A DREAM TAKES WING Catherine Wyler's father inspired 'Memphis Belle'


Washington-- When movie producer Catherine Wyler stepped onto the English airfield set for her first major feature-length film, the just-released "Memphis Belle," she had a sweetly startling revelation:

She knew things. Hundreds of things. Things she didn't even know she knew.

She knew there would be a hassle over the credits. She knew there would be disasters on the set. She knew there would be a certain point of no return at which she'd eat, sleep and breathe nothing but the production.

"It was stunning to me the amount of odd things I knew," she says in her Washington town house, the East Coast counterpart of her home in Beverly Hills. "Something would happen and instead of thinking, 'Oh my God!', I would know that this kind of thing happens a lot."

It happened, after all, in the '40s and '50s and '60s, in films like "Wuthering Heights" and "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "Ben Hur" and "Funny Girl" -- and, perhaps, in all of the films created by her late father, the legendary film director William Wyler.

"I learned so much from him that I didn't know I knew until I got in the middle of it."

Not the least of which was the story of the Memphis Belle, the American B-17 bomber that was the first to survive its 25 missions over German-occupied Europe during World War II, a "Flying Fortress" on which her father flew five missions to produce his 1943 documentary, "The Memphis Belle."

Ms. Wyler's new movie, co-produced by David Puttnam ("Chariots of Fire," "The Killing Fields"), is a fictionalized account of that 25th and final mission and was "inspired" by her father's documentary, a propaganda film made for the U.S. Army Air Forces to be shown back home and help the war effort.

For that film, Mr. Wyler enlisted in the Army Air Forces, where he produced several government films, learned to operate both a machine gun and a camera at 20,000-plus feet and subzero temperatures. He crouched in the ball turret on the underside of the bomber upon takeoff and landing -- against regulations because of the danger -- to get the most dramatic view of the runway. One of his small crew of cameramen was killed during a mission.

"He was a daredevil, an adventurer," says his daughter, who is married to Richard Rymland, owner of the Baltimore-based Rymland Development Group. "He wouldn't miss a chance to do something like that, even knowing how dangerous it was. When you see what it was really like, it's pretty shocking."

Ms. Wyler, 45, came across the wartime picture while working on her own 1986 documentary about her father's career, "Directed by William Wyler," an award-winning film she produced fearing her father and his body of work were being forgotten.

While working at Columbia Pictures in 1987 as a senior vic president in charge of movies based on true stories, she showed her documentary -- along with her father's "Memphis Belle" -- to Mr. Puttnam, then CEO of Columbia.

"I had a good true story in my own attic," she says of her father's decades-old World War II film. "It was pretty much of a collective 'Eureka!' Here was a true story that was a good basis for a feature film."

When she left Columbia a year later, after Mr. Puttnam did, she bought the property from the studio and took it back to Mr. Puttnam for production with Warner Bros.

When they started making "Memphis Belle," the producers thought of it strictly as an adventure movie, perhaps a way to acquaint a younger generation with what their grandfathers had been through, perhaps a way to convey the idea of teamwork that they believed had been lost

But the timing of the release of "Memphis Belle" -- in the midst of the Persian Gulf crisis in which thousands of young American men and women have been sent overseas and are poised for war -- has given it a special resonance.

Perhaps most poignant for today, says Ms. Wyler, is the portrait of youth at war depicted in her movie. "One thing we were not going to do was have everybody be 35 like they were in all the old war movies," she says. "That was one of the first tenets of making this movie. I never thought about it as a message, but it's become a message since the Gulf crisis. It's really a message to the country, perhaps to the world that, 'Don't forget, these are the kids who go.' "

She and the mostly all-male cast (including Matthew Modine and John Lithgow) and crew spent last summer and fall shooting the film on an airfield in England, having amassed an unparalleled collection of actual World War II fighter planes for the dangerous and intricate aerial scenes that dominate the movie. Although the real Memphis Belle is enshrined at a memorial site in Memphis, Tenn., five other restored B-17s were located and flown over for the film.

But Ms. Wyler says her movie, like her father's, "is about people as opposed to hardware," in this case, the relationships among the 10 young crew members.

It is something else she first learned about from her father, who died in 1981. "As a child, I was very struck by my father and his war buddies getting together and the intensity of the emotion between them. You could see they'd been through something that would never be equaled in their lives. It meant they had forged friendships that might never be equaled in their lives."

Her father's other friends and colleagues -- the stars of his filmlike Bette Davis and Charlton Heston, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, as well as producers, directors, writers -- were just part of the movie land scenery for a young girl named for the heroine in "Wuthering Heights."

In fact, although Catherine and her brother and sisters grew up in the glamorous swirl of the Hollywood cinema, her childhood, rhe says, "seemed normal. I was aware everybody treated my father rather specially. That was just the way it was. It wasn't until I was teen-ager, and people would always ask me if I knew James Dean and be disappointed when I said I didn't, that I became aware of how special it was."

But as a teen going off to study modern European literature aStanford University in California with hopes of a publishing career, she had no thoughts about pursuing her father's trade.

After college, she went to New York where she did, indeed, work in publishing for a few years. But offered the chance to go to Paris to work on a film, "I jumped at it," she says. "And there I was, in it again."

She returned to New York, went to work as a story editor for producers Ray Stark and Joe Levine, and soon after, in 1964, married Robert Sind, the father of her two children, Billy, 23, a researcher with a political consulting firm in Washington, and Amy, 19, a theater major at Syracuse University.

The couple lived in Baltimore briefly, when Mr. Sind worked as an executive for London Fog, and divorced in 1974.

But it was during her time in Baltimore that she first met developer Richard Rymland, a man she would meet years later, after both were divorced, a man whose humor, storytelling and sense of adventure, she says, reminds her a lot of her father.

"Not only was I named for the heroine in 'Wuthering Heights,' but I was always looking for Heathcliff," she says, referring to the --ing hero of the romantic classic. "Thank goodness I finally found him. Imagine, I found him in Baltimore!"

Her relationship with and, in 1979, marriage to Mr. Rymland brought her to Washington, where she worked for five years for the National Endowment for the Arts as assistant director of the media arts program, and later as director of cultural and children's programming at PBS.

When Mr. Puttnam asked her to join Columbia Pictures in 1987, she found the offer "simply irresistible" and made arrangements with her husband for alternating weekend commutes.

Now the producer and the developer are joining forces professionally as well. Ms. Wyler plans to work on Mr. Rymland's upcoming projects -- including a resort in Belize and a series of hotels and restaurants in Budapest. And Mr. Rymland, who produced the Colonnade in Baltimore while his wife produced "Memphis Belle," is a partner in her movie production company, Topgallant Productions.

"It'll be very synergistic," she says. "A producer is very similar to a developer. At some point, while I was working on this movie and he was building the Colonnade, I realized the same kind of traits were required. You get an idea, you have to follow it through, you have to raise the money and bring together the people."

For her part, she admits, her famous name has always helped her do that. "Yes, it was entree in terms of getting me through a door -- that's always helpful. But that's all it really does for you. After that, you're on your own."

In Washington, it is hardly an issue. But on the West Coast, she says, "He is so well-known that sometimes I think I'd like to come out from under his shadow."

As she did with "Memphis Belle." Even though she was working on something closely associated with her father, "once you start working on something it becomes a whole other thing," she says. "It became very much ours -- we who were working on the movie. She believes her father would have enjoyed the fact that she was making another "Memphis Belle," even though he didn't believe in remaking his movies. "I think had he heard about this idea, he would have been very supportive and said, 'Go off and make it, but leave me out of it.' "

But, more important, she thinks he would have been pleased with the results.

"Basically, I was just trying to do as good a job as he would have done -- which is a hard thing to manage."

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