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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