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Case Number 27424: Small Claims Court

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Memphis Belle (Blu-ray)

Warner Bros. // 1990 // 107 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 2nd, 2014

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All Rise...

Judge Clark Douglas is a Georgia Peach.

Editor's Note

Our review of True Stories of WWII Collection (Blu-ray), published October 4th, 2014, is also available.

The Charge

Brave young men who rode on the wings of victory.

The Case

The story behind the creation of the WWII drama Memphis Belle is a rather intriguing one. The movie is ostensibly based on William Wyler's 1943 documentary Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress. The original film placed the spotlight on the brave crew members of the titular plane, a U.S. Army Air Force heavy bomber. The 1990 adaptation was initially intended as a very loose retelling of the story which would change many details, including making the plane and its crew members British. However, the film's financial backers were largely American. As such, the movie eventually became the story of a bunch of brave Americans once again, but the other deviations from fact which had initially been devised were largely left intact.

The film is divided into two sections. In the first, we meet the crew members of the Memphis Belle. Over forty-five minutes or so, we spend a bit of time getting to know the grim Captain Dennis Dearborn (Matthew Modine, Full Metal Jacket), the fun-loving 1st Lt. Luke Sinclair (Tate Donovan, Damages), the perpetually nervous 1st Lt. Phil Lowenthal (D.B. Sweeney, Eight Men Out), the cocky 1st Lt. Val Kozlowski (Billy Zane, Titanic), the Irish, poetry-loving SSgt. Danny "Danny Boy" Bailey (Eric Stoltz, The Fly II), noted virgin SSgt. Virgil Hoogesteger (Reed Diamond, Dollhouse), the playful SSgt. Richard "Rascal" Moore (Sean Astin, Rudy), the superstitious SSgt. Eugene "Genie" McVey (Courtney Gains, Children of the Corn), the musically talented SSgt. Clay Busby (Harry Connick Jr., Copycat) and the hot-tempered Sgt. Jack Bocci (Neil Giuntoli, The Shawshank Redemption). These men have flown twenty-four successful missions together. After they complete their twenty-fifth, they'll be treated to a publicity tour where they'll be wined and dined endlessly. Alas, that twenty-fifth mission is going to be a tough one.

Every single one of the crew members is a one-dimensional stereotype of some sort, which often makes Memphis Belle feel like a film made a few decades too late. Of course, there was a legitimate reason why so many of those war movies of yesteryear employed such simple character types: it offered a kind of shorthand for who the characters were, allowing us to jump to certain conclusions quickly and preventing the need for any sort of in-depth character development. You got the funny one, the angry one, the frightened one, etc. I suppose it's also a bit of a blessing, as it permits the film to run less than two hours (there are certainly times when the film feels reminiscent of much longer war epics like The Battle of Britain).

Once the plane takes off and the mission gets under way, the clichés keep piling on. Every single thing which can possibly go wrong over the course of a single mission does indeed go wrong. I'm suspicious of whether anyone would be able to survive such a mission, but the movie needs the men to keep going, so they do. Naturally, there are moments which test the character of each stereotypical crew member in a very specific way: the superstitious guy loses his lucky charm, the guy who lied about being a doctor is forced to heal someone, the guy who's completely self-absorbed is required to do something selfless, etc. It's all presented with earnest enthusiasm, and the charisma of the cast goes a long way (seriously, has there ever been a larger collection of leading men who never quite made it to the A-list?), but at times Memphis Belle seems thoroughly determined to be the most predictable war drama ever made.

Memphis Belle (Blu-ray) delivers a fine 1080p/1.78:1 transfer which remains true to the film's soft-ish look. This is a movie steeped in nostalgia from start to finish, and the gentle haze provided by the cinematography only accentuates that fact (it's a stark contrast to, say, the gritty, grainy realism of Saving Private Ryan). Detail is fairly strong throughout, and the special effects (some of which involve miniatures) still hold up fairly well (particularly in contrast to a CGI-fest like Flyboys). Colors are bright and vibrant, and darker scenes have strong shading. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track gets the job done well enough, though the battle sequences aren't as overwhelming or immersive as you might expect. The element which fares best is George Fenton's heroic score, anchored by a tremendous main theme (so tremendous, in fact, that Hans Zimmer borrowed it a year later when scoring Ron Howard's Backdraft). The only supplement of note is a forty-minute documentary on the real-life history of the Memphis Belle, which is interesting but suffers from very poor video quality. You also get a trailer.

Those with a fondness for old-fashioned, sentimental war movies which seek to tug at the heartstrings (the soundtrack includes multiple performances of both "Danny Boy" AND "Amazing Grace") will find plenty to enjoy in Memphis Belle. Those expecting a realistic or factual portrait of what really happened should seek out the Wyler documentary.

The Verdict

I hate to say anything too negative about a movie this sincere, so…case dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 80

Perp Profile

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Czech)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
• English (SDH)
• Czech
• French
• German
• Korean
• Spanish
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Blu-ray
• Drama
• War

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurette
• Trailer


• IMDb

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