World War II dramas can never be suspenseful in a classic sense — we know who won, after all — so their narrative juice has to come from whatever subsidiary skirmishes and individual heroics a particular movie chooses to focus on. Last year’s theatrical fizzle Memphis Belle focuses on the 10-man American crew of a Britain-based B-17 Flying Fortress and its final bombing run over German territory at the peak of the Allied aerial campaign in May 1943. The choice is a good one, but the execution is outright embarrassing. The actors who play the crewmen look too young and are made to act even younger. High over enemy territory our button-cute cutups are pasting dumb signs on buddies’ backs and pretending to steal their good-luck charms. The mission has all the tension and urgency of a high school prank and could as well have been called Porky’s Goes to War.
The sheer goofiness of the feature Memphis Belle can’t help but make the 1943 documentary The Memphis Belle look especially thoughtful and disciplined. Directed and photographed mostly by William Wyler (whose daughter Catherine coproduced the 1990 feature), the 45-minute film deals with the same B-17 aircraft and its final mission but manages to capture the surrounding narrative drama in a way that the feature never does. Most important, Wyler’s The Memphis Belle reflects the resolute seriousness of the military business at hand, presenting the mission’s overall strategy in detail. We still know who won, but Wyler’s documentary makes us care about the victory in a way that Memphis Belle does not. Memphis Belle (1990): D; The Memphis Belle (1944): A