Growing up as the daughter of William Wyler, who directed such classics as Wuthering Heights, Ben Hur, and The Best Years of Our Lives, Catherine Wyler met her share of movie stars and moguls. As she set out to produce her own first feature, though, it was not her father’s Hollywood cronies she recalled but his World War II buddies.
The late director made two feature-length documentaries during the war, The Memphis Belle (available via mail order from Movies Unlimited: 1-800-523-0823) and Thunderbolt. He flew five missions with the crew of the Belle — once recklessly riding out a landing in the glassed-in ball turret — and lost the hearing in one ear from the racket of high-altitude flying. After the war, Wyler loved to get together with his former comrades-in-arms. ”Seeing my father with those guys, I was struck by the intensity of the emotions, the bonds that they had formed,” says his daughter.
Catherine Wyler, a former PBS programming executive, went to work for David Puttnam during his brief stint —1988 to 1987 — as head of Columbia Pictures. There they hit upon the idea of remaking her father’s documentary, and Wyler commissioned screenwriter Monte Merrick (Staying Together). But after he had interviewed the surviving Memphis Belle crew members, Merrick argued for fictionalizing the characters to create more human drama. ”I think there might have been all that conflict on the plane, but we weren’t hearing it from the guys 45 years later,” says Wyler. ”We felt that the movie was really about every man on a mission.” She hopes Memphis Belle conveys the respect her father had for the flyers to a contemporary audience. ”When the movie’s over,” she says, ”we want the audience to feel as if they’ve been on a mission.”