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'Memphis Belle' Movie 19 years on

Jessie The Jeep

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In June 1989, myself and two friends headed south to Duxford. This wasn’t a normal visit to view the Imperial War Museum, there was something special going on. Five B-17 Fortresses, five P-51 Mustangs, three Hispano Bouchons (License built Bf109’s), a single Grumman Avenger and a single B-25 Mitchell gathered for the filming of David Putnams ‘Memphis Belle’ film. This was the largest collection of B-17’s in the UK since ‘The War Lover’ 1961 starring Steve McQueen. In addition, the three Bf109’s were the only three flying in Europe. There was going to be a small opportunity to see these aircraft in the UK, so we jumped at the chance. The Avenger and the B-25 were camera ships, the Avenger having the rear fuselage and tail resprayed olive drab so as not to look out of place if caught in shot.


Click the thumbnails for enlargements.


width=200 height=109http://www.hmvf.co.uk/album/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=639&g2_serialNumber=1&g2_GALLERYSID=bec275a48209413d1c80d340d27ae10b[/img]


The aircraft had arrived a few days before we did, and there had already been dramas. One B-17 was UK based. Two were from France and two were from the USA. Four of the B-17’s were ‘G’ models, and they had all been converted to resemble the earlier B-17F’s that were operated at the time of the ‘Memphis Belle’. The oldest B-17 was an original B-17F which was flown from the USA by its owner, Bob Richardson. For several thousand miles flying the North Atlantic, the B-17 had no problems, then not far from Duxford, the B-17 had engine trouble and had to shut one down. Sadly Bob died before the film was released, so he never got to see the results.


The lead role, as far as aircraft were concerned, went to the Late Dave Tallichett’s B-17. Dave was a wartime 100th Bomb Group pilot, and probably the only wartime B-17 pilot who was still flying B-17’s so many years later. Dave’s niece was one of the films producers, and that probably helped with the choice of lead aircraft. Her name was Catherine Wyler. Name ring a bell?? Daughter of William Wyler, producer of wartime films including the original wartime colour documentary of the ‘Memphis Belle’!!


During the filming, a more alarming incident happened. One of the French B-17 suffered a seized piston which subsequently blew the cylinder off the crankcase. As the cylinder detached, it blew the engine cowling off the B-17, which curled back in the airflow, flying back and almost hitting Stephen Grey in his P-51. Unfortunately none of the cameras caught the incident but thankfully, the B-17 landed safely. This B-17 had just received its replacement engine taken from the IWM B-17 ‘Mary Alice’. When we arrived and the damaged unit was being refitted to this aircraft.


Later in the filming, the aircraft moved to the recently vacated RAF Binbrook for take off, landing and ground scenes. A control tower of wartime style, was built on the field for the filming. Because it didn’t have planning permission, it had to be knocked down after filming finished. Another area of the airfield featured a large expanse of concrete. The director didn’t like it, so the whole area was turfed over the concrete the following day!


While filming at Binbrook, one B-17 take off went seriously wrong. Nearing flying speed, one main wheel seized, dragging the Fortress off the runway, through a pile of stone chippings. It became briefly airborne befor crashing into a cornfield and catching fire. All ten crew managed to get out of the burning plane, though there were injuries. The plane sadly was almost completely destroyed by the fire. Once the flames got to the fuel load, there was little the fire crew could do to stop it spreading.


At the time of our visit, I had an old 35mm film camera. I didn’t realise that part way through the day, it stopped working properly. Many of my pictures were lost, but I did have some which turned out ok, a few of which I’ve attached below.





P-51 line up and to the right, two of the Bf109J's in the hangar

width=200 height=39http://www.hmvf.co.uk/album/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=641&g2_serialNumber=1&g2_GALLERYSID=bec275a48209413d1c80d340d27ae10b[/img] width=200 height=66http://www.hmvf.co.uk/album/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=643&g2_serialNumber=1&g2_GALLERYSID=bec275a48209413d1c80d340d27ae10b[/img]


B-25 Mitchell 'Dolly' and Avenger camera ships

width=200 height=98http://www.hmvf.co.uk/album/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=645&g2_serialNumber=1&g2_GALLERYSID=bec275a48209413d1c80d340d27ae10b[/img] width=200 height=125http://www.hmvf.co.uk/album/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=647&g2_serialNumber=1&g2_GALLERYSID=bec275a48209413d1c80d340d27ae10b[/img]


Original B-17F 'C Cup' and one of the Bf109's

width=200 height=106http://www.hmvf.co.uk/album/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=649&g2_serialNumber=1&g2_GALLERYSID=bec275a48209413d1c80d340d27ae10b[/img] width=200 height=134http://www.hmvf.co.uk/album/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=651&g2_serialNumber=1&g2_GALLERYSID=bec275a48209413d1c80d340d27ae10b[/img]


The Fighter Collection's P-51D 'Moose' and the Old Flying Machine Company's Bf109J

width=200 height=115http://www.hmvf.co.uk/album/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=653&g2_serialNumber=1&g2_GALLERYSID=bec275a48209413d1c80d340d27ae10b[/img] width=200 height=112http://www.hmvf.co.uk/album/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=655&g2_serialNumber=1&g2_GALLERYSID=bec275a48209413d1c80d340d27ae10b[/img]


David Tallichet's B-17G framed between the wing and prop blade of a P-51, and Bf109 being towed out.

width=200 height=131http://www.hmvf.co.uk/album/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=657&g2_serialNumber=1&g2_GALLERYSID=bec275a48209413d1c80d340d27ae10b[/img] width=200 height=94http://www.hmvf.co.uk/album/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=659&g2_serialNumber=1&g2_GALLERYSID=bec275a48209413d1c80d340d27ae10b[/img]


P-51 pilot waves as he taxis past and a row of four B-17's. Dave's closest, the two French aircraft in the middle, and Bob Richardson's B-17F at the rear.

width=200 height=132http://www.hmvf.co.uk/album/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=661&g2_serialNumber=1&g2_GALLERYSID=bec275a48209413d1c80d340d27ae10b[/img] width=200 height=64http://www.hmvf.co.uk/album/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=663&g2_serialNumber=1&g2_GALLERYSID=bec275a48209413d1c80d340d27ae10b[/img]


P-51D 'Miss L'

width=200 height=109http://www.hmvf.co.uk/album/main.php?g2_view=core.DownloadItem&g2_itemId=665&g2_serialNumber=1&g2_GALLERYSID=bec275a48209413d1c80d340d27ae10b[/img]


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19 years, good grief. What a film though, I remember at the time much was said in the press about the so called Nose Pin Up Art. The cheesecake, naughty but nice girls that adorned the nose of the aircraft. Some pseudo types opined that these were the equivalent to warding off evil spirits, even to a superstition that it would keep a crew alive in battle.

The crew on the other hand, admitted to seeing a scantily clad, nubile young woman on their plane. If you want to see some of the art work here's a good link.

Don't worry, nothing risque, this was the 1940's. Some incredible talent amongst the crews. http://www.acepilots.com/planes/nose_art.html


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Steven Spieldberg prefers real action to CGI, even if it is models. That is why he used our model P-47's for the Band of Brothers series. He said that CGI animators can't create realistic movement and momentum for aircraft. The P-51 in the front titles of BoB looks all wrong as it is CGI, especially when it banks and turns away. The P-47's attaching the troops were the models.


Pearl Harbor had many GCI aircraft in addition to real aircraft. The CGI's flew all wrong, defying all laws of aerodynamics - but it was only a film to make money for entertainment, not to satisfy the purists.


I guess once we're paying the bills, we can make everything right!



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In the Film 'Sweet Liberty', a film crew arrived at a town to make a film about the US war of independance. Alan Alda's character ( the writer of the book the 'film' was based on ) was unhappy about the historical inaccuracies being made, and complains to the director to get at least something right.


To quote roughly what the 'Director' character said,


"There are three things the kids want to see in a movie. 1) Defy authority, 2) Destroy property, 3) Take peoples clothes off. They don't care if the hats are on wrong, or whether there are leaves on the trees.........."


and it's true. It seems to have become a formula for films. Sometimes a good story is left out of this formula!!!



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Years ago there was a very interesting article (4 or 5 pages plus) on The Making of the film Memphis Belle in a magazine. I borrowed it and made a copy. It included detail on wood silhouette mockups of taxiing planes and a lot of model making input.


A while later up on the local airfield with the gmc I met a young couple and they came back for tea - we got talking about the film and I gave them my copy thinking I would do another, but then I could not remember who I had borrowed what magazine from!


Any ideas on which magazine it might have been?

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Yes indeed, the magazine was After the Battle and it featured maybe 16 or so pages all about the making of the David Putname film.


I don't subscribe to After the Battle myself, despite it being an excellent publication. There is bound to be someone on here who could tell you the magzine number you need to trace and where you can find a copy :-)



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