War Movie Mondays: ‘Midway’

This week’s pick is Midway (1976) which depicts the U.S. and Japanese naval battle which turned the tide of the war in the Pacific. Director Jack Smight assembled some of Hollywood’s A-list talent including Charlton Heston (Capt. Matt Garth), Robert Mitchum (Vice Adm. William “Bull” Halsey), Henry Fonda (Adm. Chester Nimitz), James Coburn (Capt. Vinton Maddox), Glenn Ford (Rear Adm. Raymond Spruance), Hal Holbrook (Cmdr. Joe Rochefort), Steve Kanaly (Lt. Cmdr. Lance Massey), Tom Selleck (Capt. Cyril Simard), Robert Webber (Rear Adm. Jack Fletcher), and Toshiro Mifune (Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto).

Midway is best known for two things, its Academy Award winning Sensurround pre-surround sound/William Castle inspired movie experience, and as a war film which was shot using mostly colorized combat footage from World War II, and scenes from Hollywood greats like Tora! Tora! Tora! and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.

Jack Smight had stated in an interview years later that the footage was meant to show the scope of the battle and that these were scenes shot under real battlefield conditions. Despite these flaws, the film does have a wide array of well orchestrated scenes, and the action is quite convincing in that many historical moments are made through matters of sheer luck and through careless actions.

The decisive battle of Midway occurred just six months after Pearl Harbor. The United States had met crushing defeat at the hands of their Japanese enemies, and victory was far from within sight. The Japanese had swept south throughout the Pacific and it was feared that they were now planning to occupy American held territory in the eastern Pacific region as a staging area for a possible invasion of the U.S. west coast. On April 18, 1942, sixteen American B-25 bombers took off from the U.S. aircraft carrier Hornet under the command of Lt. Col. James Doolittle. Their plan: to bomb military and industrial targets in four major Japanese cities including Tokyo.

The attack had little success, but it shocked the enemy that the U.S. was capable of bringing the war to their doorstep. A second larger victory finally occurred at the battle of the Coral Sea in which United States carrier based aircraft defeated a Japanese task force. This was the first ever naval battle fought with carrier based aircraft against one another. The battle was a huge morale booster for Americans who were now confident that America had the will to go on the offensive rather than the defensive. However, the Japanese were planning another attack that was to deliver the crushing blow it failed to achieve at Pearl Harbor. American naval code breakers were trying to discover where the Japanese were going to strike next and when. This battle would determine whether or not the United States Navy would be able to continue a Pacific war in which they were outnumbered 4-1 by the Japanese.

The film opens up with footage from the film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo where the American bombers take off to bomb Japanese targets. Outraged at such an attack, the Japanese forces under the command of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto (played by the ever magnificent Toshiro Mifune), and the chief architect behind the Pearl Harbor attack, plan to strike back against the Americans at a designated target referred to as A-F. The same Japanese carriers that were responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor will also take part in this attack. American naval intelligence at Pearl have been successful in cracking some of the Japanese codes, but are still able to translate only ten percent of most of the communiques. Cmdr. Rochefort (Holbrook) is the man responsible for the code breakers and is trying to find out where the Japanese will strike next. Holbrook’s performance is very underrated and offers a sophisticated sense of dry wit to the picture. Rochefort’s aides mention that there has been heavy Japanese radio traffic concerning a position known as A-F. When Adm. Nimitz (Fonda), head of the U.S. Pacific fleet is brought in for a briefing, Rochefort asks that they be allowed to trick the Japanese into telling them just what A-F is by staging a phony radio message to Midway that their fresh water condenser is broken and needs to be replaced. The trap works, and the U.S. forces now know where the Japanese plan to strike next.

The film’s major lull point occurs when Capt. Garth (Heston) discovers that his son Tom (Edward Albert) a recent naval aviator graduate reports for duty in Hawaii and informs his father that he has fallen in love with a Japanese girl. Garth pulls some strings at the top level and asks that the girl’s parents not be interned in a camp back on the mainland. After this sour note, the film picks up when the U.S. and Japanese forces meet and the battle unfolds on June 4, 1942.

One of my favorite scenes is where combined aircraft from the U.S.S. Hornet (Torpedo Squadron 8), the U.S.S. Enterprise (Bombing Squadron 6), and U.S.S. Yorktown (Torpedo Squadron 3) find the Japanese task force and begin the chain of events which will end in defeat for the Japanese. Torpedo 8 meets with disaster and not one plane is effective in damaging the Japanese carriers. Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo (James Shigeta) responds to the news that so many American planes were destroyed with “Sacrifice themselves like Samurai these Americans.” The other attacks made by Enterprise and Hornet destroy the Japanese carriers Kaga, Soryu, and Akagi which now evens the score. Upon learning the news in Hawaii, Adm. Nimitz and Cmdr. Rochefort are delighted that the score is now settled. Cmdr. Rochefort says “Three of their top line carriers Admiral. Isn’t that worth a hot diggity damn?” Nimitz confesses that if they pull out now, they leave themselves still vulnerable to attack. Nimitz wants to finish off the forth Japanese carrier.

One other notable performance in the film comes from Glenn Ford who plays Rear Adm. Ray Spruance. Spruance was hand picked by Adm. Halsey who was suppose to command the Hornet and Enterprise task force. Halsey came down with a skin disease and was admitted to a hospital. Spruance was a cruiser commander who had never commanded a carrier before, but was a solid tactician and a major contributor to the decisive American victory at Midway.

Several inaccuracies ranging from planes from one ship actually attacked this ship and not that one, are made and not so easily recognized by those who are not military historians. If it were myself making the film, I would risk some late fees at the library so that my research was as thorough as possible. Despite these flaws, Midway is a film which needs to be re-examined and not so brutally bashed as it was in 1976. The film’s wonderful score was composed by John Williams who has worked for decades in Hollywood, and is responsible for many classic scores. Many critics labeled the film as the final death blow to the heroic World War II morale film and that audiences were not turning out as much for epic films such as this one. Robert Osbourne, the host on the Turner Classic Movies Channel said that the film “relied way too much on colorized footage that was more than likely shot after the battle had occurred.” Even though it doesn’t match the look of the film, I understood why Jack Smight used the footage and I have always thought that it was a nice gesture to salute those brave men on both sides who died during this pivotal battle for the Pacific.

Midway is available on DVD through Univeral Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.

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