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Film review: Memphis Belle

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 16 1990 12:00 a.m. MDT

The problem with war movies — whether the Civil War, the World Wars, Korea or Vietnam — is that the characters tend to spring from youthful stereotypes whose personal stories are often predictable and mundane. Too often they play as little more than coming-of-age yarns with a more dramatic backdrop.

Some war films manage to transcend this inherent difficulty and go on to greatness. Others sink under the weight of their own dullness.

Still others, such as "Memphis Belle," manage to excel in spite of their familiarity and make for enjoyable entertainment. If an insight or two is gained along the way, so much the better.

The title — "Memphis Belle" — refers to a specific B-17 bomber among the American Army Air Corps planes in Great Britain that went out on bombing raids over Germany and other European targets.

The "Memphis Belle" was a nickname, of course, along with such others in the squadron as "Black-Eyed Pea," "Sweet Dreams," "Mother and Country" and "Baby Ruth."

But the "Belle" was distinguished in May 1943 as the first to survive 24 missions with its crew intact. The film is about the 25th and most difficult mission, after which the crew could go home.

The story starts off from the viewpoint of the Army public relations officer (John Lithgow), who is coordinating the last mission as an event to be photographed and written up by Life magazine.

But Lithgow is only nominally involved, despite kicking off the film with a voice-over narration that introduces the characters and sets up the premise.

The crew members' nervousness is brought out during a party the night before their final mission as they express their fears, mainly that they might not return alive. But the bulk of the film covers the mission itself, with great attention to detail as each crew member's job is closely examined to show how they function as a team.

Unfortunately, like Lithgow's character, the individuals in the 10-man crew are also only nominally explored. Since their task is the central focus, the characters are developed only superficially.

This movie is about a flag-waving team effort during a war that was so different in the public consciousness and the minds of those who fought it that Vietnam veterans and even those soldiers now sitting in Saudi Arabia probably cannot identify with it directly.

But the film is sincere enough and the ensemble players talented enough that we feel for them more than the script would otherwise allow. (The most famous among the young actors are Matthew Modine, currently co-starring in "Pacific Heights," and Eric Stoltz, best known for "Mask" and "Some Kind of Wonderful"; another is singer Harry Connick Jr.)

"Memphis Belle" shows us in better, more intimate detail than any other war picture in memory just how cloistered and cramped the quarters aboard a bomber are and how the crew — looking much more like the very young men they were than we see in most such films — must pull together and rely on each other to accomplish their mission without being blown away.

There are some spectacular shots here of American planes flying in formation over European skies and in dogfights, and all in all this is a highly entertaining, occasionally quite thrilling adventure.

But it would have been nice to care about the individuals a bit more.

"Memphis Belle" is rated PG-13 for violence and just a few scattered profanities.

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