Sunday, September 12, 2010

#92 - Midway


BACKSTORY:


“Midway” was released in 1976 and was meant to be the definitive treatment of the turning point battle in the Pacific in WWII. In some ways it is a dinosaur marking the end days of the epic old school war movies like “The Longest Day”. Similar to that film, it features an all-star cast and tells the story from both the American and enemy perspectives. Unlike “The Longest Day”, it is not based on a book by Cornelius Ryan and thus does not have Ryan’s deft blending of commanders and grunts roles. It also takes it easy on its audience by having the Japanese speak English. The movie was a disappointment at the box office in spite of its revolutionary Sensurround technology that was supposed to make the audience “feel” the battle. (It was one of only 4 movies made with this dead-end technology).

The producers made the decision to make as much use of actual war footage as possible. In addition, combat footage from other war films like “Tora! Tora! Tora!” are used. Admirably, the cinematographer tried to reduce the quality of the modern film to be more seamless with the circa WWII footage. It is an uneasy blend, however. The navy provided the U.S.S. Lexington (commissioned in 1943) which served for both the American and Japanese carrier scenes.

OPENING SCENE:

The movie opens with a written reminder that Midway was the turning point in the Pacific. It posits the theme that battles are a mixture of “planning, courage, error, and chance”. The audience is informed that they will be seeing actual combat footage. We then see the “Doolittle Raiders” taking off and bombing Japan in a seeming example of this. (Actually the footage is from the movie “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo”.)

The first scene is in Hiroshima on April 18, 1942 at the home of Admiral Yamamoto (the great Toshiro Mifune). He sees the raid on Japan as an opportunity to initiate his plan to destroy the American fleet in a decisive battle.

SUMMARY:

Cast members standing by a Hellcat playing a Wildcat
Matt Garth (Charlton Heston) arrives at intelligence headquarters at Pearl Harbor to see if they know where the payback for the Doolittle Raid will come. Intelligence nerd Rochefort tells him “something is stirring”. Garth’s son Tom (Eddie Albert) surprises him with his arrival at Pearl as a naval fighter pilot. The reunion is awkward as they have a dysfunctional relationship probably due to the Garths’ divorce. Tom has fallen in love with a local girl, but because her family is Japanese, they have been interned. Matt growls that he is not a bigot, but Tom’s timing is poor.

Yamamoto goes over his plan. It is very ambitious and accurately reflects the overconfidence and aggressiveness of the Japanese high command at this stage of the war. Some of his subordinates are leery, but he insists they must destroy the American fleet before America’s industrial might kicks in.

At Pearl Harbor, CINC Chester Nimitz (Henry Fonda playing him again after “In Harm’s Way”) gets briefed on the Battle of Coral Sea. The cryptanalysts led by Rochefort have determined the next Japanese target codenamed “AF” in Japanese messages. They concoct a scheme to get the Japanese to reveal that AF is Midway. The movie gives props to the code-breakers that made the victory possible.

Matt Garth meets the Nisei fiance Hiroku who explains that she is not a subversive. Not surprisingly, her parents are opposed to the marriage. In a later scene, Garth visits an intelligence officer and swallows his pride to successfully get the girl and her parents released. He then confronts Tom and cheesily tells him “you better shape up, Tiger or some hot-shot Japanese pilot is going to flame your ass!”  Cringe!

The movie now turns to the battle. It accurately walks through the main events interspersing combat footage with command decisions by both sides. The Japanese bombard Midway Island in a scene with lots of explosions. Meanwhile, both fleets have scout planes out looking for the other. However, the Japanese in their hubris do not think the Americans can be anywhere near. Commander Watanabe argues for a renewed attack on Midway. Adm. Nagumo reluctantly agrees necessitating switching the planes from ship-killing torpedoes to airfield-cratering bombs. In a seemingly screenwriters’ fiction (but in fact based on fact), the last Japanese scout plane discovers the American fleet causing Nagumo to reverse the order.

The American strike force is on its way led by the torpedo bombers. We see actual footage (albeit of later types of planes) blended with close-ups of the actors in front of a screen. The scene concentrates on George Gay who survives the suicide attack to end up bobbing in the middle of the battle. We hear the usual war movie radio chatter. Tom Garth is shot up and badly burned. Nagumo gives props to the American air crews by saying “they sacrifice themselves like samurai”.

a Japanese carrier gets hit
As the last torpedo plane splashes with no hits to show for their sacrifice, the dive bombers arrive above the four Japanese carriers. In moments three models of carriers are in flames. One of the bombers radios “Scratch one flattop!” (Wrong battle – the quote is from Coral Sea) The Hiryu is unhit for no reason since it is plainly visible. (In actuality, it was miles away in a squal.)

The Americans return with Tom in a lot of distress. He crash lands on the carrier deck, but survives. The filmmakers use famous footage of a Hellcat crashing. (Tom was supposed to be in a Wildcat and the actual pilot walked away from the crash.)

There’s still that one Japanese carrier out there and planes from it have hit the Yorktown so another strike force is organized. One of the hits is by a kamikaze in a cool shot of the plane coming right at the bridge. Pilots are needed for the strike force and guess who volunteers? If you guessed Charleton Heston, you have obviously seen some war movies. Heck you have seen some movies, period.

Garth leads the attack on the Hiryu, but he misses. Just kidding. His bomb lands smack in the middle of the deck causing the model to catch fire. Like son, like father, Matt has plane problems and crashes, but burns on return. He’s a martyr!

THE FINAL SCENE:
Back at Pearl, Tom is put in an ambulance. Hiroku is there, but oddly shows no emotion. Nimitz wonders “were we better or just luckier?”

RATINGS:

Realism - 8

Action - 7

Acting - 8

Accuracy - 9

Plot - 7

Overall - 7



WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?

Doubtful. The tacked on love story does not overcome the fact that most of the movie is old white guys playing army (or in this case navy).

ACCURACY:

The movie is commendably accurate. If you want to learn about the Battle of Midway and do not want to read, it is a good tutorial. The main facts and chronology are factual. The actors portraying real historical figures get the personalities right. The little things like the AF code-breaking gambit are incorporated with good effect and show the filmmakers cared about getting things right. The Japanese point of view is shown with sympathy. They are not demonized like in a 1940’s or 1950’s movie. In fact, the characters are portrayed as able and intelligent, which is what they were. Their hubris brings them down.

The love story involving the Issei parents and the Nisei daughter manages to bring the unfortunate mistreatment of Japanese-Americans into the film. Although the internment policy has nothing directly to do with the Battle of Midway, I can forgive the makers for reminding us that we were not perfect as a country in WWII. However, although it is a fact that Japanese-Americans were put in internment camps in America, very few of the families were interned in Hawaii and those that were were segregated by sex (unlike Horoku’s parents).

The most obvious inaccuracies in the movie have to do with the combat footage. Any person knowledgeable of WWII aircraft will notice planes that did not fight in the Battle of Midway. For instance, there are numerous times when F6F Hellcats are portraying F4F Wildcats. Tom Garth takes off in a Wildcat and crashes in a Hellcat. Heck, there are even some British and German planes in dogfight scenes that were shot for the movie “The Battle of Britain”. Also, the U.S.S. Lexington is not the right class of carrier. With that said, I do not think your average viewer cares and the makers deserve credit for trying to use as much real footage as possible.

Some experts quibble about the kamikaze hitting the bridge. The fact is kamikaze attacks were not policy at the time of the Battle of Midway. However, there were examples of individual Japanese pilots deciding to crash into the enemy earlier in the war. Usually it was when their plane was crippled. There is no evidence this happened in the battle. It’s the coolest visual in the movie so let’s cut it some slack.

When I saw “Midway” in a theater in 1976, I can remember leaving the theater outraged that the movie concluded without reference to the sinking of the Yorktown. It seemed an attempt to make the victory perfect instead of great. For me this cancelled out a lot of the fairness of the movie. Looking back, I may have been too historically fanatical, but I still think it was a flawed decision by the filmmakers to not mar the feel-good ending.

CRITIQUE:

“Midway” begs to be compared to its sisters “The Longest Day” (1962), “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970), and “A Bridge Too Far” (1977). They are all epics with all-star casts. Each looks at both sides of the battle. Each wants to be the definitive account of an historical event and they succeed. They all concentrate on command decisions. The most obvious comparison is to “Bridge” (#94). They are only one year apart. They each concentrate mainly on leadership characters, although “Bridges” has its Dohun representing the average Joe and “Midway” has Gay. “Bridge” forgoes the fictional main character and the cheesy love story. It has more lusty action scenes which could be because its more visceral to witness boots on the ground than planes in the air. I will have to watch “Tora!” again to compare it to “Midway”, but I feel “Bridge” is a better movie than “Midway”.

As far as “The Longest Day”, no comparison. It amazes me that while “Midway” owes its existence to the granddaddy of all-star battle epics, it ignores the formula that made “Longest” special. “The Longest Day” has the generals, but also the privates so you get the full spectrum. Most of the enlisted men are portrayed by second tier actors, but they hold their own with the John Waynes. Remember Red Buttons’ character? It also has some humor. There is no humor in “Midway” and the bit players are pretty bad. Eddie Albert as Tom Garth is cringe-worthy. TLD did not build its plot around a fictional character, either.

This is not to say the movie is bad. It works hard to be accurate. It is fair to the Japanese. The score by John Williams is not overly patriotic. It tells the story of an important event in history in a more interesting way than a documentary would. You get to see lots of actual combat footage. Best of all - Charlton Heston dies.

8 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this review, especially the parts about the aircraft that has been used. A fair depiction of the Japanese is a good thing. Is it as well done as in Tora, Tora, Tora? Do you know the movie Go for Broke about Nisei soldiers in WWII in France. I read a review on amazon.co.uk.Sounded like something to discoveer.

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  2. Thanks. I plan on doing a "Dueling Movies - Battle of Britain vs. Tora! Tora! Tora!" in the near future and will probably reference "Midway" in it. But for now I will say that Tora is better than Midway mainly because it does not have the lame subplot and the acting is better. It is the gold standard for non-CGI air combat. "Midway" used a lot of footage from it.
    I have not seen "Go for Broke" in decades. I recall it as your standard 1940s war film. Nothing to get excited about. BTW I think they were in Italy.

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  3. You are right, they were in Italy, I muddled it up. Curious to see if you think Battle of Britain is better, I always thought it was hard to top.

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  4. Thank you for this review. I had to watch the movie for my American history class, in which I had to write a review paper on how accurate the film was. A very helpful review. Thank you. Aside from this, for an optional extra credit in my history class, I plan on writing a paper on "Downfall," and the accuracy portrayed in that film.

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  5. Read Walter Lord's book on Midway when i was 10 or 11 and saw this film when i was 12 in a drive-in. Even at 12, I was very disapointed with all the grainy stock footage. If you compare Tora Tora Tora and battle of Britain please give them extra marks for their SPFX work. Agree about the Yorktown. Reading the book in the wee hours of the night i was choked up from Lord's descriptions of the great ship dying. Geaorge Gay was my favorite Midway survivor-interviewee from lord's book. I was glad to see him get some screen time in the movie, despite mostly being seen in long shots.

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  6. I read that book too. This is one of my favorite battles and I love covering it in my American History classes. I love the fact that five minutes turned the war around and the role pure luck played in the outcome. Considering you usually have one shot at a battle like this (unless you are Stalingrad), the movie could have been worse but should have been better.

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  7. Great review. I am pretty much in agreement with you on all points. This could have been one of my favorite war movies of all time but that insipid love story and the acting of Albert and Kokubo nearly ruined it. Come to think of it, Heston was pretty lame as well. Wish they'd have written the story around the marines on Midway or the seamen on the carriers.

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