The Silver Screen and The Memphis Belle

The airplane and it’s crew have appeared in two Hollywood movies.

The first, was filmed in England during the first half of 1943 (you can currently view it on Netflix). This account of the supposedly twenty-fifth and final mission of the B-17 called by that name. It was directed, and a good deal of it filmed by William Wyler, probably most famous for his epic film Ben Hur. Wyler was born Wilhelm Weiller on July 1st 1902 in Mulhouse in Alsace, which was then on the German side of the Franco-German border. In 1920 he traveled to the USA and joined the new boom industry – the movies! Five years later he directed his first movie, at Universal Studios, a Western called Crook Buster. In 1926 he became an American citizen, and by 1939, when war broke out in Europe, Wyler had made 47 films. His greatest contribution during the early years of the war was the film Mrs Miniver; the story of an English family caught up in the tragedy of war, which had a powerful effect on American public opinion, warming Americans to their future allies, revealing the nature of future enemies and countering the America First Committee, who wanted to remain aloof from the European war. The film opened in June 1942 and in ten weeks at New York’s Radio City Music Hall nearly one and a half million people saw it. The movie went on to earn six Oscars, including one for Wyler as Best Director.

President Roosevelt and his Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, were keen that the American public should be educated as to why they were fighting. In the days before television, movies were the obvious answer and indeed, the established Army Pictorial Service made thousands of training films on every conceivable subject. Warner Brothers of Hollywood were contacted by the Army with a request that a series of short subjects be made for release in theaters throughout the nation to familiarize the public with activities of the military.

The Army Air Force realized that in order to approach the more weighty and sensitive subject of the moral justice of the war, talented, civilian directors needed to be brought in – Frank Capra, John Huston, Anatole Litvak and William Wyler were all recommended. The Army wanted these directors under their control and that meant putting them in uniform.

The story of this movie is told in detail later – The film premiered in Memphis on April 15th 1943, and was attended by Colonel Stanley Wray of the 91st Bomb Group, along with Major William E. Clancy, commander of the 324th Squadron. William Wyler came, together with a line-up of veteran bomber pilots. There was a band and Walter P. Chandler, the Mayor of the city of Memphis, officiated at the opening ceremonies. Other government leaders were present. The real stars of the show though, Bob Morgan and Margaret Polk, for whom the plane had been named, were missing from the list. Memphians did not have to be told why they were not there. The beautiful romance which had sparked the Memphis Belle story was over, the engagement broken. Bob was supposedly away flying, but as for Margaret…. ‘My mother saw to it that I had gone to California so I wouldn’t be embarrassed by all the publicity. So I was not at the Premiere’.

Forty-seven years later, William Wyler’s daughter Catherine had the premier for her version of the story.

The 1990 flight of fantasy 

Hollywood has a penchant for ‘remaking’ movies, but very rarely is a so-called ‘documentary’ refurbished as a work of fiction! The Memphis Belle remake – released in 1990 – came about when in 1986, English film-maker David Puttnam, the new head of Columbia Pictures recruited William Wyler’s daughter Catherine as his new Senior Vice-President of Production, responsible for developing non-fiction properties for feature films. Catherine had previously had experience in television administration and production, first with Warner Brothers and then with the US Public Broadcasting Service. In her new job, one of the development projects was a movie about Eighth Air Force bomber crews, similar to the 1943 film her father made. After a screening of the 1943 original, Puttnam asked Catherine to proceed further. As Catherine Wyler said in an interview after the film came out; ‘I’ve known about the Memphis Belle all my life because my father made the documentary during the war. It’s about the crew of a B-17 – the first crew to make twenty-five missions. And basically it’s the story of that twenty-fifth mission.

Puttnam’s career with Columbia was short-lived and in 1987 he returned to Great Britain. The Eighth Air Force project was not abandoned however, and he proposed that his own company, Enigma Films, take it on, and that Catherine Wyler join him as co-producer.

The movie may have started out under the title of ‘Memphis Belle’, but it then went through a name-change to ‘Southern Belle’, for a whole set of complicated reasons. As with the original 1943 film, the movie storyline follows the supposed 25th and final mission of the ten-man crew of a B-17 who are scheduled to be returned to the US. The rest of the plot of the Wyler/Puttnam movie is a pure flight of fantasy, with fictitious crew members and engineered drama. As the script created only tenuous links at best with real people and events, it was decided to separate things even further, for the lawyers were concerned by using the name ‘Memphis Belle’ and 91st Bomb Group markings it might become possible for an unknown veteran to claim that he had been portrayed in a defamatory way. Thus the title was changed to ‘Southern Belle’ and the unit represented was no longer the 91st Bomb Group. This situation was, however, to change again after Warner Brothers signed up to back the production, for when their legal team took a closer look at the ‘Southern Belle’ concept they decided that in using that name, the matter was even worse! They thought there were at least three B-17s wearing that nickname and that there may well have been well over one hundred veterans with association to these aircraft – all of whom could sue if they did not like the way ‘their’ aircraft was portrayed! Our own research indicates that it could have been even worse, for there was the likelihood of five B-17s by the ‘Southern Belle’ name in England: ‘283’ and 41-24445 from the 92nd BG, 42-30376 from the 94th BG, 42-29694 from the 95th BG and ‘17’ from the 285th BG. As all the surviving members of the original Memphis Belle’s crew had read and more importantly already approved the script – despite apparent misgivings when the film eventually premiered – and there was only one Memphis Belle, the name was changed back.