Michael Caton-Jones recreates the last mission of a B-17 bomber, populating the film with a likable cast and exciting action sequences.
The film opens as John Lithgow plans to make the plane's crew heroes when the return from their twenty-fifth and final mission. If you make it to twenty-five, then you are allowed to go home. The young captain, Matthew Modine, leads an even younger cast. We are so used to seeing grown men in their mid-thirties in these roles, it is refreshing to see age appropriate men in their early twenties here. My grandfather, a navigator on a cargo plane, was just over twenty during the war.
The cast has quite a few familiar faces including Eric Stoltz, Courtney Gains, D.B. Sweeney, Sean Astin, Billy Zane, Tate Donovan, David Strathairn, and Harry Connick, Jr. The film takes place over the course twenty-four hours, the most eventful in the characters' lives. Lithgow builds them up into believing everything will be wonderful when they return, but the men should be concentrating on their jobs and returning in the first place.
The squadron of bombers take off, and the crew run into German fighters, as well as a concealed target that they must make a couple of runs at in a storm of antiaircraft fire. I cannot give away too much of what happens without spoiling the ending, but the crew watches as other American planes are shot down, and suffer through a hungover navigator, a hotshot copilot, and assorted tiffs and fights over lost lucky charms.
My one concern here is that since this is the last mission, the film makers made a whole lot of things happen that otherwise may not have happened. The crew all solve their personal problems on this flight, enemies become friends again, and yet we still have time to finish with an over the top nailbiter of a landing.
Caton-Jones captures the English countryside beautifully, and the cramped airplane interiors reminded me of Wolfgang Petersen's "Das Boot." A special kudos would have to go the special effects team, who do an outstanding job. Another great job is done by the actors in the flying sequences, as they must act with oxygen masks over their faces through much of the film. It is hard to convey your feelings using just your eyes and the tone of your voice, but everyone here does an excellent job.
"Memphis Belle" is not a filmed history lesson, but an exciting and well done action film, and one of the best aviation war films ever done. I highly recommend it. (* * * * *) out of five stars.