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The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)


The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress is a World War II documentary directed by the Oscar-winning film director William Wyler.

Wyler had made several acclaimed feature films in the 1930s and 1940s, including Wuthering Heights (1939), The Little Foxes (1941) and Mrs Miniver (1942), when he joined the U.S. Army Air Force as a Major in order to make documentaries about the war in Europe. 

Wyler went to England where he initially struggled to set up a film project or find useful work. Eventually he and his crew joined the 91st Bomb Group based in Bassingbourne in Cambridgeshire, where they would capture genuine footage of bombing missions over occupied Europe.

The film they made, The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress, follows one particular American raid over Germany. It focuses on one aeroplane in the raid, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress given the name Memphis Belle by the crew. 


The idea of following the crew of one bomber on one particular air raid wasn't entirely new, having been used in Harry Watt's RAF documentary Target for Tonight in 1941, but The Memphis Belle would focus on the American Air Forces and would be shot in colour. 

The crew of the Memphis Belle are on their 25th mission. If they complete this mission successfully, they will have completed their entire tour of duty and become the first B-17 crew in Europe to do so. They will then be able to go back home to the USA, where they will carry out a morale-boosting goodwill tour and help to train new aircrews.

The film focuses on this particular crew's final mission, while also telling the wider story of the raid itself, set within the bigger picture of the aerial offensive against Germany. 

Wyler sets the scene with deceptively peaceful pastoral views of fields, farm workers and an English country church. Over these bucolic scenes, the narrator announces: 

"This is a battlefront. A battlefront like no other in the long history of mankind's wars. This is an air front."

The camera pans across to stationery B-17 bombers set to dramatic, vaguely martial music. There are then scenes of the aircrews relaxing and the camera takes in the different aircraft with their distinctive nose art. These include, inevitably, one with a cartoon mocking Hitler, together with the usual selection of popular cartoon characters and semi-naked women. 


The narrator then tells us about the various crew members of the Memphis Belle and their different backgrounds. For a modern audience, it's noticeable how young the men are, how many were still students and how they came into the war from very ordinary everyday jobs. They include one man who quit his job and enlisted on December 8th 1941, the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Then Wyler takes his cameras into the briefing room, where the aircrews are told the target for their mission and given their instructions. The audience receives a surprisingly detailed explanation of the raid, the different forces involved and the tactics they will use to divide the enemy's strength against them.

The film then moves onto the mission itself, with aerial combat footage captured over enemy territory. In these scenes the film gives a strong sense of the hazards the aircraft faced in the air from flak and from enemy fighters. When the planes finally arrive home, we see shots of bashed up bombers returning with gaping holes in the tails or in the nose. 

A wounded man is shown being given a blood transfusion on landing. This could be your blood, the narrator tells us, in a scene that was probably dramatic enough to have people back home rushing to donate blood. Which was no doubt the desired effect. 


The Memphis Belle paints a vivid picture of the air war over Europe during World War II and it was especially notable for its combat footage filmed in colour. The film was careful to state from the beginning that:

"All aerial combat film was exposed during air battles over enemy territory".

The verisimilitude of Memphis Belle's footage was important, as there had been a certain amount of fakery in many wartime documentaries, some to quite an excessive degree. And, after seeing the reality of conditions in wartime Britain, Wyler had become a little embarrassed by his fictional treatment in Mrs Miniver, and wanted to ensure that this film was as authentic as possible. 

He and his crew took part in several missions to make the film, the first on a B-17 called Jersey Bounce, which was flown at that time by the same pilot who would later fly Wyler in Memphis Belle. Wyler also accompanied a mission in another plane, Our Gang, on a raid over Kiel. The film used footage from five missions in all. After the fifth mission, a raid on St. Nazaire, Wyler was awarded the Air Medal for having flown five sorties. 


The aerial footage in the film was obviously captured under very difficult circumstances, under enemy fire at great altitude and in sub-zero temperatures. The bombers were uninsulated and unpressurized and operating the cameras was tough in such conditions - even before the planes started being shot at by the enemy. 

American losses on some of these missions were high and Wyler lost one of his own film crew, 46 year old cameraman Harold Tannenbaum. The B-24 Liberator he was flying on was shot down while on a mission to attack the U-boat bases at Brest and Lorient.

The film's sound had to be added in post-production. Some of these sounds are relatively minor effects, such as the sound of a crewman playing the harmonica as he sits on a bomb trolley as it is wheeled along. The film is let down a little by the lack of original sound in the briefing scenes, where the post-production dubbing becomes particularly apparent.

The aircrew chatter in the aerial scenes also had to be added afterwards. The crew were already back in the States, and were flown to Los Angeles to record their dialogue under Wyler's supervision. The director tried hard to make it sound authentic, and it is at least not voiced by actors. But there is a world of difference between saying a line under enemy fire thousands of feet over Germany and saying it in a recording booth in a Hollywood studio. As a result, the airmen do sound just a little too relaxed, without enough urgency for men who are genuinely under fire.


While the film's soundtrack had to be created from scratch, the film does make up for the lack of original sound with its extensive narration and scoring.

The film had originally been tentatively titled "25 Missions" and was intended to run for around 20-25 minutes. But it was expanded to 41 minutes and then blown up to 35 mm from 16 mm for its theatrical release. 

The finished film had a less downbeat, introspective ending than Wyler at one time intended. The original narration, written by Maxwell Anderson, was eventually discarded for a more upbeat finale, with a visit to the airbase by the King and Queen of England. 

The film ran into difficulties with both the army and the censors. According to Mark Harris in Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, the army wanted to cut a scene of flyers being blessed by a chaplain before the raid, as it was seen as being too fatalistic. 

They also wanted to cut the line "You try not to be where the next flak hits" as it was thought this sounded as if the men were "running away from anti-aircraft fire". The War Activities Committee cut the lines "For Christ's sake, get out of that plane" and "Damn it" from the aircrew chatter. Wyler decided to dub over the end of the phrase "son of a bitch" with gunfire, but it was still deemed unacceptable.


The Memphis Belle was extremely well received by critics when it was released in April 1944. It was the first film ever to be reviewed on the front page of the New York Times, where it was described as "one of the finest fact films of the war".

Although it lacks the grace and sweep of something more epic like the previous year's Desert Victory, The Memphis Belle's strength lies in the authentic colour combat footage that Wyler and his crew brought back from raids over Germany. This was obtained in the most difficult conditions and the film serves as a valuable record of aerial combat in WWII. 

The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress was selected for preservation by the U.S. National Film Registry in 2001. It also inspired the 1990 feature film Memphis Belle, produced by David Puttnam and William Wyler's daughter Catherine Wyler. 

Wyler would make one more documentary for the army, Thunderbolt, about P-47 ground attack planes in Italy. Its' appearance at the end of the war meant that there was little interest in promoting or releasing it and it remains much less well known than The Memphis Belle. After that, Wyler returned to Hollywood and to feature films. His next film, the drama The Best Years of Our Lives, was released in 1946 and marked a triumphant return, winning the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director.


The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress

Year: 1944
Genre: War / Documentary Short
Country: USA

Director William Wyler  Cinematography (uncredited) William H. Clothier, William Wyler, Harold Tannenbaum

Running time 41 mins  Colour Technicolor (from a 16 mm original)

Production company US Army 8th Air Force, in cooperation with The Army Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit, presented by The War Department  Distributor Paramount Pictures

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