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MEMPHIS BELLE. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones; written by Monte Merrick; produced by David Puttnam and Catherine Wyler for Warner Bros. Starring Matthew Modine, Erio Stoltz and John Lithgow. Rated PG.


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Memphis Belle is just like an old-fashioned B-movie. Now that may be good enough news by itself to encourage some moviegoers to see it. For curiosity value, in addition to knowing that there won't be any graphic sex, violence or language to contend with.

But however nostalgic we may become for those old B-movies, it's worth remembering why they were graded "B" in the first place. Mediocre acting and character development, a predictable storyline, etc. Unfortunately, Memphis Belle fits these B-movie criteria, too.

The movie tells the (mostly) true story of the Belle's last mission over Germany in 1943. She's a B-17 bomber with a very lucky crew. In an air war where eventually 1/3 of the men would not survive, they became the first group to complete a tour of duty—25 missions—and return home to a hero's welcome and a barnstorming, bond-selling tour.

The characters aren't all uninteresting.

Even though his part is rather clumsily handled by the script, Lithgow is appropriately obnoxious as a P.R. man anxious to cash in on the heroic potential of the Belle's crew. And David Strathairn is effective as the sensitive base commander, who aches for every lost airman and writes personal condolence letters to their families.

But all the war movie cliches are here in the Belle's crew, without outstanding performances to make them fresh. Not even by the usually interesting Modine.

The last part of the movie, the 25th mission itself, is exciting and almost makes up for the lackluster events that precede it. One area in which the movie definitely excels is production design, and aficianados of vintage aircraft will want to see Memphis Belle for that reason alone.

Two American and three European B-17's were used in the filming, which took place in England, near the original site of the Belle's base.

Three of the four Messerschmidts still flying were also used, as well as eight Mustangs (bomber escorts), mostly flown by their owners, just for the fun of it.

October 31, 1990

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