MEMPHIS BELLE was co-produced by Catherine Wyler, and is dedicated to her father, class-A director William Wyler, who made the 1944 documentary Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress about an American B-17 bomber and its crew on their 25th and final mission over Nazi Germany. Regrettably, this 1990 fictional version written by Monte Merrick bombs out, with the cast shooting script blanks under the uninspired direction of Michael Caton-Jones.
Twenty-five missions was the magic ticket required to see out a tour of duty for bomber crews of the United States Army Air Force in WW2. Thousands of planes and their crews didn’t make it: losses were so severe that in 1942-43 it was statistically impossible for bomber crews to complete a two-dozen mission tour in Europe. The actual plane in Wyler’s documentary beat the odds, and the one in the movie does the same, but the joints-ache script throws every mishap, peril and incidental damage in the air-war movie arsenal to juice up the tension. Five surviving B-17s were employed, augmented by special effects, with those not terribly well done. The action scenes, lacking adequate scale as well as urgency, don’t raise the pulse much more than all the gabbing.
The cast is game (they look the part, wear the uniforms well and are the right age), but also mostly tame: apart from a couple of energized performances, from Eric Stoltz and Harry Connick Jr. (his acting debut), the delivery from ordinarily solid players like Matthew Modine, John Lithgow and David Straithern is so stiff they may as well have been animatronic, flown in from Disney’s Hall of Colonels and Captains. Dialogue is stilted to suit. Even with a new look—circa ’90—it feels more old-fashioned than the sturdy warhorse oldies that led the way, like Twelve O’Clock High and Command Decision.
Caton-Jones’ resume as director ranges from Rob Roy (deserving) to Basic Instinct 2 (duh), but he was the wrong pilot for this mission, which drew flak from critics on the ground and only taxied to 44th place on the runway of returns, a domestic gross of $27,442,000 off-target against a cost estimated at $23,000,000. It did pick up £4,924,000 in the UK (approx $8,863,000).
In the crew or on the ground: Sean Astin, D.B.Sweeney, Billy Zane, Tate Donovan and Jane Horrocks. 107 minutes.