Midway

midway_movie_posterWorld 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): ***/****

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The Train Robbers

poster_-_train_robbers2c_the_28197329_01In the later years of his career, John Wayne stuck with the genre that made him a star. Sure, there were some Dirty Harry-esque excursions into the rogue cop genre, but the Duke stuck with the western. The efforts weren’t classics, but they were always entertaining. Case in point, 1973’s The Train Robbers, flaws and all.

A train pulls into the tiny, isolated town of Liberty, Texas. Two passengers get off the train, an aging cowboy named Lane (Wayne) and a pretty young widow, Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret). Lane has been hired by Mrs. Lowe to recover $500,000 in gold hidden somewhere in Mexico. Mrs. Lowe’s recently deceased husband is the only person who knows where the gold is, and he happened to tell her before he died. Unfortunately, several members of his old gang also would like to get their hands on the long-hidden gold, and they’ve hired a small army of gunmen to help them. With two old friends, Grady (Rod Taylor) and Jesse (Ben Johnson), along with three other gunmen, Lane and Mrs. Lowe ride into Mexico after the gold. Can they find the gold? More importantly, can they get out alive?

This western was a favorite of mine growing up. My Grandma recorded it off WGN, and I’d watch it whenever me and my sister had weekend sleepovers at her house. Does it hold up so many years later? Sorta. It’s still entertaining, but there are some major flaws. I wonder if it’d even be remembered if John Wayne wasn’t out front leading the way. From director Burt Kennedy, ‘Train’ clocks in at a swift 92-minutes (more on that later). It’s unlike just about any other Wayne venture. Is that good or bad? I guess that depends on how big a John Wayne you are.

You watch this movie because of John Wayne. It’s a familiar part for him, the resolute, capable gunman/cowboy, albeit one who’s getting up there in years. This is a performance he could do in his sleep, but because he’s the Duke, you can’t help but like him. Kennedy’s script provides him with some great one-liners — both comedic and dramatic — and he carries the movie with that easy-going, likable charm. His chemistry with Taylor and Johnson is impeccable, especially as we learn about their history dating back to the Civil War. There are issues with the story and pacing, but the quieter moments among our heroic lead trio and the lovely Ann-Margret always manage to bring it back together.

Here’s the best way I can critique ‘Train’ without completely ripping it to pieces. In writing the screenplay, Kennedy had an idea for the quiet, windy opening (a la Once Upon a Time in the West), a shootout over the gold at the halfway point, and a final shootout for all the marbles back at Liberty. In between? Filler, and lots of it. I would wager 20-25 full minutes are just shots of Wayne, Margret and the crew riding across Mexico. I’m not exaggerating either. The only reason that isn’t a deal-breaker is the location shooting in Mexico (similar locations as The War Wagon, Major Dundee, Chisum, Big Jake), and a memorable, whistle-worthy score from composer Dominic Frontiere. ¬†Give it a listen HERE.

It just feels like something is missing. The bad guys are nothing more than a faceless gang of riders on the horizon. We never get a name or even hear them speak. Budget issues? An intentional choice? There was some pretty good potential with the entire story, the cast and the execution. It just feels like there’s something missing. Also look for Christopher George, Bobby Vinton and stuntman Jerry Gatlin as the rest of Lane’s crew. George has some good scenes with the lead trio and more than holds his own.

And then there’s the finale. It’s rare you can say a western had a legitimately good twist, but ‘Train’ has it courtesy of Ricardo Montalban. Until the end, he’s just a presence lingering on the trail with our train robbers. He’s got a secret though, one that provides a great ending, especially a quick scene between Taylor and Johnson and a perfect final line(s). If it’s slow going getting there, know that it’s worth it in the end. A flawed final product, a bit of a mixed bag, but still a John Wayne flick worth watching.

The Train Robbers (1973): ***/****