MIDWAY , the 1942 naval & air battle between American and Japanese fleets was one of the most important events of WW2.* Midway, as a subject for a feature film, was problematic.** Midway, the 1976 result, is a 132-minute shipwreck.
Tepid reviews aside, a mixture of hype, star power, patriotism and the action-gimmick of ‘Sensurround’ salvoed a decisive $43,220,000 in the US, zeroing in on the #10 berth for the year.
Taps sounded for War Movies after a spate in ’69-’70, with a Vietnam-battered public turning from the genre. The kick-in of the Bicentennial Year of 1976 unfurled Old Glory and the theater-rattle displayed for Earthquake showed Sensurround as ready-made artillery for boom noises. Sons took Dads back to the Pacific for a yesteryear triumph denied by the decade of fiasco on the far side of the ocean. The cast was loaded for bear.
First, the good stuff, what there is. As a dutiful, accurate, methodical history lesson, it’s faster than reading a book. If you’d never seen any old footage (where had you been?) then some of the cribbed/inserted/stolen action scenes may have been impressive. The bulging cast do their professional jobs, though few are accorded scenes with any punch. Charlton Heston (who else?) makes a viable headliner. Listed down below are the rank and file, but so as not to sink this paragraph under a boatload of names, we mention that a few yeoman fare better in their uniforms than the rest (most parts amount to cameos). Hal Holbrook puts vinegar into his moments and Ed Nelson has a sharp scene arguing with Chuck. Larry Pennell injects a brief jolt of energy as the Marine commander of Midway, charging into his scenes looking like a fit Clark Gable. Some sections were filmed on the 1943-launched aircraft carrier USS Lexington (not decommissioned until 1991 !) so there’s historical gee-whiz in those passages. John Williams composed a so-so naval march-flavored score (sounding a wee like his Superman gig).
But—bring on the Big Buts—unimaginative director Jack Smight was the wrong guy to inject pizzazz into a recite-exposition-point-at-map script. Primarily a TV episode grinder, screenwriter Donald Sanford had served in the Navy during the war, and Smight had flown combat missions in the Pacific, but their personal experience didn’t transfer any gung-ho to the acres of droning “move squadron 4 to coordinate x-7 at 21:00” dialogue, and the terribly stilted conversations between the Japanese-American actors playing Japanese-Japanese, in English. The Anglo-Americans are at least allowed some salty swearing to vainly spark life into their speeches, but guys like the capable James Shigeta, Pat Morita and Clyde Kusatsu are anchored with such ramrod ‘honorable’ solemnity it would be comical if it wasn’t so boring. Worse, the great Toshiro Mifune is present, in the crucial role of Admiral Yamamoto, but someone made the ship-sinking call to have his voice dubbed—by Paul Frees: all too instantly recognizable as ‘Boris Badenov’ of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Talk about a loss of face… Further hampering is a needless p.c.-added subplot with Heston’s flier son (Edward Albert–yawn) in love with a Japanese-American girl (pretty Christina Kokubo). It doesn’t jibe and adds at least fifteen dull minutes: bringing in one woman to a war movie filled with ships, planes and hundreds of dudes isn’t going to get wives and girlfriends to give three impatient head tosses about enduring this with you.
The script’s problems (more on that below) to the side, fighting-film fanciers can deal with the jive if they get the action–and here is where Universal’s cheapness beached the gallant efforts of actors and torpedoed the ticket money of patrons.
With the lions share of the budget going to the cast, little was created for the production qualities. First, for the Prologue, scenes are lifted from Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Suspect, but you think, “maybe a nostalgia mood setter.” Then, when the sheet hits the fin suddenly it becomes a jumbled welter of shots lifted bodily from a 1960 Japanese picture, Storm Over The Pacific, from the 1956 Away All Boats, from actual wartime footage (jarringly mismatched for color and clarity) and a ton of “hey, I’ve seen that!” highlights from Tora! Tora! Tora!, released just six years before and naked to spot from those who’d seen it. To top that there were even a few insertions from Battle Of Britain—never mind those German planes–the audience won’t know?? It’s a turkey shoot for goofs: the Internet Movie Data Base lists sixty-seven. It’s called RIPOFF, Captain!
Manning bridges and cockpits: Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Robert Wagner, James Coburn, Robert Mitchum ( he famously joked about it: flat on his back, earning $250,000 for two days work on one five-minute scene), Cliff Robertson, Robert Webber, Monte Markham, Christopher George, Kevin Dobson, Glenn Corbett, Gregory Walcott, Tom Selleck, Dabney Coleman, Erik Estrada, Steve Kanaly, John Lupton, Mitch Ryan and Larry Csonka.
* The 3-day clash is usually cited as the decisive turning point in the Pacific. Some posit that was the six-month attrition around Guadalcanal, and others maintain even if the Rising Sun had won the battle, it would just delayed the inevitable, as the American production line monster was revving up like nothing the world has ever seen before or since. It did mark the end of the flood tide for Japan and they were on the defensive ever after. Blame and praise are easy—they don’t require blood. 307 courageous American sailors and fliers were killed in the battle, and 3,057 of their equally brave Japanese opponents. Eternal rest in peace to them all.
** A complicated martial affair like Midway can be followed on paper, but on screen the constant back & forth of ships and planes—basically hunks of metal that look similar–makes for repetition and confusion. Like a prizefight, an audience seeks some sort of catharsis—a clear finish or knockout— and actions of the complexity and on the scale of this kind of bout have no cheering wrapup. Even a heroic last stand (the Alamo, Thermopylae, Little Big Horn) offers a clean-cut dramatic curtain call. A draw, or strategic/tactical victory just isn’t exciting cinema.
The 1976 Bicentennial may have summoned a distant trumpet but it’s almost as though All The ‘Good’ Battles were already won & done. No-one was yet ready to touch those SE Asian conflicts in dispute—not in a fireworks year. At any rate, the film community didn’t come up with much in the way of Yankee Doodle Dandy Americana for 1976: All The President’s Men (dogged journalists), Bound For Glory (folk singer in the Dust Bowl), Buffalo Bill And The Indians (Robert Altman being snarky and pretty bad at it), The Front (blacklisting–uh, bummer), The Shootist (John Wayne saying adios) and… Taxi Driver (come see The Big Apple! make sure to bring a gun). So…we get Midway. Not much of a monument to those boys of the Yorktown, the Enterprise and Torpedo Squadron 8. They deserve better.