Director: Erik Nelson
The film takes footage captured in 1943 by esteemed director William Wyler as part of the war effort which was then made into an allied morale booster called “The Memphis Belle”, named after the B17 bomber and crew on which the film focussed. Director Erik Nelson took the original 5 reels of film and completed an astonishing work of restoration to bring them back to life, adding authentic sound recorded from one of the 9 remaining airworthy B17s. The musical soundtrack was written and partly performed by one Richard Thompson.
The story is told by the surviving members of the flight crew who are now well into their 90s. As ever you are astonished by the ages of these guys – the “old guy” on one plane was 26, and the tail gunner telling the story was 19 when the war ended… Needless to say they look amazing in the wartime footage – square jawed, resolute and handsome but not, they are all at pains to stress, heroes. The heroes, they tell us, are the ones who didn’t come back.
The film opens with a recently discovered Nazi propaganda short telling the population that the Luftwaffe is ready to repel the bombers who come 24 hours a day – Brits by night and Yanks by day (not some slippery risk management approach but rather a difference in tactical approach). There is much footage on the air field and the aerial sections, frequently under attack by fighters or clouds of flak, are tense and thrilling even at this distance. We follow them across the channel, testing their guns and wondering whether their con trails, which could be seen from 50 miles away on a clear day, had already alerted the 1m Germans manning the anti-aircraft defences. Apart from the chances of being shot the planes were unheated and unpressurised so much of the time they were in -20 degree temperature and frostbite was a constant threat. We also feel the relief when the bombs are away and they can turn for home, beyond the reach of enemy planes and 88 calibre cannons.
There’s no jingoism – the pilots say they were doing their job, which needed to be done, were terrified most of the time and “felt like we were living on death row” which, with odds of 50% of coming back alive is hardly surprising. Balance is also provided by footage of the effect on the German civilian population of whom 300,000 were killed by the bombings and more than twice that injured.
Richard Thompson’s sound track is superb – the orchestral sections take a simple melodic motif and rework and rephrase it throughout, just like a proper composer. There’s some solo acoustic guitar playing which is unmistakably RT, and, we discover in the short “making of” doco shown at the end, some interesting stuff with RT playing electric guitar with cellos using a volume pedal for a bowing effect which is strikingly effective.
Overall the film is stunning and very emotional. The cinema was dusty.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
Any historic wold war II stuff. Everyone should see it, really.