reworked the good scenes into just one movie.
But making "Memphis Belle" couldn't have been an easy job to do, with more than a handful of characters to introduce and make us champion them through a few fleeting moments where there individual characters are forced upon us. And what different scenes and storylines could you deliver as there have been so many movies which have tackled the heroics of pilots during the War. In fact despite most of "Memphis Belle" feeling like it has been half inched from other movies it works well, delivering you some emotion, some tension and plenty of action as it entertains with some clever cinematography and an impressive soundtrack.
In fact the soundtrack to "Memphis Belle" in particular the versions of "Oh Danny Boy" and "Amazing Grace" which work up gently from a minimal orchestral movement to a powerful crescendo really help generate the emotion during various scenes.
Of course there is that commercial side to "Memphis Belle" which is prevalent in the casting of a whole plethora of hot young talent from the late 80's. None of them do a bad job with the likes of Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz and Billy Zane standing out with performances which demonstrate their star quality. But it's hard not to feel a little over whelmed by all the stars such as Sean Astin, Tate Donovan, D.B. Sweeney, Harry Connick Jr. who are part of the crew and also David Strathairn, John Lithgow and Jane Horrocks who all have roles on the land. In many ways by having so many recognizable faces in central roles spoils things because "Memphis Belle" almost becomes a movie about the stars rather than the 25th mission of the famous bomber.
There are a few other issues, the contrived scene which ends up with Harry Connick Jr. taking to the stage and start singing feels too forced as does the scene where the co-pilot's dog is left waiting in the field watching for the plane to return. But they are minor gripes in a movie which does a pretty decent job of providing entertainment through so many cliche characters and scenes.
But more importantly "Memphis Belle" does manage to deliver the emotion of the period, the fear of the crew as they risk their lives, the feelings of those left on the ground as they wait for the return of the brave men. In the scene between Col. Harriman and Lt.Col. Derringer where they read the letters sent from the families of those who have been killed during the war really punches the message home.
What this all boils down to is that "Memphis Belle" although a movie which is heavily commercial does sort of manage to deliver a feeling of what it was like for the Bomber crews during World War II. You do get a sense of the fear, the emotion that these brave men felt as they risked their lives. But then it is also a very cliche movie and much of it feels like it is reworking elements of other movies as it endeavours to entertain through a mix of drama and action.