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History Via Hollywood

March 2023
1min read

Memphis Belle

directed by Michael Mann, Twentieth Century-Fox Video

Colonial America has proved a strangely nettlesome subject for Hollywood. Full-blown features from 1776 to Revolution! have failed miserably with critics and at the box office. This one gets it right, turning the book into a thrilling, romantic adventure smart enough for grownups. As in James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel, the action is set in 1757, during “the third year of the war between England and France for the possession of the continent,” according to the opening credits.

The acting is often riveting, but the movie’s real stars are the art direction and editing. The film is gorgeous, with stunning historical re-creations. Huge night battles are eerily illuminated by the smoke from firing cannon. Like all great adventure films, this one is not always plausible, but its characters are real enough, and it avoids the trap of canonizing its native Americans. It depicts the colonial frontier as a gorgeous, wild, romantic, and horribly dangerous place where the seeds for democracy are sown.

directed by Michael Caton-Jones, Warner Home Video

The critics tended to patronize this movie about an 8th Air Force bombing raid on Hamburg, when it came out a couple of years back: one said that the crew of the B-17 that gives the film its title seemed too young (!); another that they were too brave (perhaps he thought the P-51s were along to keep them from running away). A third said the character development was weak, but grudgingly admitted that the movie did convey the sweep and complexity of the air battle over Europe. In fact, Memphis Belle most impressively succeeds in suggesting the immense effort that went into our bombing campaign against Germany, and again fills the sky with the hardware that won it. The moviemakers are sensitive enough to fold in a patch of archival footage, a salutary reminder of the world of difference between the cleverest recreation and the real thing. Add to this a first-rate score and a hair-raising ride home from the target, and the result is a picture that deserves far more serious consideration than it received.

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