The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)
Directed by William Wyler
41 min.; U.S.A.; Color; Mono
The William Wyler Blog-a-thon gives us a chance to celebrate William Wyler the film director and William Wyler the man. One of the documentary films he made for the Eighth Air Force during World War II provides an ideal vehicle to explore both. The pictures Wyler directed for Hollywood are perhaps better known, but The Memphis Belle (1944) challenged the director in ways he might never have faced working for the studios and it stands as a testament to the man's sense of obligation to his country in its time of need.
The Memphis Belle tells the story of a U.S. Army Air Forces Boeing B-17F nicknamed Memphis Belle after pilot Captain Robert K. Morgan's sweetheart, Margaret Polk of Memphis, Tennessee. Belle was the first bomber to complete twenty-five bombing missions over occupied Europe with no casualties among the crew and return to the United States. The fact that some eighty percent of the Belle's bomb group was shot down in the first three months of missions from the air fields at Bassingbourn attests to the significance of the achievement.1 Wyler flew five missions with the crew of Belle and returned to the U.S. to edit the documentary. The experience of making this combat report challegened the director's concept of successful pictue-making and left a permanent physical scar on the man himself.
According to the documentary Directed by William Wyler (1986), Wyler was born in 1902 in Alsace-Lorraine. In 1920 he was invited by his mother's cousin Carl Laemmle, president of Universal Pictures, to work for him in the United States. He worked his way up from the publicity department through various studio and assistant jobs to finally directing a low-budget western in 1925. Wyler developed his new-found talent for directing over the next ten years making what he himself described as "B-pictures." In 1936, he went to work for Samuel Goldwyn Productions and began making A-pictures. Working with Goldwyn, and talents like playwright Lillian Hellman, cinematographer Gregg Toland, actors such as Bette Davis and Laurence Olivier, Wyler directed a string of highly rated and popular films including Dodsworth (1936), Jezebel (1938), Wuthering Heights (1939), The Little Foxes (1941) and Mrs. Miniver (1942). The latter film was an Americanized view of a British family surviving the hardships of the Battle of Britain and the evacuation of Dunkirk. It received widespread acclaim, and after being nominated for best director six times (more than any other Hollywood director at that time) Wyler won his first Academy Award for directing Mrs. Miniver in 1943.
"Isn't that just like it?" Wyler asked The Stars and Stripes in 1943. "For five years I've been going to those [Academy Award] dinners and now, when I was the winner, I wasn't able to be there." Wyler was in England filming strategic bombing operations for the Army Air Force.
But Wyler wasn't at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1943. He was busy making a film for his new bosses, the United States Armed Forces. On 7 December 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and four days later Germany declared war on the United States. The United States responded by joining the Allies against the Axis powers and mobilizing for war. In the summer of 1942 William Wyler, age 40, entered the Army "to see if I could make a film that would help the war effort." He was commissioned a Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) and director of the Eighth Air Force film section. He wasn't the only Hollywood big shot working for the military. Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, and others made orientation films, training films, combat reports and other types of documentaries during the war. 2
In August 1942 Major Wyler arrived in England and began organizing equipment and staff to make a film about strategic bombing operations over occupied Europe. As reported in The Stars and Stripes, the original plan was to make a film about the close cooperation between the Royal Air Force and Army Air Force in the destruction of the German war machine from the air. However, by the time the film was released nearly two years later the picture centered on a single bomber of the Eighth Air Force. This makes sense if we consider how difficult it would be to make a successful documentary encompassing thousands of planes flying hundreds of missions. Wyler wisely chose to narrow his focus to "one plane and one crew in one squadron of one group in one wing of one air force, out of fifteen United States Army Air Forces." 3 The narrow focus is critical to the film's success because it allows Belle and her crew to represent thousands of American airmen fighting in Europe. Let's take a look at the film.
Wyler checks the shot through the type of lightweight 16mm camera used to film The Memphis Belle.
I was surprised to discover that the film is in color and lacks sync sound. One story has it that the team's standard 35mm camera and sound equipment were lost aboard a ship that never reached England. However, the roar of the Belle's engines would have made audio recording quite problematic in any case and color suited the military's need to better assess combat damage and gather intelligence from the air. Faced with the close quarters of the plane's interior and the difficulties of shooting under aerial combat conditions, Wyler and crew (which included cameraman Maj. William C. Clothier and sound expert-turned-cameraman Lt. Harold Tannenbaum) chose lightweight, hand-held 16mm cameras loaded with Kodachrome stock. 4
I'm hard pressed to find similarity between Wyler's studio pictures that I've seen and the style of The Memphis Belle. Always a versatile filmmaker (he was proud of the fact that he was able to make almost every type of film during his long career), Wyler adapts from his recognizable in-depth compositions and studio control to the documentary purposes here. There's a casualness to the early sequences documenting the important work of the ground crews at the "air front" in Bassingbourn. A nifty rhythmic montage sequence of Belle's bomb group taking off produces a sense of the speed and motion but the combat sequences are the biggest surprise. The studio tradition of quality photography is jettisoned as the jagged, sometimes washed out or out-of-focus images capture the chaotic nature of aerial combat. Subjective camera looking through a waist gunner's sights sees German fighters streaming straight toward us, guns blazing white. Wyler cuts to a medium close-up of the gunner returning fire, and then outside of the bomber again, but from a new angle as the attacking fighter has moved around to the other side. The fighting is sudden and hectic, and Wyler again uses editing to construct a rhythm to the screen action.
One of Belle's gunners opens up on attacking nazi fighters.
In the combat sequences we see how the crew work together to defend the B-17. Each man has a specific job, nose gunner, top turret gunner, waist gunner, belly gunner, tail gunner, and they maintain constant contact with each other through what is described as an interphone. The idea of teamwork is stressed, and the hellish nature of combat belied, by dubbed dialogue of calmly spoken intercom conversations between the crew apprising one another of the enemy fighter's locations and suggested course of action. At first, the calmness seemed incongruous with the images of actual combat, but apparently it's a real part of standard procedure even during such times of crisis because at one point Cpt. Morgan admonishes some loud crewman not to "yell on that damned intercom." Aerial combat must be confusing enough without ten voices shouting warnings all at once.
Wyler's camera, reinforced by Eugene Kern's "voice of god" narration, captures the reality of these bombing operations: servicemen doing their jobs, no heroism or glory here (though they are congratulated later for completing their 25th mission by the King and Queen of England and sent home to the United States on a war bond tour), but rather a focus on performing duties perfectly to increase the chances of survival and a successful mission.
The enemy can detect the approaching bombers from their long beautiful vapor trails.
Most of the wartime documentaries, particularly the orientation and training film types, were shown to the Armed Forces only or distributed abroad. Significantly, The Memphis Belle was distributed for release in the United States by Paramount Pictures, Inc. The Army Air Forces were happy with the film's wide distribution. In a letter to Barney Balaban, then president of Paramount, General H.H. Arnold, commanding the Army Air Forces, expressed his personal appreciation, and that of his command, adding that "I have been anxious that it be brought home to the largest possible number of our citizens...to assure fullest understanding of the problems faced and accomplishments achieved in the fighting theaters." 5
The Memphis Belle premiered in Memphis on 6 April 1944 and opened in general release, often as part of a longer program, 14 April 1944. The review in Time praised the film as "one of the few genuinely exciting U.S. documentaries," while the New York Times found it to be one of "the finest fact films of this war." However, neither publication cites audience response to the picture. Given the fact that, with the exception of newsreels, documentaries didn't enjoy widespread release on par with feature fiction films before the war (the few that made a splash, such as Nanook of the North (1922), were oddities especially after the silent era) I'd be interested to hear from anyone who saw The Memphis Belle in the 40s or who can point me to other information about how it was received. In December, the New York Film Critics voted a special recognition for the documentary films produced through the United States Army in general and The Memphis Belle in particular. I have to wonder if the special commendation was a convenient way to avoid judging war documentaries alongside the usual fiction fare. 6
The Memphis Belle wasn't the only film about the exploits of the B-17 bombers. Flying Fortress (1942) combines morale-boosting and melodrama with a story about U.S.-supplied RAF B-17s, Combat America (1943) is an orientation/training film about B-17 crews and missions over Europe narrated by Lt. Clark Gable, Twelve O'Clock High (1949) is partially based on Belle, and Memphis Belle (1990) weaves historical fiction from the daring feats of a number of bombers. Fictional exploits can be thrilling but they don't compare to the unstaged authenticity of Wyler and crew's combat report film. The images that Wyler and crew brought back from the air war extend the narrative of the bomber, the crew, and the mission to involve us in tense moments of real danger for the man behind the camera. Any technical imperfections in this picture only verify its reality. Hollywood violence and death scenes are ubiquitous, sometimes famous for their melodrama or even beauty, but they cannot compare to the personal risk accepted by those documenting war first hand or the images they capture of real combat and death.
Working with the bomb group Wyler experienced the human cost of the war. Lt. Tennanbaum, Wyler's sound expert-turned-cameraman, was killed on his fourth flight aboard a Flying Fortress shot down over Brest. Nor did Wyler remain unscathed by the conflict. Having spent so much time in and around the bombers without ear protection Wyler returned from the war deaf in one ear and suffering partial deafness in the other. He was afraid that he might never be able to direct again, but a system was devised so that he could listen through microphones on the set. Wyler continued working as a director long after returning to Hollywood.
Wyler returned from the war owing one last picture to Goldwyn. The producer wanted him to film an epic biography of General Eisenhower. However, Wyler's personal experiences during the making of The Memphis Belle and other wartime documentaries affected the filmmaker's sense of what makes a film worthwhile. He wanted to make a film about the difficult readjustment faced by servicemen returning to civilian life after the war. Wyler experienced this difficult readjustment himself and it led him to "explore the potential of film to illuminate the daily lives of ordinary people." But, he still believed that audiences wanted Hollywood-style drama. His first post-war film, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), synthesizes both ideas. 7 Wyler's career would go on to greater heights, more successful collaborations, and more Academy Award nominations than any other director. However no studio film he made quite matches the dramatic realism of The Memphis Belle.
1. See George T. Wilson, "Memphis Belle's Odyssey," Aviation History, (September 2003), 38-44.
2. Quote in first picture cutline from "Maj. Wyler Former Director Wins Hollywood 'Oscar' Award," The Stars and Stripes, (6 March 1943), 4; Quote in text from Directed by William Wyler (Aviva Slesin, 1986); Wyler's commission and orders from "'Mrs. Miniver' Director Here To Film 8th Air Force History," The Stars and Stripes in the European Theater of Operations 3.64 (16 January 1943).
3. Stars and Stripes 3.64; Thomas M. Pryor, "Filming Our Bombers Over Germany," New York Times (26 May 1944) X3.
4. According to Morgan, Wyler also gave out 16mm cameras to the Belle's crew and asked them to film what they could when they weren't firing; Morgan assumed Wyler was making a training film. See Wilson, 44. The 16mm Kodachrome was later processed in Technicolor and enlarged on 35mm stock for release. See Thomas Schatz, History of the American Cinema 6 Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s, Charles Harpole Ed., University of California Press, 1997, 411; Wyler's lost 35mm equipment story from Pryor.
5. Wartime documentary release information found in Robert Katz and Nancy Katz, "Documentary in Transition, Part I: The United States," Hollywood Quarterly 3.4 (Summer 1948) 426; Arnold considered the film to be "an important piece of documentary history," see "Arnold Praises Film," New York Times (27 April 1944), 18.
6. Bosley Crowther, "The Real Thing," New York Times, (16 April 1944), X3; "Going My Way Gets Film Critics' Honor," New York Times (28 December 1944), 34.
7. For an examination of Wyler's first post-war film see David A. Gerber, "Heroes and Misfits: The Troubled Social Reintegration of Disabled Veterans in 'The Best Years of Our Lives'," American Quarterly, 46.4 (December 1994) 554.