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A True Story That Rings Untrue

Despite its inspiring subject, World War II drama `Memphis Belle' is a casualty of a clich'ed treatment

`MEMPHIS BELLE'' never quite rings true. It's a pity, too, because it tries so hard to recapture something real about the period it depicts - World War II, c. 1943, when US bombers penetrated deep into Germany to knock out the enemy's war industry from ball bearings to weapons factories. Precision daylight bombing, frightfully costly in lives, helped turn the tide of the war for the Allies. Based on a true story, the film concerns the famous B-17 bomber Memphis Belle, which delivered 25 successful missions before the plane and its sterling crew retired from the skies. Big and slow, the B-17 delivered twice the payload of its predecessor. It was flown in low over the target, fending off fighter planes and anti-aircraft bursts shot from the ground. It took enormous skill to fly. Eventually, the Pentagon set limits to the number of missions any crew would have to make because the missions were so dangerous. The entire action of the story takes place just before and during the Memphis Belle's last mission. It's an action-adventure film centered on a single battle.

The worthy story deserves to be well-told. But perhaps after a long list of exploitive or cynical Vietnam war movies, World War II movies are harder to make. ``Memphis Belle'' should have shown with the power of a ``Twelve O'Clock High.'' It doesn't.

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The film's problems begin with its hollow script, riddled with clich'es and peopled by a collection of stereotypes. The banter among the men, almost never sounds spontaneous. It's contrived instead of clever. We are even introduced to each of the crew members at the beginning of the film by a disembodied voice as if each were merely a type. There's the poetic Irish kid, the religious guy (predictably a buffoon), the sentimental pilot, the ladies' man, the innocent, the egotist, the clown, the crooner, etc. Each sports a few distinct mannerisms as prominently as the lucky charm he carries. But none has been developed as a whole human being. We need to believe in their ordinary-guy humanity so that the celebration of courage means something.

Writer Monte Merrick locates the film's only real villain not among the Nazis, but in a public relations officer who wants to exploit the Memphis Belle to pump up morale back home. The PR man represents the ``insensitive lout'' - a Madison Avenue cut-out transferred to the army. He scolds and flatters the crew of the Memphis Belle, promising them the rewards of fame in exchange for their cooperation back home. But we've seen this personality in so many films, he seems more tiresome than troublesome. Not even the innovative skill of John Lithgow can carve a real character out of such two-dimensional material.

Many of the performances suffer from self-consciousness: The actors seem to be aware of the camera, aware of their mannerisms, aware of their character's place in history. There's very little of the easy naturalism characteristic of the work of so many of them. Matthew Modine as the pilot, Eric Stoltz as the poetic Irish kid, and Billy Zane as the glamorous bombadier struggle valiantly with impossibly weak dialogue.

Another real problem lies with the direction. British director Michael Caton-Jones tries to emulate the style of the great war-adventure dramas by Henry King, Howard Hawks, and others. But the pacing of nearly every scene in ``Memphis Belle'' seems forced; the actors seldom relax into their roles; and period details scream for the viewer's attention instead of flowing naturally over us.

But the film's worst flaw is the fact that it as drama it has no moral center. The tone is nostalgic and its attitude heroic. In order to recapture the spirit of the age, however, producers David Puttnam and Catherine Wyler, writer Merrick, and director Caton-Jones needed to tackle the moral dilemmas, the complex range of human feeling in conflict with the idealism and fierce sense of duty of the age, the moral obligations and the courage needed to meet them - all that makes a layered, gripping tale.

Anyone who remembers Gregory Peck as the hard-nosed General Savage in Henry King's brilliant ``Twelve O'Clock High'' (made in 1949, now on CBS/Fox video) will know what I mean. It covers some of the same issues and even aircraft as ``Memphis Belle,'' and the two films have a number of details in common. That film opens with an American (Dean Jagger) buying a hat. As he adjusts it in a window of another shop he notices a jug in the shape of a pirate's head and a chain of memories streaks off, taking us back to the war and early US Airforce involvement in 1942. From the first sequence to the film's climax, director King entertwines the frailties of human nature with its greatest strengths in that cinematic monument to humane triumph over self and over the evil of fascism.

Early in the picture a commander ``over-identifies'' with his men, and it becomes clear that he is actually endangering them further. A good man, he has lost perspective and consequently become a poor officer, letting dicipline slide and covering the fatal mistakes of his junior officers. Relieved of command, he is replaced by General Savage who immediately kicks the base into military order - against the objections of all the pilots, crews, the base doctor, and the other staff. The positive results of his firm action prove him right in each succeeding strike mission as more and more planes return safely. But at least one of Savage's decisions has been unjust. Late in the film, Savage sees exactly how unjust he was to one of his men and rectifies the situation. But Eventually Savage, too, loses his perspective, ``over-identifies'' and reaches the breaking point. There is nothing remotely as complex about the plot of ``Memphis Belle.''

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``Twelve O'Clock High'' takes up the conflict within an individual who cares deeply for his men, as well as the conflict between the officer and those under command. We are always aware of the enemy's presence. There is no question of what these men are up against. Moral choices greet the protagonist on all sides, and his very humanity threatens to crack under the strain. But though he stumbles, he does not fall. Heroism is seen to be right action in spite of fear and within a fully articulated range of individual natures. ``Memphis Belle's'' heroes have nothing to sustain them besides their ``lucky'' pieces. The choices they make seem arbitrary - which, given the tone of the film, makes no dramatic sense.

``Twelve O'Clock High'' did not require the swelling strains of ``Londonderry Aire'' to underscore the heroism of its characters. We read deeper feeling in Peck's eyes as his men returned from the last mission. In their haste to recapture the heroism of a more idealistic period, the makers of ``Memphis Belle'' forgot the fully developed humanity of men who had the courage of their convictions. So it's hard to buy the heroism of ``Memphis Belle's'' characters, despite the swelling strains of ``O, Danny Boy.''

A true story of the ``Memphis Belle's'' magnitude deserved to be told with as much dramatic intensity and as much natural humanity as possible. It deserved to be more than just an action-adventure dressed in phony heroic conventions.

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