Memphis Belle: The 75th Anniversary of the 25th Mission

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab.

The statistics were overwhelmingly against them.  With a million German troops and 40,000 anti-aircraft guns waiting the odds were roughly 50-50 they’d make it home alive.  Completing 25 bombing runs lowered those odds to less than 25%.  Not to mention that casualties of the 8th Army Air Forces would exceed those of the entire US Marine Corps during WWII.

The nose of the Memphis Belle, in a photo from our holdings (342-FH-3A-6272) and a still from the restored outtakes.

But, as a crew of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress you didn’t think about those odds.  You did your job just as the crew of the Memphis Belle did.  On May 17th, 1943 they were one of the first to complete 25 missions without being shot down.  As heroes – congratulated by royalty, awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses, and immortalized on film – they were rewarded by crisscrossing America selling war bonds with Stuka, their Scottish terrier mascot.

Over fifteen hours of film shot by William Wyler and his cinematographers documenting the plane and her crew resides at the National Archives.  While Memphis Belle: Story of a Flying Fortress  has been widely available, the raw footage of the victory tour and much of the footage shot in England and over Germany has not.  Wyler served as a major in the US Army Air Forces between 1942 and 1945 making the Memphis Belle film and Thunderbolt.  During filming, cinematographer Harold Tannenbaum was killed while flying over enemy territory; Wyler suffered from frostbite and lost his hearing for months after being on bombing runs.

In honor of the 75th anniversary NARA partnered with Vulcan Productions and Creative Differences to digitally preserve the outtakes and revitalize the stories and experiences of 8th Army Airmen in The Cold Blue, a new documentary directed by Erik Nelson.  The original Kodachrome was scanned by NARA staff in 4K resolution using our Spirit scanner.  While the color of the originals remains beautiful, the film has shrunken over time, requiring careful handling and slow scanning speeds to avoid damage.  In total, it took 80 hours to scan the reels and generated over 80 TB worth of data.

To create the 72 minute long documentary, Nelson used the archival footage from Wyler’s outtakes along with some original footage shot in Berlin during July of 1945.  The footage has been restored by Ernest Savage and Paul Marengo.  Nelson interviewed nine 8th Army Air Force Veterans for the project and spent four days flying in an original B-17 bomber with sound designer David C. Hughes of Skywalker Sound, using up to eighteen microphones for recording.  The original film itself is respected as a character – frame lines, archival markings, a jittering camera, sprocket holes and edge codes make their appearance as an authenticating archival force. The Cold Blue uses the original footage and accounts of veterans to illustrate the complexity of the missions, highlight the camaraderie of the crew, show appreciation for the ground crews, and to explore their thoughts on the events as they occurred, and looking back seventy-five years later.

An added benefit to this project is that Nelson was able to use footage from the original outtakes to reconstruct Wyler’s Memphis Belle: Story of a Flying Fortress. The surviving copies of the film are not a good representation of the film that was shown in 1944, so utilizing NARA’s 4K scans, he has painstakingly reassembled Wyler’s film with vibrant color.  Over 500 individual shots were perfectly positioned over the final soundtrack heralding a new kind of restoration – where a film is recut from scratch using primary sources to preserve the exact content of the original.

The world premiere of The Cold Blue will be screened at the main Archives Building in the McGowan Theater on June 16th, 2018 at 3:00 p.m.  You can see a trailer of Cold Blue here and the individual reels of Wylers outtakes here. See before and after shots of the film’s restoration here.

2 thoughts on “Memphis Belle: The 75th Anniversary of the 25th Mission

  1. Very cool! I think they’re having a big to do for the Memphis Belle at the Dayton Air Force Museum this weekend. Wish I could check it out!

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