The Persian Gulf crisis is both the best and worst advertisement Memphis Belle could have had. In the current climate, it’s a good bet — at least for a week or two — that audiences will turn out for this strenuously retro stiff-upper-lip rouser about a crew of brave, pure, manly young men dropping bombs over Germany in the spring of 1943. Swollen with virtue and glossy production values, Memphis Belle offers both a celebration and a reassurance of American military fortitude. It says, ”We did it once, and we can do it again!”
At the same time, when you consider the opinion-poll findings that most Americans these days don’t actually want a war, Memphis Belle’s spirit of go-for-it bravado seems fairly antique. Essentially, this is an exploitation movie. It’s exploiting the dregs of Reaganism, the audience that grew up during the kick-ass ’80s cheering every righteous ”patriotic” spectacle that came its way.
Produced by David Puttnam, who gave us that Masterpiece-Theatre-goes-synth-pop crowd-pleaser Chariots of Fire, Memphis Belle is a throwback to the inspirational combat flicks Hollywood ground out in the ’40s. The movie is about the 10-man crew of the Memphis Belle, one of America’s fabled B-17’s — the big-bellied, state-of-the-art Flying Fortresses that held seven machine guns and could carry twice as many bombs as any previous American warplane. As the film opens, the Belle crew, led by Matthew Modine and Eric Stoltz, has flown 24 straight missions without a scratch. These, though, were relatively easy assignments. Now the crew is about to embark on its most treacherous mission: a daylight bombing run on a factory in Bremen, Germany. If they come back alive, they’ll be returned to the States by a smarmy, PR-obsessed colonel (John Lithgow, practically twirling his mustache in glee) and paraded around as national heroes.
Memphis Belle is an old-fashioned platoon picture, but with one crucial difference. The war flicks made during the studio-system era were notorious for representing different regions and ethnic groups — every platoon had to have a WASP, a Jew from Brooklyn, a good old boy, an Italian, and so forth. The characters in Memphis Belle may have ethnic names, but in spirit the actors are all playing WASPs — fresh-faced, pretty-boy WASPs, the kind that make the little girls swoon. It’s Dead Poets Society Goes to War.
Still, the film isn’t badly made. After a washout of an opening, in which we get acquainted with each of the characters’ one or two traits (yawn), Memphis Belle gives itself over to the sheer physical spectacle of aerial combat. A number of scenes have a dread-ridden kick: the plane’s revolving ball-turret bubble getting shot out from beneath the man inside it; the crew members watching aghast as one of their fellow B-17’s is sliced in half by a falling German aircraft.
There’s a certain Saturday-night excitement in a traditional war picture, the kind in which the good guys are destined to win. Top Gun, for all its obnoxious high-five bluster, had some of that excitement. This one does, too, even when it’s impossible to shake the knowledge that what you’re watching — a show-biz glorification of war — is less appropriate than ever. B-