' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Memphis Belle: A Story Of A Flying Fortress (1943)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Memphis Belle: A Story Of A Flying Fortress (1943)

A favorite movegoing memory came in the winter of 1990 when a friend wanted to go see the box office bonanza "Home Alone" and enlisted me to go along. Honestly, I wasn't all that excited to see "Home Alone", but I loved going to the movie theater, and so why not? Yet I was delighted, even though I was forced to hide that delight, when we arrived to find "Home Alone" sold out. With limited alternatives, we chose "Memphis Belle", which I actually was excited to see. I loved the whole damn thing to pieces, right down to the gloriously cornball moment when Eric Stoltz stands up in front of his B-17 brothers and recites Yeats. "I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above." Sigh.


Of course, that "Memphis Belle" took its story (and stretched the heck out of it) from the real Memphis Belle, and the real Memphis Belle was chronicled in William Wyler's in-the-midst-of-WWII American propaganda documentary "Memphis Belle: A Story Of A Flying Fortress." Reading Mark Harris's wonderful "Five Came Back", which tells the story of American film directors who enlisted in the glorious cause to make movies in the name of the war effort, it shamed me to realize I had never watched Wyler's version. As Harris so thrillingly weaves it, Wyler went right up in the Belle with all the boys, even if daylight bombing was an incredibly risky concept, to garner his footage.

The footage is gripping and the stylistic touches only enhance the footage, so much that the 41 minutes (don't do it, Nick!!!) fly by. The film opens with idyllic shots of the English countryside before quickly pivoting to show that countryside overrun with ginormous B-17 bombers as the narrator, Eugene Kern, his voice reminiscent of a more schoolmasterish Orson Welles, making the word "bombers" as melifluous as it is portentous, intones about how England has become an "aircraft carrier", and how this is a new kind of war front. "THIS," and he truly bits with a deep baritone befitting all-caps, "is an air front," and this phrase is repeated at least twice more throughout.

Though Wyler incorporated footage of several different air runs, not that my novice eyes could ever tell, he has a convenient device around which he can sculpt a narrative - that is, the Memphis Belle is making its 25th bombing run into enemy territory. If it survives, its entire crew gets to go home. And so the film, in a wonderful bit of exposition madness imposed over a massive map, lays out the mission to Wilhelmshafen, Germany in precise detail. We meet the men of the Memphis Belle, though barely, and it really doesn't matter, because even the briefest detail when the real-life stakes are clearly so high resonates with thundering grandeur. "Tail gunner," Kern recites, "Sgt. John Quinlan of Yonkers, New York. Clerked for a carpet company but he quit December 8, 1941."

Can you follow all that?
The sequences set aboard the Belle are pulverizing, both in their moments of peace, such as the vapor trails streaking the sky like ones I'd see in my Iowa backyard on crisp fall nights, and in their moments of terror, like a fellow bomber that falls away as we watch parachutes of the crew members deploy. What becomes of these men we never know, and I thought of Harry Lime referring to the humans below as "dots", and how these nameless soldiers falling through the sky looked like anything but dots. Machine guns shake on screen and flak dots the skies, and at one point a burst of flak even drifts directly toward the camera, as if it might swallow us whole.

In "Five Came Back" Harris documents how Wyler had originally intended an ending decidedly grave in tone, only to be overrided by The War Department since, after all, the film's primary motive was to be used as propaganda wrapped in the Stars & Stripes. And so, the Memphis Belle makes it back safe, everyone smiles, and they get to meet the Queen. Every war is well that ends well. These concluding passages, however, stand in stark contrast to the preceding material, to the somber voice modulation of Kern who, I swear, is trying his damndest to scare us off from ever wanting to bomb anyone.

I remember when "Memphis Belle" rousingly wrapped up that I was filled with a rush of wartime evangelism, because I was 13 and I was naive and I assumed that going to war must be just like this movie. It must mean I'll pack up my lucky charm and my notebook of poetry and Harry Connick Jr. will sing "Danny Boy" and whimsy will fill the airfield. That seems so much more propagandistic than watching the B-17's launch in Wyler's documentary and listening to Kern declare "in a few hours when they come back...(pause)...IF they come back." Imagine going to enlist with that rattling around in your head.

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