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The Allies fought hard in the Second World War
From beaches to fields everywhere,
But hundreds of thousands were chosen to soar
And battle the foes from the air.
One crew of such men who attacked from the sky
Was those on the plane Memphis Belle.
Twenty-four missions they managed to fly,
Surviving the aerial hell.
The twenty-fifth outing, their last for the war,
Both thrills and unnerves them at once.
They all celebrate at a party before
The mission that nobody wants.
There’s Dennis, the pilot, who rigidly reigns,
And Luke, the co-pilot, who’s brash
And wants just one chance to shoot down German planes
And gets it and causes a crash.
There’s Phil, who is nervous and fears he will die,
And Virge, who has restaurant ambitions,
And Jack, who likes teasing poor Gene, a young guy
Who prays and brings medals on missions.
There’s Rascal, the ladies’ man who almost falls when
His ball turret’s shot in midair,
And Clay, the tail gunner, who usually stalls when
He’s asked for his crooning to share.
There’s bombardier Val, who lets drop their payload,
Despite a blurred target at first.
He claims he’s a doctor who’ll soon hit the road,
But proves he knows naught when coerced.
For Danny, a young Irish poet who’s kind,
Is injured while they’re flying back.
Val faces a choice that perplexes his mind
But keeps Dan from fading to black.
Within sight of base, they are nearly home free,
But one of their landing gear’s stuck.
They quickly descend the wheel manually,
And everyone cheers at their pluck.
They get Danny quickly to medical care,
And all of the heroes exult.
They each did their duty and fought from the air,
And home awaits as a result.

War movies often focus on different aspects of a conflict in order to stay fresh and avoid copying another film that’s already been done. Lawrence of Arabia focused on the war in the Middle East; The Great Escape presented POWs in Europe; The Bridge on the River Kwai had POWs in the South Pacific; War Horse was from a faithful steed’s perspective; and Patton centered on a single general of World War II. Memphis Belle chooses to shine a spotlight on the WWII bombers in the air. It doesn’t so much focus on aerial dogfights as on a group of barrack buddies who are given a task and simply try to survive so they can go home. It isn’t historically accurate when it comes to the real Memphis Belle and its missions and crew, but this is a realistic war film that gives an authentic sense of actually being on a dangerous bombing run.

The best war films manage to create characters that viewers can care about in the midst of peril, and Memphis Belle certainly succeeds in this regard. Each of the young men on the plane has unique personalities and traits that make them into real people. Even if their names don’t stick, one can remember the religious gunner (Courtney Gains), the cocky co-pilot (Tate Donovan), the careful pilot (Matthew Modine), the lecherous gunner (Sean Astin), the nervous navigator (D. B. Sweeney), the calm crooner (Harry Connick, Jr.), and the doubtful doctor (Billy Zane), among others. The initial voiceover introductions don’t help all that much in distinguishing the characters, but by the end each has a moment, an act of kindness, a moral quandary, a fateful decision, that helped me know and appreciate each one. That being said, I do have trouble telling the actors apart at times. I can easily recognize Sean Astin and Billy Zane from their other films I’ve seen, but I’m not as familiar with the others so most of them look the same to me. Even so, David Strathairn offers John Lithgow’s character (and the audience) a heart-tugging glimpse at the war’s losses and the difficult job faced by officers as well.

During the mission, almost everything goes wrong, from cloud cover over the target to engine fires to lost comrades on nearby planes to the landing gear not lowering properly. The excitement and entertainment also come from how the men deal with these issues and the general stress of the mission. One gets drunk, one prays, one whittles, one does magic tricks, and one writes poetry (yeah, I like Danny [Eric Stoltz]). Though there’s some unfortunate language, the violence is restrained, and the very human characters and engagingly episodic plot make up for it. You won’t find too many war films on my list, but Memphis Belle definitely deserves a spot.

Best line: (Gene, searching through the barracks) “Has anyone seen my St. Anthony’s medal?”
(Danny) “Isn’t he the patron saint of lost things?”
(Gene) “Yeah, I can’t find it.”


Artistry: 7
Characters/Actors: 8
Entertainment: 8
Visual Effects: 6
Originality: 8
Watchability: 7
Other (language): -4
TOTAL: 40 out of 60

Next: #213 – Anastasia (1997)

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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