The Boeing B-17—or its computer-generated likeness—appears front and center in the AppleTV+ series Masters of the Air. The story of the 100th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force in World War II, MOTA is based on the book by Donald L. Miller. The 100th flew the B-17 Flying Fortress and some of its missions over Europe provide harrowing sequences in the series.
Here are a few classic films that feature the B-17 and are worth searching out.
Air Force (1943). Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring John Ridgely, Gig Young, Arthur Kennedy, Charles Drake, Harry Carey, George Tobias and John Garfield.
While B-17s are known primarily for their role in the European Theater, they flew in the Pacific as well. Howard Hawks’ Air Force tells the story of one such Fort, Mary Ann. After flying into the attack on Pearl Harbor, the airplane and its crew proceed to Wake Island and then on to the Philippines to take action against the Japanese. The production used real B-17B, C and D models, supplemented by model work when necessary.
The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944). Directed by William Wyler.
Director William Wyler left Hollywood to document the war for the U.S. and received permission to film an account of a B-17 crew on a mission over Germany. He ended up flying five missions with pilot Robert Morgan of the 91st Bombardment Group, two of them in Morgan’s regular plane, Memphis Belle. Wyler used his footage to create a composite twenty-fifth mission for Morgan and the crew of Memphis Belle. (While not the first bomber to complete 25 missions, Memphis Belle was the first to return to America after having done so and earned much public attention as a result.) Released on April 15, 1944, the New York Times called the film “a perfect example of what can be properly done by competent film reporters to visualize the war for people back home.” (The real Memphis Belle is on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.)
Memphis Belle (1990). Directed by Michael Caton-Jones. Starring Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz,
Tate Donovan, D.B. Sweeney, Billy Zane, Sean Astin, Harry Connick Jr., John Lithgow and David Strathairn.
The fictionalized film based on Wyler’s (and co-produced by his daughter) also tells the story of the titular B-17’s 25th mission but suffers from a willingness to embrace cliché as the crew faces a familiar litany of threats (bandits, flak, cloud cover, engine loss).
Command Decision (1948).Directed by Sam Wood. Starring Clark Gable, Walter Pidgeon, Van Johnson, Brian Donlevy, Charles Bickford, John Hodiak and Edward Arnold.
Where MOTA focuses on what the B-17 crews endured during the war, Command Decision focuses on the commanders who sent them on their missions in what Brigadier General “Casey” Dennis (Gable, who actually flew some missions over Europe) calls “the weirdest kind of war on earth.” Watching B-17s and their crews head out on a mission, he says, “In a few hours from now they’ll be fighting on oxygen five miles above Germany. Tonight some of them will be dancing at the Savoy. Some of them will still be in Germany.” The film can’t escape its roots as a Broadway play (adapted from a novel) and remains mostly set-bound. A scene where Dennis has to talk down a B-17 bombardier flying for his wounded pilot suffers from some obvious model work that stands out in comparison to the actual combat footage used elsewhere.
Twelve O’Clock High (1949). Directed by Henry King. Starring Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill and Dean Jagger.
Twelve O’Clock High covers some of the same ground as Command Decision but does it much better. The focal point is General Frank Savage (Peck) who takes command of the snakebitten 918th Bombardment Group after its previous commander got too close to his men and efficiency suffered. Savage plans to whip the unit into shape even if it means the crews will hate him. The 918th does improve, but the stresses of command eventually take their toll on Savage. B-17 fans will especially enjoy a legendary stunt sequence when stunt pilot Paul Mantz performs a belly landing in a real Fortress. The film later inspired a television series.
The War Lover (1962). Directed by Philip Leacock. Starring Steve McQueen, Robert Wagner, Shirley Ann Field, Gary Cockrell and Michael Crawford.
This adaptation of John Hersey’s novel tells the story of a pilot (McQueen) and co-pilot (Wagner) of a Flying Fortress and the woman one of them loves (Field). The pilot, “Buzz” Rickson, is the war lover of the tile, a man who treads the “fine line between the hero and the psychopath” in the words of the squadron doctor. Filmed with three actual B-17s (and footage, including Mantz’s belly landing, borrowed from Twelve O’Clock High), the film boasts a strong performance by McQueen but is weakened by the romance in which Field’s character is used to explain the movie’s themes. “You are on the side of life,” she tells Wagner’s character; to Buzz she explains, “You can’t make love.… You can only make hate.”
Target for Today (1944) is also of interest. This wartime documentary provides a detailed nuts-and-bolts look at what it took to plan and fly B-17 missions over Europe. Cast with real military personnel and filmed largely on location, it will provide viewers with some key background for the events of MOTA.