Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Midway (Mirisch Corporation/Universal, 1976)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the 1976 film Midway as it was being shown as part of a Memorial Day tribute on American Movie Classics, which promised “limited commercial interruptions” but they didn’t seem so limited to me. They had former NBC newscaster Tom Brokaw announce the showing and promoted it as commemorating the 35th anniversary of the release of the film — gee, next year they can show it again and promote it as commemorating the 70th anniversary of the actual battle! Midway was one of the cycle of epic movies about World War II which kicked off with the 1962 film The Longest Day and featured large-scale productions, long running times (usually 2 1/2 to three hours) and, most importantly, all-star casts, though by 1976 a lot of the “stars” in this one were decidedly moth-eaten and reflected earlier eras in Hollywood history.

The film was made by Universal and was the second film they released in a special process called “Sensurround,” which had nothing to do with the film’s visual portions but involved adding extremely low-frequency sound waves to the bass ranges of the soundtrack, which gave the impression that the theatre was shaking itself to bits (and in some cases, according to imdb.com, some theatres actually did shake themselves enough so that bits of plaster fell off their ceilings!). Not surprisingly, Universal first used this gimmick in an otherwise rather cheesy 1974 disaster movie called Earthquake, starring Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner; and they made Heston the star of this one, too, casting him as the (decidedly) fictional Captain Matt Garth, who’s worried about the relationship between his son, Lieutenant Tom Garth (Eddie Albert, Jr.), and a Japanese girl, Haruko Sakura (Christina Kokubo, whose performance is at a porn-star level of monotonal incompetence that makes me wonder why the “suits” at Universal, casting a big-budget film they intended as a major blockbuster, couldn’t find a young Asian woman who could act), whose parents are about to be hauled off to an internment camp: Garth père calls in every favor he has outstanding to spare the girlfriend of Garth fils that fate, only to find that her parents have rejected him as a suitor because they don’t want their daughter to marry a white guy.

Fortunately, this plot isn’t important and most of the movie is taken up by the real Battle of Midway — almost literally, since so much of the footage is taken from the 1942 color documentary The Battle of Midway, directed by John Ford for the U.S. Office of War Information, that Ford almost deserves a co-credit with Jack Smight for directing this film! Also a lot of it comes from other fiction films about World War II, including Tora! Tora! Tora! (also no great shakes as a movie but a good deal more watchable than Midway and to date the best film ever made about Pearl Harbor), Away All Boats and even Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo — the last used to represent the Doolittle Raid on Japan, which had just happened before the Battle of Midway and was a major morale boost to the Americans … and a major shock to the Japanese, who until then had always been able to repel any attempts by Occidentals to attack their homeland.

Unlike The Longest Day and Tora! Tora! Tora!, Midway features everybody speaking English — not only the actors playing Americans but also the ones playing Japanese, including Toshiro Mifune, cast as Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto but (since he never learned English, or at least never learned it well enough to act in it, and I guess the filmmakers rejected the Lugosian alternative of teaching him all his lines phonetically) he’s dubbed by American voice actor Paul Frees — and yes, it’s odd indeed to hear the voice of Boris Badenov in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons and the villainous Maurice Percy Beaucoup in Gay Purr-Ee plotting strategy for the Japanese navy and debating what should be their appropriate follow-up to the dramatic success of their attack on Pearl Harbor. The real-life people in this story are played by an impressive list of actors, though frankly the list would have been even more impressive a quarter-century earlier: Henry Fonda as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (a role he’d previously played in the 1965 film In Harm’s Way), Glenn Ford as Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance (put in charge of the U.S. carrier fleet at Midway even though he’d never commanded a carrier before, though he knew their battle tactics), James Coburn as Captain Vinton Maddox, Hal Holbrook as Commander Joseph Rochefort and Robert Mitchum as Admiral William “Bull” Halsey (who was laid up with a childhood disease during the battle, and was naturally pissed that he couldn’t be there — Mitchum reportedly shot his whole role in just one day, and I believe it!) and Cliff Robertson as Commander Carl Jessop.

What comes through most strongly in the film — written by Donald S. Sanford and directed by Jack Smight (after John Guillermin, director of The Towering Inferno, quit the project on the eve of shooting) — is just how much the American triumph at Midway, in which they were able not only to protect the island base itself but sink Japan’s four largest and most important aircraft carriers (Kaga, Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu — not only a major blow to the Japanese war effort but a form of payback for the Americans since they were the carriers that had launched the planes that bombed Pearl Harbor) while losing only one ship of their own (the Yorktown, which went into the battle badly damaged already from the previous battle at the Coral Sea and whose planes were instrumental in the successful attacks on the Japanese carriers), was a matter of sheer luck. Though the film is pretty slow going early on — war movies that are mostly about strategy and planning battle tactics rather than the actual fighting run that risk, and the battle itself seems a bit of an anticlimax when it comes (especially since virtually all of it we see is stock footage from The Battle of Midway and other actual film of the period) — one thing that does come through is how much planning strategy and tactics is a crapshoot.

Even though both the Americans and Japanese had hacked into each other’s codes and therefore were able to read at least part of each other’s messages, most of the planning was based on sheer guesswork and both Nimitz and Yamamoto are shown telling their subordinates that they’re basing their own plans for the battle on the head game of thinking, “What would I do if I were the other guy and had the ships and men he has?” Aside from that, Midway is a workmanlike but not all that exciting war movie — Universal generally didn’t do this sort of film the way the specialists in it, 20th Century-Fox, did — and I really missed the integrity of The Longest Day and Tora! Tora! Tora! of having the actors representing people from non-English-speaking countries speaking in their actual languages instead of ineptly accented English (and it was all I could do to avoid cracking up at Admiral Yamamoto speaking in the voice that had once threatened to sell Judy Garland into white slavery in Gay Purr-Ee), while the fictional subplot was so lame in both conception and execution I thought they needn’t have bothered with it at all.