World War II had countless key engagements and battles that helped turn the tide of the war, and in a bigger sense, changed the tide of history. D-Day is obviously at the top of the list, but many others have been given a film treatment, like Iwo Jima, the Battle of the Bulge, Guadalcanal, and with today’s review, 1976’s Midway. What if the Japanese had won the battle? Would WWII have a vastly different path and end result? Things you can’t help but wonder while watching this underrated gem.
It’s late spring in 1942 and the U.S. Navy is still incredibly vulnerable following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. A Naval Intelligence officer and pilot, Capt. Matt Garth (Charlton Heston), talks to a fellow intelligence officer who thinks clues point to a Japanese attack coming at the key Pacific island of Midway. Washington seems to think it could all be a trick, an ambush for what’s remaining in the Pacific Fleet. Admiral Chester Nimitz (Henry Fonda) thinks otherwise though, committing his fleet, including two essential aircraft carriers and one carrier fresh off a battle that almost crippled the ship. An immense Japanese fleet is sailing for Midway, the outnumbered, undermanned Americans racing to meet them. The young war potentially hangs in the balance in the Pacific…
In the vein of The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge, The Battle of Britain and Tora! Tora! Tora! (among many others) comes this 1976 wartime battle drama from director Jack Smight. It isn’t a classic, but it’s really solid. Flaws? Sure, one major one I’ll discuss later, but when the story sticks to the war-turning battle, ‘Midway’ is at its best. It definitely gets points for portraying the battle from both perspectives, both the American and Japanese forces. It isn’t the horrific, evil Japs vs. the saintly, heroic Americans. This is a battle between professional soldiers, sailors and pilots with the battle hanging in the balance. It isn’t the most personal story — more of a BIG picture story — but the history itself is fascinating and doesn’t need much else added.
One of the best parts of these big battle epics is typically the all-star casts assembled. Some are bigger, meatier parts, others are cameos, but the star power is always impressive. ‘Midway’ doesn’t disappoint. Heston gets the biggest part — and the personal subplot — as tough, stubborn, knowledgeable Capt. Garth. Heston specialized in these big movies, whether it be war movies, disaster flicks or historical epics, throughout his career, and he’s solid as usual. Fonda makes the most of an extended cameo, if a bigger cameo than the others in the cast. He brings some charm and personality to Adm. Nimitz. Other high-ranking Naval officers include Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford, Robert Webber and Hal Holbrook as the intelligence officer who sniffs out the Japanese plan.
Who else to look for? James Coburn and Cliff Robertson make lightning-quick appearances (like Mitchum’s). So does Robert Wagner. On the Japanese side, Toshiro Mifune cameos as Adm. Yamamoto while James Shigeta plays Vice Adm. Nagumo, the commander of the task force. As for the pilots, Christopher George, Glenn Corbett and Monte Markam represent the Americans with varying amounts of screentime. Also look for young Tom Selleck as an officer on Midway, Erik Estrada as a pilot and Dabney Coleman as a ranking naval officer. Pretty decent cast, huh?
If there’s a weakness in the story, it’s Garth’s subplot with his son, a young Naval pilot who has fallen in love with a Japanese woman. It feels forced to say the least, to add a human element to a story that didn’t really need it. The pacing drags a bit in the first 60 minutes as the story bounces among the American and Japanese forces and then the Garth family trials. The interment camps are one of the most horrific things to come out of WWII but in a story about the Battle of Midway, the story is out of place.
Giving the story a sense of realism is real footage filmed during the actual Battle of Midway in 1942, footage used in John Ford’s award-winning documentary about the battle. Once the two fleets begin to fight, that’s where the story takes off. The naval battle begins a chess match as the two sides put plans into effect, then re-plan and adjust. The history is pretty spot-on. You see how the battle turns with some good and bad luck, some chance, some poor decisions and some calculated decisions that pay off with war-changing events. Fascinating to watch it all develop.
It’s an impressive movie. It genuinely makes you appreciate the sacrifices made on both sides. Several American squadrons attacked the Japanese fleet with little hope of success, but they flew into battle anyways. Their actions and their subsequent deaths ended up altering the battle and in a far bigger picture, the war itself. A switch here, a change there, and maybe history is dramatically altered. A film well worth checking out.
Midway (1976): ***/****