Midway

"Once, we filled the sky with our aircraft. Now we win or lose with six fighters and ten torpedo planes." - Rear Admiral Yamaguchi

Director: Jack Smight

Writer: Donald S. Sanford

Principal cast members:

History Wrestles Hollywood

In early June of 1942, two powerful navies were in a perilous situation in the Pacific Ocean. The American navy had suffered a horrendous blow at Pearl Harbor, losing most of their battleship strength. The Japanese navy was in a position of superiority in the Pacific, but to truly secure their captured territory in eastern Asia, they had to totally control the Pacific Ocean. Adm. Yamamoto realized that if he could cripple or eliminate the American aircraft carrier fleet, the war in the Pacific would be essentially won for Japan. One of the keys was to seize the American-held island of Midway. Yamamoto launched a daring plan to seize Midway and lure the American carriers into a trap.

Unknown to Yamamoto, the Americans had broken a key Japanese code. Having determined the Japanese target for invasion, the American carrier fleet made an extremely aggressive and risky move by advancing to attack the Japanese fleet, hoping to capitalize on the advantage of tactical surprise. Between June 4th and June 7th, the most decisive naval engagement since the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 took place and resulted in the Americans inflicting a crippling blow on the Japanese. Remarkably, this battle took place without the two fleets ever moving to within visual range of one another. It was conducted entirely with carrier-based aircraft. This was one of the most historically significant naval battles of all time.

Jack Smight's 1976 big-screen re-telling of this piece of history was extremely hyped and sensationalized. The United States was celebrating its bicentennial and patriotism was starting to make a resurgence after the malaise of Vietnam. The studio was marketing a new technology called "Sensurround" that utilized very low frequency speakers in theaters to add a tactile aspect to the explosions and crashes taking place on the screen. 'Midway' was one of the first films to utilize this technology. It also had a true all-star cast. Fonda, Ford, Mitchum, and Heston were huge names and some of the others with them included Robert Wagner, James Coburn, Robert Webber, and Cliff Robertson. To fill out the Japanese side, screen legend Toshiro Mifune was hired along with some well known Japanese-American actors like James Shigeta, Pat Morita, and Robert Ito. Midway had star power to spare, the latest in immersive theater technology, and one of the greatest underdog stories in the history of warfare.

But for some reason, the film's makers decided it needed something more. So they added a subplot in which a popular officer played by Charlton Heston, in one of the movie's few fictional roles, has to deal with his son doing the unthinkable and marrying a Japanese woman. This tacked-on fictional subplot served to point out that Americans had prejudices, that internment camps were a bad thing, and that human foibles were part of the makeup of our heroes. It also serves as a major distraction from the story being told.

There is no question that American war movies are often extremely one-sided in their depictions of World War II. The same can be said of any nation. For us, Nazis are heartless, soulless killers. Japanese are fanatical, torturing barbarians. These stereotypes are cartoonish, insensitive and often only partially correct, at best. The story told in Midway doesn't give in to any of these stereotypes. In fact, the scenes on the bridges and command centers of the Japanese ships are well-scripted and make the Japanese out to be every bit as brave, determined, worried, and human as their American counterparts. This is as it should be and in all honesty, it was enough. Strip away the Garth family 'Guess who's coming to dinner' sub-plot and you already have a movie that tells you the story in an exciting yet unbiased way. I truly wish it was possible to watch it like that.

There's nothing really wrong with Heston's performance or that of Edward Albert as his son. But frankly, I don't think it's all that necessary to point out that Americans were generally suspicious and hateful toward Japanese people seven months after Pearl Harbor. There is nothing insightful in revealing that we were prejudiced and discriminated against people of Japanese ancestry in June of 1942. Frankly, I think a little race hatred probably helped motivate both sides in that historic battle and in some ways, it cheapens and weakens the historic significance and the tribute to the heroism of the men fighting in both navies to have it pointed out with a melodramatic, politically correct fiction tacked onto what is already tension-filled and gripping historical re-creation. Simply put: there was no reason to make up a silly side story in telling this significant historical account.

As for the battle itself, the actors do a fine job of giving you the harrowing, minute-by-minute account of all that happened during those four days. We see Mitchum as the supreme naval commander for the Americans laid up by an embarrassing skin disease. Fonda, playing his successor, has to take enormous gambles to face the potentially devastating situation. The fliers taking off from his ships risk death or worse in pressing home their attacks against enormous odds. The pilots of the scout planes strain their eyes to spot the enemy knowing the every second could spell the difference between success or failure.

On the Japanese side, there is the supreme confidence of knowing they have already crippled the enemy's navy and they have the upper hand. At the same time, the skillful but cautious overall commander knows there is still great risk. His advisors and subordinates attempt to balance that caution with the aggressiveness needed to win. The pilots bravely take on the same risks as their American counterparts.

Throughout the film, the action jumps around from ship to ship, cockpit to cockpit, subtitles helping us keep track of who and when and where we are at all times. Midway was an amazing battle with attacks taking place in several locations at once and any one of those attacks could have turned out quite differently had it arrived a few minutes earlier or later than it did. Smight does a fine job of putting the pieces together in a way that keeps the audience engaged and aware of what is happening on both sides of the fight. It is a masterful job of construction and editing.

Adding to the authenticity and power of the film, a lot of archival footage from the actual battle was edited in along with the re-creations. These scenes, some of them in grainy black and white, actually help the audience to feel the historical significance and they are edited in extremely well. It is an excellent touch.

Midway was an important battle - possibly the single most important battle for Americans in the Pacific. There is drama enough in a detailed and accurate historical account. Had the makers of the film realized they had plenty of movie right there, they would have made a much better film. The need to add social commentary and political correctness crippled an otherwise great film.

Coolness factor: 6

Writing: 5

Acting: 7

Overall entertainment: 6