When filmmakers opt to make a film that covers a large aspect of a war, they invariably find themselves faced with something of a Sophie’s choice when it comes to balancing the story. Focus too much on the battle and the events leading up to it and you lose the human factor, relying instead on stern-faced military men to walk you through the events that finally culminate in a massive action sequence – however, focus too much on some made up drama between the characters and you’re in danger of overshadowing the war aspect completely, making all the booming guns and noble sacrifices seem disrespectfully small by comparison.
This marches us swiftly to Midway, a 1976, all-star epic that details the infamous battle in the Pacific that occured in 1942 and that takes that balance I just mentioned and capsizes it into the drink.
In the wake of the retaliatory bombing of Tokyo after the attack of the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, the stunned, Imperial Navy puts together a plan to draw out the carriers of the American fleet and destroy them once and for all by plotting a raid of Midway Island.
Meanwhile, at Pearl Harbor, purse lipped Captain, Matt Garth is given the job to overseeing the decryption attempts that have partially cracked the Japanese code and found discovered the butt tightening news that a massive operation will soon be underway at a mystery location that will no doubt render the already weakened American fleet obsolete. However, while he listens to numerous opinions, hunches and gut feelings, he also has to contend with the fact that his son, navel pilot Tom Garth needs him to help free his Japanese-American girlfriend, Hakuro, who has been interred with her immigrant parents due to the continuing war with the Japanese.
Trying to compartmentalise this bout of melodrama by calling in a few favours, Garth’s life is made marginally easier by the fact that section head Joseph Rochefort has managed to pin down exactly how, when and where the Japanese generals intend to strike and immediately counter plans made in order to turn this attempted ambush into one of their own.
As so, on June 4th, the Battle Of Midway begins which sees attacks, feints and counter attacks ensue as pilots fill the sky with fighter planes in order to play a giant, deadly game of battleship with real lives in the balance. As flaming planes slam into the Pacific, the Americans and the Japanese play a deadly game of tag as each army struggles to sink each the other’s carriers first in order to shift the tide of the entire war.
You can tell that the makers of Midway wanted their movie to be something of a towering monument to the testament of all involved thanks to two, glaring items. The first is that this movie boasts a cast so full of leathery stars, it look like someone’s tried to make a celestial chart out of cowhide. Lead by the throaty growl of Charlton Heston and followed up with other such stoic thespians as Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson, Robert Wagner and (rather randomly) Erik Estrada from CHiPs, the film certainly doesn’t want for gravitas as this much grave intoning means the movie should weigh as much as a truck full of dark matter. Even though the majority of the cast are not much more than glorified cameos, they still succeed in throwing their substantial weight around. Take Mitchum for example, who’s barely in a handful of scenes and spends all of them barking his lines from a hospital bed – but you sit and listen because it’s Robert bloody Mitchum. The same goes not only for the rest of the American cast, but the actors playing the Japanese as well as the movie dutifully tracks both sides of the battle – although it is initially disconcerting for someone of my age to see Pat Morita (Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid) and James Shigeta in one of the most atrocious fake moustaches I’ve ever seen (Mr Takagi from Die Hard) actively plotting against America.
The other aspect of Midway that tries to do the battle justice is the well meaning, but ultimately foolish decision to merge actual footage of the battle into the action scenes which may have saved them a buck or two on special effects, but also feels weirdly creepy as you watch actual planes (probably with their pilots still inside) pancake into the Pacific in distractingly murky footage which ironically makes the battle less immersive due to the distracting shifts in film stock.
Now, remember that balance I was babbling on about earlier in the review? Yeah, Midway has none of that, as director Jack Smight is content to get his money’s worth from his absurdly heavyweight cast by having them talk us through almost everything that transpires, even the battle scenes which, to be honest, are so chopily edited they actually need it.
However, while this renders Midway something of a self important slog, the movie’s biggest misstep is in the utterly unnecessary subplot involving the patchy romance between the son of Heston’s character and an American born, Japanese girl that not only goes nowhere, but also disrupts the important talking with less important taking. Now, while I fully admit that the life of a Japanese-American in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor couldn’t have been much fun at all, if the filmmaker truly wanted to do the story justice, they probably should have made an entire movie about that, instead of tacking it onto an attempt to tell the story of one of the greatest oceanic battles in recorded history.
Unfortunately, for all their efforts, Midway ends up as something of an uninspired mess that, for all its star power, isn’t particularly intense or remotely exciting as events build to a battle that’s virtually impossible to decipher without the pilots literally yelling what they’re doing as they do it in an attempt to make sense of all the garbled footage, both real and staged. After a last minute shock death that comes out of nowhere, it’s also strangely bereft of any emotion or a sense of triumph too which is confounding considering John Williams provides a typically strong score.
Certainly, the inclusion of so many distinguished actors gives this enterprise a sense of majesty that’s tough not to acknowledge (Heston, Fonda and Coburn in same room!? That’s more sternly delivered statements than the human mind can handle!), but the pedestrian movie they’re actually in regrettably puts the mid in Midway.