AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Memphis Belle
Director: Lt. Col. William Wyler (Dir)
Release Date:   13 Apr 1944
Premiere Information:   World premiere: 4 Apr 1944 in Memphis, TN
Duration (in mins):   40-41
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Cast:   Eugene Kern (Narrator )  
    Corp. John Beal (Narrator )  
    Capt. Robert K. Morgan    
    Capt. James A. Verenis    
    Sgt. Bob Hanson    
    Capt. Chuck Layton    
    Sgt. Harry Locke    
    Sgt. John P. Quinlan    
    Sgt. Cecil Scott    
    Capt. Vincent B. Evans    
    Sgt. Clarence E. Winchell    

Summary: The seemingly peaceful English countryside is in reality a battlefront--the home base of B-17 bomber planes known as Flying Fortresses. The planes belong to the 324th Squadron of the 91st Heavy Bombardment Group of the 8th U.S. Army Air Force. For the squadron, the day begins with the ground troops, who are the mechanics. Each mechanic is responsible for the maintenance of a specific plane. A night bombing raid on the submarine pens at Wilhemshaven, Germany is planned, and the job of delivering the bombs belongs to the 8th Bomber Command. At the briefing, the men learn the location of their target and are given other instructions, including what to do if they are captured. The crew of one of the bombers, The Memphis Belle , have completed twenty-four missions. After completing this mission, the crew, Captain Robert K. Morgan, the pilot; Captain James A. Verenis, co-pilot; radio operator and gunner, Sergeant Bob Hanson; navigator, Captain Chuck Layton; engineer and top turret gunner, Sergeant Harold Locke; tail gunner, Sergeant John P. Quinlan; bull turret gunner, Sergeant Cecil Scott; bombardier, Captain Vincent B. Evans; and waist gunners, Sergeant Clarence E. Winchell and another sergeant, will be sent home. That night's targets are the factories and warehouses that supply the German armies. As the planes gain altitude after takeoff, the pilots use all their strength to keep them in the formation, which is designed to cover the sky and minimize the dangers of friendly fire. When the temperature falls to forty degrees and ice forms on the windows, the flyers don their oxygen masks. The mission is carefully planned to evade the enemy defenses. As the Memphis Belle approaches the German coast, it is surrounded by flak fired by the German ground defenses. The plane flies lower on the approach to the target, and the flak becomes thicker. As an evasive maneuver, Captain Morgan changes his course every fifteen seconds. The bombing run completed, the first half of the mission is over. Now the squadron faces the most difficult part of the mission, returning to the base. The flak stops, an indication that German planes are attacking. The men keep in touch by interphone, warning each other of approaching enemy planes. One of the American planes is downed, but the formation cannot be broken to help it. As the men watch helplessly, several of the plane's crew parachute from their falling plane. At the base, the men on the ground "sweat out the mission," that is, they wait nervously for the squadron to return. Finally, the first planes return, some sending up flares to indicate that they have wounded men aboard. Many men are wounded, and some of the planes are badly damaged, but some come through without a scratch. Some do not return at all. Finally, The Memphis Belle lands. All crew members receive the Distinguished Flying Cross from the King and Queen of England; General Eaker, Commander of the 8th Air Force, and General Devers, Commander of the European Theater of War. Their new orders are to return to the United States and train new crews. 

Production Company: U.S. War Department  
Production Text: In cooperation with the Army Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit
Distribution Company: Paramount Pictures, Inc.  
Director: Lt. Col. William Wyler (Dir)
Writer: Capt. Edwin Gilbert (Narr wrt by)
  Tech. sgt. Lester Koenig (Narr wrt by)
Photography: The U.S. 8th Air Force photographers and combat crew members (Photog)
  Major William Clothier (Photog)
  Lt. Col. William Wyler (Photog)
  Lt. Harold Tannenbaum (Photog)
Music: Cpl. Gail Kubik (Mus score)
Country: United States

Physical Properties: col: Technicolor
  Sd:
  gauge: 35mm from a 16mm original

 
Genre: Documentary
  Documentary
Sub-Genre: World War II
  Aviation
 
Subjects (Major): Air pilots, Military
  B-17 bombers
  The Memphis Belle (Airplane)
  United States. Army Air Corps
  World War II
 
Subjects (Minor): Aerial combat
  Bombing, Aerial
  Distinguished Flying Cross
  England
  Germany. Air Force
  Mechanics
  War injuries

Note: Catalog information at NARS gives the film's title as Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress . The film's credits note that Paramount distributed Memphis Belle "under the auspices of The OWI through the Wars Activities Committee, Motion Picture Industry." The film begins with the following written note: "All aerial combat film was exposed during air battles over enemy territory." The film ends with the following dedication: "To the men of the 8th Air Force--this film is gratefully dedicated."
       The Memphis Belle was the first B-17 bomber to complete twenty-five missions in Europe and was the first combat plane to return from the war under its own power. Twelve thousand B-17s were built in 1942. The B-17 was known for withstanding flak and was thus named the "Flying Fortress." A 23 Apr 1944 NYHT article notes that the Memphis Belle flew over 20,000 miles in its combat career and shot down eight confirmed enemy fighters. According to an article in 26 Mar 1944 NYT , William Wyler intended to use standard 35mm cameras and sound equipment, but the equipment was stored on a ship which never arrived in England, and as a result, the film was shot with hand-operated 16mm cameras. The article adds that the cameras were encased in electrically heated pads to keep the mechanisms from freezing at high altitudes, where the temperature dropped as low as forty degrees below zero.
       Sound man Lt. Harold Tannenbaum, a veteran of World War I, worked as a cameraman on this film. Tannenbaum, who joined the Air Force at forty-seven, lost his life while filming a bombing mission over France. Some of the film shot during that flight was incorporated into this picture, according to the Var review. Over 16,000 feet of film was exposed during thirteen flights. Wyler and William C. Clothier each completed five missions, and Wyler flew with the crew of the Memphis Belle on their twenty-fifth mission. A special preview of the film was held for the officers and cadets at the Military Academy at West Point. Modern sources state that the film was finished in Jun 1943 and was a huge popular and critical success. In 1990, a fictionalized version of the documentary, also entitled Memphis Belle was produced by Wyler's daughter Catherine and David Puttnam. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   25 Mar 1944.   
Daily Variety   22 Mar 44   p. 18.
Film Daily   24 Mar 44   p. 13.
Hollywood Reporter   30 Mar 44   p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter   4 Apr 44   p. 4.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   25 Mar 44   p. 1813.
New York Herald Tribune   23 Apr 1944.   
New York Times   26 Mar 1944.   
New York Times   14 Apr 44   p. 1.
Variety   22 Mar 44   p. 18.
Variety   26 Jul 1950.   

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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