The border between fiction and reality is often a very thin one. Take the World War II film The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress for example. It is often labeled as a documentary, yet in many aspects, it is little more documentary than the almost entirely fictional Memphis Belle (1990), which it helped to inspire.
The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress is a documentary, sure, but like any good documentary, it was made with a certain purpose. That purpose was home front propaganda (the plane and crew were used to sell war bonds after they returned to America). In order to achieve that propaganda, the important thing is the drama and authenticity. Actual facts will have to take a back seat, unless they can help to raise abovementioned drama and authenticity.
Certainly, the film does contain many documentary elements: much of it was indeed shot during live combat missions over enemy territory, and you can see that the crew members are real humans, not actors, in the ways that they react to the cameras. But it does not portray the plane’s final mission, as stated. The film was shot during a number of different missions, some of them made with other aircraft than the Memphis Belle. One of the cinematographers is said to have been killed during the filming when the bomber he was on board was shot down over France.
Another example of how the film skillfully mixes real and fictional elements is that all sound, including the crew members’ on-board dialogue, was recorded and added during post production. Some people find it fascinating that they show wounded and dead crew members (of other aircraft) in a propaganda film, but this was common during the period. That way, the courage of the fighting man is shown to be even greater, because the audience is made to realize that the hazards of combat flying are very real.
Perhaps I make it sound like I disapprove of all the short-cuts that directory William Wyler and his crew have taken in the production of this film. That would be far from the truth. The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress is a great film, captivating and inspiring, not in spite of the fictional elements, but perhaps moreso because of them. Without the fiction, the story would be bland and boring.
This film is best enjoyed for its large amount of actual combat footage and for its considerable story-telling qualities. For the historical facts, you need to go elsewhere, though as a documentary of a combat crew’s situation on board a B-17, the film does have many fine qualities.
The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress
Running time: 43 min
Director: William Wyler
Stars: Eugene Kern (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.3 G)