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MIDWAY

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Charlton Heston, Toshiro Mifune, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson, Robert Wagner, Tom Selleck
Director: Jack Smight
Audio: English, Spanish, French monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic 2.35:1
Studio: Universal
Features: The Making of Midway, featurettes, photograph slideshow, additional scenes, trailer, production notes, cast and filmmakers
Length: 132 minutes
Release Date: October 30, 2001

"Were we better than the Japanese, or just luckier?"

Film ***

On December 7, 1941, U.S. naval ships stationed in Pearl Harbor were attacked by planes of the Imperial Japanese Navy.  This surprise attack crippled American naval defenses in the Pacific Theater, and for the next six months, forced the U.S. Pacific Fleet into a desperate, defensive crouch.

The tragic losses at Pearl Harbor did not go entirely un-avenged.  In retaliation for the Japanese strike, a carrier-based attack was launched from the decks of the USS Hornet.  On April 18, 1942, sixteen highly-modified B-25 bombers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle carried out an audacious raid upon the island of Japan.

The actual destructive impact of this attack was negligible.  However, the psychological blow to Imperial Japan's perception of its own invulnerability was undeniable.  As a direct consequence of this attack, Japan accelerated plans to eliminate what remained of America's Pacific carrier fleet.  This massive operation would utilize the bulk of Japanese naval forces in an attempt to draw American ships away from the relative protection of Pearl Harbor and then to annihilate them on the open sea.  The key to the success of the entire operation would hinge upon the capture of the small atoll of Midway, home to an important American airbase.

Victory at Midway would have ensured Japan both naval supremacy in the Pacific Theater and regional dominance under the auspices of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.  With the entire northeastern Pacific Rim essentially defenseless against Japanese forces, an invasion of Hawaii (and perhaps even the U.S. mainland) could then have been contemplated.

Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind behind the attack on Pearl Harbor, devised an elaborate battle plan for the attack on Midway.  Diversionary attacks on the Aleutian Islands would leech away some defensive American forces while the main Japanese carrier strike force would weaken Midway's remaining air and sea defenses.  A trailing main body of battleships and cruisers would then finish off the remnants of any American surface ships near Midway, thereby allowing an unhindered invasion of Midway.

In a prelude to Midway, the Japanese also planned to invade Port Moresby, New Guinea.  This operation led to the Battle of the Coral Sea between Japanese and American naval forces.  The final outcome was essentially a tactical draw, but the consequences of this battle were significant for both sides.  The Japanese carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku had been damaged, and lengthy repairs prevented them from participating in the upcoming attack on Midway, where their presence might have turned the tide of battle.  The Americans, for their part, had lost the carrier Lexington.  However, the heavy carrier Yorktown, despite heavy damages, had managed to limp back to Pearl Harbor for improvisational repairs.  Just three days after arriving in Hawaii, the barely operational Yorktown would pull out of dry-dock to hastily position itself in the upcoming defense of Midway.  The absence of the Japanese carriers compared to Yorktown's surprising combat-worthiness would prove to be a decisive factor in the upcoming battle.

Another key to success was the improving ability of American code-breakers to decipher Japanese transmissions.  Using the partial knowledge gleamed from these transmissions, the American navy was able to deploy in such a defensive position around Midway as to give it rough parity with the Japanese Carrier Striking Force bearing down on Midway.

The film Midway (1976) opens with a reenactment of the Doolittle strike.  This is followed by an introduction to Capt. Matthew Garth (Charlton Heston), an accomplished pilot determined to offer his services for the upcoming battle.  The first half of Midway establishes the order of battle for the Japanese and American forces in the eventual conflict but on a more personal note also concentrates on a romance between Garth's son (Tom Selleck) and his Japanese-American girlfriend.  While the development of this relationship feels somewhat superfluous in the film and flounders a bit in the actual execution, it does allow the film to address an all-too-regrettable but actually true policy by the U.S. government to inter innocent Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during the war.  This tragic romance, and the resulting tense dynamics of the uneasy father-son relationship between Capt. Garth and his son over the affair, provides the human drama within Midway's epic scale and also gives audiences two sympathetic heroes for the upcoming battle.

That said, after one hour of tension-building and anticipation, Midway really takes off.  The actual Battle of Midway was fought on June 4, 1942 with continuing action for three more days, although the film concentrates on the first day's action.  The battle opens with a carrier-based air attack on Midway.  The American defenders suffer major losses and fare little better in a disastrous counterattack by island-based bombers upon the Japanese carriers.

American carriers situated near Midway, guided by scout-plane reconnaissance reports, eventually launch their own bomber squadrons but with little initial success, either.  Two American Devastator squadrons are completely, well, devastated by the Japanese defenses.  However, Dauntless dive-bombers from Yorktown and Enterprise finally break through, putting three of the four Japanese carriers in the vanguard out of commission.  A counterattack by Hiryū carrier-planes leaves Yorktown essentially dead in the water, its doom sealed, but not before Yorktown's planes exact their revenge on Hiryū and effectively end any lingering Japanese hopes of completing its invasion plans.

Midway, aside from the inclusion of some fictional characters for narrative purposes, is a faithful recreation of the intense drama of this conflict.  Its outcome is an accurate depiction of the grave losses of the day.  In real life, the devastation to the Japan Imperial Navy was crippling - four heavy carriers sunk, one cruiser sunk, and the irreplaceable loss of over two hundred planes and some of the most experienced pilots of the Japanese navy.  After the Battle of Midway, Japan was forced into a ferocious war of attrition with America in the Pacific Theater that, given America's resources and superior industrial base, could only lead to eventual defeat for the proud Asian nation.

For WWII history buffs, Midway, despite some flaws, is a film to be cherished, a stirring if sometimes poignant recreation of arguably the most important sea battle in American history.  For younger generations, the film provides an invaluable opportunity to grasp the degree of sacrifice and heroism made by our fathers and grandfathers to help preserve the freedom which we now seemingly take for granted.  Freedom is a privilege, not a right.

Generally, warfare represents a complete failure on our part to exercise the conscience and morality which elevate humanity above the level of common animals.  That we must feel compelled to resort to such base violence throughout history time and again to settle bitter differences is a poor reflection on our continued evolution towards greater global compassion and unity.  But perhaps Midway and other films like it may serve to remind us that war, despite its tragic loss of lives, among them many honorable and heroic men and women, can also bring out the best in many people, challenging us to aspire for greater understanding, no matter our creed or beliefs, that we might never resort to such wanton and destructive hate again.

Video ***

Astute viewers might pick out footage borrowed from Tora! Tora! Tora! and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo.  There is also extensive usage of archival footage from actual naval and air combat.  These combat clips help to infuse Midway with a sense of authenticity, although hardcore WWII buffs will recognize the minor inaccuracies in the warship models and planes depicted in the movie.  It should be noted that no footage from the actual Battle of Midway itself is included in the film.

Aside from the variable quality of the vintage clips used in the film, Midway looks quite decent.  There are some occasional edge enhancement and instances of faded color and debris marks but otherwise nothing glaringly wrong with the transfer.

Audio ***

Midway was originally released in theaters with thunderous Sensurround, which gave this monaural film quite an aggressive sonic punch for its day.  Sensurround doesn't make it to the disc, although the film still sounds very good, even if it doesn't quite measure up to the digital surround standard of today's films.

Features **

The Making of Midway (38 min.) documents the extensive research and complicated logistics involved in restaging the Battle of Midway and assembling the all-star international cast.  Interview clips from cast and crew are intercut with clips from the film as well as naval archival footage.  This featurette provides historical context for the actual battle and also mentions forty minutes of extra footage shot for the television re-broadcast.  This extra footage contained scenes between Heston's character and his fiancée; some of these domestic scenes (10 min.) are included elsewhere among the bonus features on this disc.  Sadly, not much of the excised footage shot for the Battle of the Coral Sea is shown.

The Score of Midway (6 min.) reflects upon the music by John Williams.  In a short interview clip, the composer discusses the influence of military music and big band music on his Midway score.  In Sensurround: The Sounds of Midway (4 min.), Williams briefly discusses the ground-shaking and potentially eardrum-piercing sound process used to enhance the film's realistic sonic ambiance.

They Were There (6 min.), hosted by Charlton Heston, pays homage to survivors of the Battle of Midway.  This short promo also includes clips from naval test footage and vintage newsreels of the actual carriers which participated in the Battle of Midway.

There is a photograph montage presented in a slideshow (3 min.) of lobby cards, publicity stills, and promotional artwork for the film.  Lastly, there are the usual production notes, cast and crew filmographies, and a vintage trailer.

Summary:

The epic Battle of Midway changed the entire course of the war in the Pacific Theater.  Midway is a faithful recreation of this pivotal showdown between American and Japanese naval forces in June 1942.

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