Wednesday March 17, 2021
Movie Review: Midway (1976)
There’s a great story about the screening of a rough cut of “Star Wars” for close friends of George Lucas in late 1976 or early 1977. It was early enough in the process that footage from World War II movies still substituted for the special effects-laden battle sequences. It didn't go well. Afterwards, there was some polite applause but a great deal of awkwardness. Most assumed the movie would bomb. Some compared it to “At Long Last Love,” which had sunk Peter Bogdanovich’s career the previous year. But one friend spoke up for it. “That movie is going to make a hundred million dollars,” Steven Spielberg said, “and I’ll tell you why: It has a marvelous innocence and naďveté in it, which is George, and people will love it.”
I thought about that story during this film because of the WWII footage. What Lucas used as temporary filler, “Midway” used for its theatrical release. According to IMDb:
- Most the Japanese air raid sequences are from “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970)
- Scenes of Doolittle’s Tokyo raid are from “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” (1944)
- Most dogfight sequences come from 1942 newsreels
- Several action scenes were taken from “Away All Boats” (1956)
You can tell, too. “Midway” went with an All-Star cast and grainy stock footage.
The movie begins both well and poorly. Hal Holbrook plays Cmdr. Joseph Rochefort, a goofily cheery cryptographer who, at first glance, has a bit too much of the ’70s in him—thickish hair, moustache, bathrobe, like he’s the intelligence version of Hawkeye Pierce—but some of this is accurate. According to Wiki: “ He often wore slippers and a bathrobe with his khaki uniform and sometimes went days without bathing.” There are internal arguments among the U.S. military brass about where Japan will strike next, and Rochefort tells Admiral Nimitz (Henry Fonda) that the chatter his team hears keeps using the code “AF,” which he thinks is Midway. Other military leaders assume the next big attack will be the Aleutian Islands or even the west coast of the U.S., so a test is proposed: they send out a fake message about a water supply failure on Midway. Sure enough, the Japanese radio about water supplies on “AF.” The surprise the Japanese enjoyed at Pearl Harbor will now belong to the Americans.
I like all that. Unfortunately, the movie also includes is a fictional subplot that is the stuff of soap opera. Charlton Heston plays Capt. Matt Garth, the estranged father of fighter pilot Tom Garth (Edward Albert), who is looking to reconnect with his son. The fact that Matt is divorced feels out of time—that was a ’70s conversation, less a ’30s one. And then there’s Tom’s dilemma. He has to tell his old man: 1) his girlfriend, Hakuro (Christina Kokubo), is Japanese; 2) she and her parents are being held as subversives; and 3) can he help free them? When Matt objects, Tom accuses him of racism. Matt, in that Heston way, says he’s not racist, it’s just that his son’s timing is lousy; then he spends most of the rest of the movie trying to free them. I can’t even remember if he does, to be honest, and none of this is helped by the acting from Heston and Kokubo. Oh, and it turns out that her parents object to the union anyway since they don’t want Hakuro marrying outside her race. So who’s the racist now, huh? That’s the vibe.
Most of the U.S.-side of the cast consists of stars from the 1930s (Fonda), ’40s (Robert Mitchum in a cameo as Admiral Halsey),’50s (Heston and Glenn Ford) and the ’60s (James Coburn, Cliff Robertson). Plus a few young bucks who gained fame later: Dabney Coleman, Tom Selleck, Erik Estrada. We also get an uncredited cameo from Miami Dolphins running back Larry Csonka.
For the Japanese side, it’s almost every Japanese-American TV actor of the time: James Shigeta, Pat Morita, John Fujioka, Dale Ishimoto and Robert Ito. Plus the big gun, Toshiro Mifune, as Fleet Admiral Yamamoto. Unlike in “The Gallant Hours” with James Cagney, filmed 16 years earlier, the Japanese are forced to speak English here, but apparently Mifune’s English was so difficult to understand they dubbed him with Paul Frees, who also voiced the Burgermeister Meisterburger in Rankin/Bass’ “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
They did this to Mifune. Can’t make that stuff up.
The American race
The Battle of Midway is considered a turning point in the war in the Pacific. The Japanese lost four fleet carriers and a heavy cruiser, 248 airplanes and more than 3,000 men. The U.S. lost the carrier Yorktown and a destroyer, 150 aircraft, and 307 men. American morale went way up. Plus our industrial capacity far outstripped theirs. We could replace things, they couldn’t.
As for the soap opera: In battle, Tom Garth gets horribly injured but survives. Heston then steps in for the run at the final fleet carrier, succeeds, but crashes on the flight deck and dies. Glenn Ford closes his eyes in pain for his fictional friend, while Ensign George Gay (Kevin Dobson), the real-life sole survivor of Squadron 8, is pulled from the ocean. Tom, cleaned up and bandaged, is wheeled on a gurney past Hakuro, whose face reveals … who knows? Then Nimitz and Rochefort give us our coda as a large group of people, obviously pulled from some mid-1970s Hawaiian tourist attraction, mingle behind them. Nimitz wonders aloud how they were so successful when the Japanese had so many advantages. “Were we better than the Japanese or just luckier?” he asks. That, too, feels like a ’70s question—something to be pondered after the war is over—rather than spoken aloud in June 1942. Either way it goes unanswered.
Kind of. The movie’s final afterword is a quote from Churchill:
“The annals of war at sea present no more intense, heart-shaking shock than this battle, in which the qualities of the United States Navy and Air Force and the American race shone forth in splendour.”
The American race. Don’t hear that much anymore.
I first saw “Midway” at the Boulevard Theater in Minneapolis when it was released in 1976, and I remember being confused. Wait, there was a time when we were losing World War II? That was news to my 13-year-old self. The huge cast, many of them unfamiliar (I didn’t know from Glenn Ford or Robert Mitchum), as well as the grainy battle scenes didn’t help me find any kind of clarity, either. I guess I was hoping that this second viewing, 45 years later, might reveal some forgotten or hidden charms.
All-Star cast; extras pulled from the gift shop.