Taylor Downing reviews the legendary battle on celluloid.
The naval battle at Midway in the Pacific in June 1942 was a decisive US victory. In a matter of hours, the Japanese Imperial Navy lost a substantial part of its fleet, four aircraft carriers, and a heavy cruiser. A turning point in the Pacific War, the battle is considered as important a naval victory as Salamis or Trafalgar.
The US Navy won this resounding victory, only six months after the daring Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, through a combination of code-breaking skills, superb flying, and a lot of luck.
The battle is the subject of a new blockbuster, directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, and Luke Evans. But this is by no means the first time that the event has caught the eye of film-makers.
A few days before the battle, American Commander Admiral Chester Nimitz ordered Commander John Ford to dash to Midway to start making a film. An Irish-American, Ford was already famous as the film director with a Best Director Academy Award for The Informer (1935). In 1939, he
directed Stagecoach, beginning a phase of making legendary Westerns.
As a member of the US Naval Reserve, Ford was called up just before Pearl Harbor to set up a film-making unit for the US Navy. When he was sent to Midway, he had no idea that a battle was about to take place, although Nimitz almost certainly knew from messages intercepted by his cryptographers.
When he arrived on the tiny atoll of Midway, Ford thought he was there to make a short film about the way of life of men on a remote island garrison. This he started to do before the island came under sudden attack. As the battle unfolded around him, Ford directed his cameramen, shooting on 16mm colour stock. Ford himself was wounded by shrapnel and knocked unconscious while filming one Japanese air raid.
The result was an 18-minute propaganda short promising ‘authentic scenes shot by US Navy photographers’. Ford’s remarkable footage was edited to a highly charged soundtrack of hymns and nationalist songs. We see the Japanese air attack on Midway, and bombs landing around the camera teams. We see air-to-air footage of Navy Dauntless dive-bombers. We see scenes on board the US carriers as they come under attack, and footage of naval aircraft taking off .
The film ends with Catalinas rescuing survivors from the sea, and the burial of the dead. Captions explain the extent of the victory and various voice-overs comment on the images.
The short film combined genuine and dramatic action footage with some set-up shots from after the battle. It was immensely successful, and its gung-ho attitude perfectly reflected American opinion after Pearl Harbor. The film won the Best Documentary Academy Award in 1942.
Thirty years later, a Hollywood team decided to return to the battle. Walter Mirisch (producer of 1960’s West Side Story and 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair, among many others) and director Jack Smight, who had been a flier in the Pacific during the war (and directed television series such as Dr Kildare ), filmed a script by Donald Sandford. The result was released in 1976 as Midway.
Filming took place at various US naval bases in California and on board the USS Lexington, an Essex-class aircraft carrier built after the battle but still in service in the 1970s. It is now a visitor attraction at Corpus Christi, Texas. Naval battles are complex to follow, covering vast areas of ocean, but Midway works hard to explain the strategies of both sides. The Japanese planned to lure the aircraft carriers of the US Navy into a trap. But because American codebreakers were able to read the Japanese signals, the US fleet could prepare for the attack and effectively lay their own ambush for the Japanese task force.
Admiral Nimitz is played with real authority by Henry Fonda who, remarkably, had been one of the voice-overs in the 1942 film. Other senior figures are portrayed by Hollywood greats like Glenn Ford (Admiral Spruance), Robert Webber (Admiral Fletcher), and Robert Mitchum (Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey).
Charlton Heston gives a moving performance as Captain Matt Garth, a fictional character loosely based around Lt Commander Edwin Layton, the intelligence officer of the Pacific Fleet.
There is a debate within the US naval command about whether the Japanese strategy to lure their aircraft carriers into the Pacific is a genuine plan or a diversion for an attack on the West Coast of the United Sates. Nimitz believes it is not a decoy and gambles on sending his main fleet to Midway in ambush.
On the other side, the Japanese Task Force is led by the hero of Pearl Harbor, Admiral Yamamoto (Toshiru Mifune, best known for his films with Akira Kurosawa, like 1954’s Seven Samurai). But there are divisions among the Imperial Navy commanders, who are unsure about the whereabouts of the American carriers. The Japanese commanders speak in English (Mifune’s role is dubbed) and, apart from Yamamoto, are played by Japanese-American actors.
Alongside the gambles of high strategy is a Romeo and Juliet -style subplot. Garth’s son Tom (Edward Albert) has fallen in love with a Japanese girl interned along with her parents. Despite insisting she is American, secret FBI files suggest she might be a spy. Garth tries to get his son’s girlfriend released, saying he does not care about her race or religion.
The combat scenes are well done. Filmed long before the era of CGI, they combine filming of real aircraft, like the Douglas Dauntless dive-bomber, and scenes shot on the Lexington, along with shots of models. In the latter part of the film, colour archive footage is used extensively. Most of this comes from battles much later in the war, with different aircraft either taking off from or crashing into American carriers. Nevertheless, the result is powerful, compelling, and exciting.
Midway was one of the few films made in experimental Sensurround. In the tiny number of cinemas equipped with this system, sound effects could be heard by the audience behind them as well as coming from both sides of the screen. The stirring music was composed by John Williams, who in the mid-1970s was just beginning the collaboration with Steven Spielberg that would lead to memorable themes for Jaws, E.T., Schindler’s List, and, after Spielberg introduced him to George Lucas, the Star Wars films.
For Hollywood director Roland Emmerich, the Midway story had been a passion project for more than 20 years. In the 1990s, Sony Pictures became interested, but were put off by the prospective budget.
Emmerich went on to direct the alien-invasion movie Independence Day (1996), a huge box-office hit, Godzilla (1998), and The Patriot (2000). His more recent films, like the disaster movies The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009), have made extensive use of computer special effects. Emmerich finally assembled the $100m budget needed for Midway with unlikely help from substantial Chinese investment. As a big-budget independent movie, production began in Hawaii in September 2018.
The 1976 Midway began with the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, with Mitchell light bombers taking off from the USS Hornet to launch a surprise raid on the Japanese capital. By contrast, the current Midway begins (after a pre-war prelude) with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
This latest Midway makes extensive use of CGI. In fact, it is almost a two-hour commercial for the wonders of computer graphics. The attack on Pearl Harbor provides a high-adrenaline early sequence with low-flying Japanese bombers, huge explosions, and sinking battleships.
A central character in the film is Lt Commander Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson), the actual US Naval intelligence officer. Signal interceptors have picked up news of a Japanese attack on ‘AF’. He tries to persuade a sceptical Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson, who entirely lacks the authority of Henry Fonda) that ‘AF’ is Midway. Nimitz meets the principal codebreaker, an eccentric figure who could have come straight out of Bletchley Park, Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown). Nimitz is finally convinced.
Another central character is Dick Best (Ed Skrein), a pilot whose maverick behaviour denies him promotion. When the battle starts, Best becomes squadron leader, but finds it difficult to lead and inspire his men. We also meet his wife Anne (Mandy Moore) and young daughter, who live on base in Hawaii and hear only rumours of a battle happening a long way away.
Midway goes through the build-up to the battle with the Doolittle Raid, which is portrayed very well (Aaron Eckhart plays Jimmy Doolittle), including the support given by Chinese guerrillas to crews who crash-land in China. This is followed by the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Like the earlier film, the debates between the two sets of admirals are well contrasted. This time the Japanese speak their own language. Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) wants to destroy the American carriers. The Army generals want to prioritise capturing territory and the resources Japan needs. After the Doolittle Raid, Yamamoto’s strategy is given the go-ahead.
While Yamamoto is calm and considered to the point of serenity, his other commanders are more volatile, especially Vice Admiral Nagumo (Jun Kunimura), who commands the air fleet. The Japanese are presented as being in awe of Yamamoto. Between the American leaders, there is greater openness, and an active debate ensues about whether Nimitz is right to risk his carriers in this single action.
Knowing that battle is coming, Best tells his wife, ‘If we lose, we lose the Pacific.’ It is highly unlikely that a Navy pilot would have seen the confrontation in these terms, but it tells us, the viewers, that the stakes are high.
When battle commences on 4 June 1942, the film goes up a gear. In a nice touch, there is a tribute to John Ford (Geoffrey Blake), who is lining up his shots as though on a studio set when the Japanese air raid strikes the island. But most of the action takes place on the Japanese and American carriers.
This film is the only version to show the difference between slow-moving Grumman Avenger torpedo bombers, easy targets which scored few hits, and the fast Dauntless dive-bombers, which come out of the sky in almost vertical dives onto Japanese carriers.
It is the latter aircraft , led by Lt Commander Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) and Best, who hit the first three Japanese carriers. Their attacks luckily coincide with re-equipping and refuelling of Japanese aircraft on deck, igniting fires and causing maximum damage. Then Best leads the surviving dive-bombers back to attack and sink the fourth carrier.
Midway pays tribute to the sailors and airmen of both sides. But, ultimately, it is about American heroism. As one pilot says of Best, ‘it’s because of men like him that America will win the war’. Unruly but supremely brave, he becomes the model hero.
Aside from the storytelling, the movie’s great visual strength is the CGI special effects, the work of the countless artists listed in the credits. But while exciting, the effects are not wholly convincing, and in places it feels more like a video game than a feature film.
Made before CGI, the 1976 version is in many ways more realistic, although it struggles to portray the strategies of both sides.
For me, the most compelling account of the battle is without doubt the short propaganda film directed by John Ford in 1942. Simply, it captures what battle really looked like.
1942: Directed by John Ford for the US Navy. Available on YouTube.
1976: Directed by Jack Smight. Producer Walter Mirisch. Writer Donald S Sandford. Music by John Williams. Starring Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, and Glenn Ford. A Universal Video.
2019: Director Roland Emmerich. Writer Wes Tooke. Starring Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, and Woody Harrelson. Distributed by Lionsgate.
This article was published in the January 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.