William Wyler's "The Memphis Belle" (1944), widely regarded as the best live-action U.S. Army Air Forces movie of World War II, tells the story of a B-17 bomber crew flying its 25th combat mission.
The 42-minute documentary--screening Tuesday at Cal State Fullerton--is not to be confused with the 1990 Warner Bros. feature film of the same name. This historical picture made the Memphis Belle and its crew the most famous American flyers during the war.
"The Memphis Belle" was, moreover, the first American movie ever reviewed on the front page of the New York Times. Many papers followed suit, making the picture not only Page 1 news but also the subject of their lead editorials.
Wyler, who went on five bombing missions over Germany and German-occupied France in the winter and spring of 1943, shot much of the film himself, defying a general's order to ground him. Among other things, the air force wanted him to avoid the risk of being shot down and captured by the Nazis.
Besides being Jewish, Wyler had angered Hitler and his minions for his pro-British, anti-Nazi "Mrs. Miniver" (1942). That Hollywood feature, which drew furious opposition from the America Firsters who opposed U.S. entry into the war, bolstered public opinion against Germany. MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer boasted that Winston Churchill had written him a letter calling the picture indispensable to the Allied war effort and "propaganda worth a hundred battleships."
On March 4, 1943, a week after Wyler's first bombing raid, "Mrs. Miniver" won the Academy Award for best picture (also landing Wyler the first of three best-director Oscars). The attendant publicity, especially in England, where he was based, reinforced the air force's concern. But when Wyler decided to fly, a friend and fellow officer kept it secret from the top brass.
"The Memphis Belle," made in color, opens with shots of the quiet English countryside. "This," says a voice-over, is a battle front. A battle front like no other in the long history of mankind's wars."
Images of green splendor give way to shots of an airstrip tucked into the landscape. A B-17 stands in silhouette against the bright blue sky. All over England, bombers were launched in the shadow of rural churchyards and villages.
"This," the voice-over says, "is an air front."
The hypnotic narrative of staunch words, written by Lester Koenig, verges on poetry. It is spare, muscular and stirring. Combined with the revving of engines and images of crews preparing for takeoff, it rivets our attention.
Soon we're airborne, inside the Memphis Belle, hearing what the pilots hear and seeing what they see: white vapor trails that give away their position to German antiaircraft batteries; harmless-looking puffs of black smoke, a warning of deadly flak bursts.
Swarms of enemy fighters meet them over the North Sea. Yet the crew's voices on the intercom remain completely matter-of-fact:
"There's four of 'em." "One o'clock." "High." "They're comin' round." "Watch 'em." "Two fighters, 6 o'clock." "Comin' in." "Diving at us, Chief."
The waist gunners fire; we hear the bleat of 50-caliber machine guns; bullet tracers stream from the guns. "Comin' round at 10." "Watch 'em. Chuck. "Eyes open." "They're breakin' at 11." "I got 'em."
Wyler shot scenes with a hand-held camera. Occasionally, this 41-year-old major with no military training became so intent on filming that he unconsciously almost shouldered a gunner aside.
While assembling the documentary in the summer of 1943, the Memphis Belle was ordered home. Pilot and crew barnstormed across the country, raising money for war bonds and putting on demonstrations of acrobatic flying.
When the Belle got to Los Angeles, Wyler threw the crew a party at his home in Beverly Hills. He had promised them they could meet any movie star they liked. The pilot, who wanted a date with Hedy Lamarr, settled for Olivia de Havilland. Another star introduced herself: "Boys, I'm Veronica Lake." The teenage tail gunner said, "Ma'am, that's nice. Why don't you sit back down and I'll buy you a drink."
Before its release, Wyler screened "The Memphis Belle" for President Roosevelt in the White House basement. He urged that it be rushed into commercial release for a public that had not seen the war except through impersonal news reels.
Wyler took the picture to Paramount Pictures, which distributed prints to more than 10,000 theaters. "The Memphis Belle" premiered on April 14, 1944. By personalizing the war and dramatizing the life of a crew in combat, it made news as the emblematic story of thousands of B-17 crews just like them.
* "The Memphis Belle" screens at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Mackey Auditorium on Gymnasium Drive, at the Ruby Gerontology Center, Cal State Fullerton (800 N. State College Ave., Fullerton). Free; $1.50 for parking. (714) 278-2446.
Also screening in Orange County: