Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Written by: Wes Tooke
Starring: Ed Skrein, Tadanobu Asano, Luke Evans, Etsushi Toyokawa, Aaron Eckhart, Jun Kunimura, Nick Jonas, Peter Shinkoda, Mandy Moore, Hiro Kanawaga, Woody Harrelson, Patrick Wilson, Dennis Quaid
From Smight to Emmerich
In the summer of 1976, as the United States prepared to celebrate its Bicentennial, Universal Pictures released Midway, a big-budget “all-star cast” war movie. Directed by Jack Smight and starring Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Charlton Heston, Edward Albert, Glenn Ford, and Toshiro Mifune, Midway attempted to recreate the famous naval battle in June of 1942 near Midway Island in which three aircraft carriers of the U.S. Pacific Fleet successfully ambushed the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Kido Butai and, despite serious losses in men, aircraft, and ships (the carrier Yorktown and the destroyer Hammann), sank four of the six carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor less than six months earlier.
Smight’s film was Universal’s attempt to make an epic WWII film along the lines of its rival 20th Century Fox’s 1962 The Longest Day. It even included two actors from that movie’s cast – Henry Fonda and Robert Mitchum – and copied its docudrama sensibilities. And to get viewers into theaters to watch a “throwback” war film at a time when most audiences avoided the genre – the Vietnam War had ended a year before Midway was released – Universal decided to release Midway as one of the three films that showcased its Sensurround sound system.
Unlike The Longest Day, though, Midway was a messy mix of history and melodrama that aimed for historical accuracy but muddled it by inserting an annoying and fictitious subplot involving Captain Garth (Heston) and his dive bomber pilot son (Albert) full of clichés and an attempt to throw a sop to liberal audiences by making the younger Garth’s romance with a young Japanese-American woman one of the movie’s plot points.
Furthermore, to save money on the film’s production, Universal bought footage from various sources to recreate most of the Battle of Midway. Some of the battle scenes featured actual WWII combat footage from various engagements in the Pacific Theater, but most of those show planes from both sides that were not in service in June of 1942. The studio also bought footage from Fox’s Pearl Harbor epic Tora! Tora! Tora! and, inexplicably, MGM-United Artists’ The Battle of Britain.
In short, Midway was a cinematic mess, and even though it was made with the best intentions, it is one of the worst films of the war epic genre.
However, because the Battle of Midway is one of the most decisive events in American history – as well as one of the pivotal engagements in the Asia-Pacific War (1937-1945), it was inevitable that another filmmaker would attempt to retell its story on screen.
That filmmaker ended up being German director Roland Emmerich, who also gave the world Stargate, Independence Day, The Patriot, The Day After Tomorrow, and White House Down.
Emmerich had long wanted to make a more historically-focused movie about the Battle of Midway, so working with screenwriter Wes Tooke and a cast that included Aaron Eckhart, Ed Skrein, Peter Shinkoda, Tadanobu Asano, Luke Evans, Etsushi Tokoyawa, Jun Kunimura, Nick Jonas, and Patrick Wilson.
The film, which hit theaters last November, begins with a prologue set in late 1930s Tokyo that introduces two major players: assistant U.S. Navy attaché, Lt. Commander Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa). At a formal dinner where he hosts other Western naval officers attached to their diplomatic missions, the Harvard-educated Yamamoto expresses his hope that there will be no war between his nation, the Empire of Japan, and the two Western powers with navies that rival his own: Great Britain and the United States.
However, Japan’s war in China is a “stress point” in relations between Tokyo and Washington, where a powerful “China Lobby” and American Christians’ peculiar paternal attitude toward China influence President Franklin D. Roosevelt to pressure Japan’s military government to cease its aggressive behavior in Asia. But the “war faction” in the Imperial Army – the true holder of power in Japan – believes that the Empire of the Sun’s manifest destiny requires its conquest of China and the “liberation” of various European-ruled colonies in Asia.
In a private one-on-one meeting after dinner, Layton and Yamamoto exchange their respective views on the China crisis: Layton assures Yamamoto that the U.S. does not desire to be Japan’s enemy but is dismayed by Tokyo’s aggression in China; Yamamoto, for his part, warns Layton that if the U.S. cuts off sales of oil to the Empire, the result will be war.
Eventually, FDR imposes an embargo on oil sales to Japan early in 1941, triggering the Japanese militarists’ decision to go to war later that year. And, on Sunday, December 7, 1941, the same admiral – Yamamoto – who hoped that peace would endure in the Pacific unleashes a naval offensive that includes a daring carrier raid on the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Emmerich opens Midway’s expository first act with a whirlwind series of sequences that introduces a series of historical characters, both major and minor, including Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (Woody Harrelson), Lt. Richard Best (Ed Skrein), Lt. Col. James Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart), SBD radioman/gunner Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas), Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (Jun Kunimori), Ann Best (Mandy Moore), Vice-Admiral William F “Bull” Halsey (Dennis Quaid), and Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance (Jake Weber).
In Midway’s first half, Emmerich crams almost six months’ worth of history of the Pacific War, including an impressive but too sanitized depiction of the Pearl Harbor raid, the initial U.S. carrier raids on minor Japanese bases in the Central Pacific by a task force commanded by Adm. Bull Halsey, and the April 18, 1942 Doolittle Raid on Japan by 16 carrier-launched Army B-25 Mitchell bombers.
Perhaps because Midway – a passion project for Emmerich – was partly financed by Chinese investors, far too much time is spent on-screen with this part of the story. There’s a subplot about how Doolittle and his crew bail out their out-of-fuel B-25 over an unoccupied tract of China and are aided by anti-Japanese resistance fighters to evade the avenging Japanese forces, who are angry that their island homeland was bombed by the Americans.
Unlike the 1976 version, Emmerich’s Midway is a mini-epic, with a running time of 2 hours and 18 minutes. As a result, the expository part of the movie doesn’t do the second half of the film any favors.
The rest of Midway concerns itself with the actual battle, starting with Yamamoto’s determination to carry out Operation MI. which he started planning long before the Doolittle Raid but had to use his considerable amount of influence as Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet to get it approved by a reluctant Naval General Staff. The attack on Japan itself is just the final straw, so to speak, that prompts Tokyo’s begrudging approval.
Viewers who have read any of the major books about Midway will note that many of the salient events, such as the infamous incident when Japanese admirals who are “wargaming” Operation MI essentially “cheat” by overruling the umpire’s ruling that the “Americans” sank a Japanese carrier in a map exercise, or the famous “fake radio signal” claiming that Midway was running out of water to confirm that the small atoll was the Japanese objective of Operation MI, are depicted in Midway.
But because Tooke – a first-time feature film writer – devoted so much time to the exposition and Emmerich wanted a fast-paced, almost video game-like action movie – everything in the “battle” sections of the film is distorted and frantically paced. Many events – such as the discovery of the separate Invasion Force and the Japanese attack on the Aleutians (Operation AO) – are omitted.
Other events, including the Japanese air strike on Midway and the various U.S. attacks (by land-based planes based on Midway and by carrier planes from Task Forces 16 and 17) on Kido Butai, the Japanese carrier force ( comprised by the fleet carriers Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu) are poorly depicted. The pacing is too frenetic, and to watchers familiar with WWII naval battles and naval aviation, the aerial sequences omit the presence of American fighter planes during every battle sequence in Midway.
Midway does get quite a few things right, though. In the 1976 version, which was based on popular accounts of the battle which included historical errors and even distortions, when the American dive bombers attack the Kido Butai during the fateful five minutes that turn the tide of battle in Amerca’s favor, the Japanese flight decks are crowded with planes armed and “spotted” for their takeoff runs.
Emmerich’s Midway is based on more recent books, such as Anthony Tully and Jonathan Parshall’s Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway and Craig L. Symonds’ The Battle of Midway. As a result, the movie shows only a few Japanese aircraft (from the combat air patrol) on the enemy flight decks when the U.S. planes make their dive-bombing runs.
Although Midway features good performances and ditches the mix of fiction and history that plagues its 1976 namesake, it is definitely a hit-or-miss affair for movie audiences. Casual viewers will probably enjoy it; it is, after all, a film about one of the most famous U.S. victories of World War II; Chicago’s Midway airport was named to honor the achievements of the Americans who fought in it, and many books about the battle, including Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory and Gordon W. Prange’s Miracle at Midway, have been published over the past 75 years.
History buffs, though, will find more that is foul than fair in Midway. Its depiction of the battle is rushed and incomplete, and the aerial battles are too fast-paced and fancifully depicted.
For example, the Douglas SBD-3 dive bombers shown in Midway are far nimbler and faster than their real-life counterparts. Here, Emmerich is hoping that we in the audience are so engrossed by the visuals that we can believe that the dumpy, slow Dauntless bombers can dogfight with Mitsubishi Zero fighters.
Also, although the Battle of Midway took place between June 4 and 7, 1942, the film focuses solely on the events of the first day. Sure, Tooke and Emmerich append a “What Happened Next” epilogue showing the fates of the characters depicted in Midway, but they omit Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, who commanded one of the two task forces and was Senior Officer Present Afloat and in charge of the Midway carrier forces till the USS Yorktown was damaged by not one but two Japanese counterstrikes.
And speaking of Yorktown, her fate and that of the destroyer Hammann is not even mentioned in this section of the film. As a screenwriter, I understand that the screenplay had to be tight and that covering the entire battle requires more screen time than Midway’s 138 minutes. Still, those ships’ fates, as well as those of a Japanese cruiser division that was badly mauled by American aircraft in the battle’s denouement, could have been mentioned in the film’s coda. The 1976 film only showed the Yorktown’s being damaged by Japanese air attacks; I was hoping that Emmerich’s Midway would at least tell viewers that the Pacific Fleet lost one carrier (and an escorting destroyer) after a determined effort to save her.
The special effects are good, as are the international cast’s performances. If historical accuracy is not a top priority, by all means, watch Midway as a rental or on cable TV.
Otherwise, watch a good documentary or read about the battle in a book instead.
 Sensurround involved fitting a theater with a special sound system that caused the theater seats to shake and highlighted low-frequency sounds such as explosions and aircraft engine roars during battle scenes. It was an expensive system to set up, and only three films were released in Sensurround: Earthquake, Midway, and Rollercoaster.