Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Battle of Midway (U.S. Navy, 1942)

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

Charles and I managed to squeeze in a short movie last night: The Battle of Midway, a 1942 U.S. Navy documentary on what turned out to be the turning point in World War II for the U.S. effort in the Pacific. The battle of Midway occurred during June 4-6, 1942 and was a major morale booster for the U.S. home front because it was an unambiguous triumph — the U.S. sank four Japanese aircraft carriers (the same ones from which the attack on Pearl Harbor had been launched seven months earlier) — and, though a lot of hard fighting lay ahead on island after island as the U.S. forces inched ever closer to Japan across the Pacific, the American forces at Midway not only repulsed the Japanese attack but took the fight to the enemy and deprived the Japanese of men and materiel they could ill afford to lose.

Like a lot of the other “name” directors who volunteered to make service films during the war — notably William Wyler and John Huston — John Ford not only directed The Battle of Midway but was on the scene himself as it was being filmed, at one point taking a wound himself while shooting the Japanese bombing raid on the U.S. naval base at Midway. Tag Gallagher’s discussion of this 17-minute color short (it was photographed with 16 mm positive Kodachrome film and then converted to 35 mm negative and printed for release by Technicolor) in his book on John Ford is typically panegyric (just a couple of sample sentences: “Never was Ford to make a film more cinematically and formally perfect than The Battle of Midway. The concision of its 17 minutes never demands concession to amplitude”).

The Battle of Midway is a really peculiar movie in which the limitations of the documentary form — particularly the fact that Ford and his fellow cinematographers, Jack McKenzie and Kenneth Pier, were shooting catch-as-catch-can during actual battle action and (unlike some other wartime “documentary” makers) Ford and his editor, Robert Parrish, chose to use only real footage and not stage anything in the studio with models (as Ford himself had done for the Pearl Harbor film, December 7) — the typical sensibility of Ford and the dry wit of the narration writers, Dudley Nichols and James Kevin McGuinness, clashed in some intriguing ways. The film certainly worked as propaganda in 1942 and still seems stirring today — not for Ford the ambiguity towards war and the refusal to glamorize it of John Huston in his combat documentary The Battle of San Pietro — though it’s also full of schlock, from the bright-orange sunset over which we hear Ford’s favorite song, “Red River Valley” (ostensibly being played by a sailor with an accordion on the deck of a Navy ship, but most likely actually post-dubbed in the studio) to the voices of people back home (played by two veteran Ford actors, Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell) and, in one brief clip (photographed by Gregg Toland), the actual sight of people back home anxiously awaiting word of how the battle is turning out.

Some of The Battle of Midway is heart-stoppingly beautiful (particularly that sunset shot and an earlier scene of sailors and Marines landing on the island, many of them bare-chested — a surprisingly informal image for a U.S. military film from 1942!) and some of the narration has a bit of mordant wit — it lampoons the intrinsic unimportance of Midway and shows a few birds on its beach, commenting, “These are the natives of Midway. Tojo has sworn to liberate them” — and some of it is just trying too hard: all the songs (not only the service anthems but things like “Onward Christian Soldiers”) are just too emotionally manipulative and the scenes listing the Japanese losses while an unseen hand slathers paint across them in the shapes of the letter X and V (added, said Gallagher, at the insistence of President Roosevelt!) are just tacky. The Battle of Midway isn’t much of a movie — no doubt Ford would have wanted to tell more of the story than he was able to with the footage he had — but it’s certainly a quirky example of how a Hollywood director with a unique style could impose it even on a wartime documentary short about an actual battle! — 2/6/10


After having seen the 1976 dramatic film Midway the night before I had the idea of screening an download of The Battle of Midway, John Ford’s 1942 documentary of at least some of the actual battle — released on September 14, 1942, just 3 1/2 months before the battle actually took place. It’s an interesting curiosity and it’s quite spectacular in color — Ford and his cameramen (including Joseph August, who was wounded along with Ford himself) were shooting 16 mm Kodachrome which was later blown up to 35 mm Technicolor, and they got some excellent footage of the Japanese raid on Midway itself, which kicked off the battle. Alas, they were nowhere near the part of the action we would most have wanted to see — the successful U.S. attack on the Japanese aircraft carriers that led to the sinking of four of them and the effective turning point of the war in the Pacific — and the film seems edited almost at random, with the best parts having surprisingly little to do with the battle: the beefcake scenes at the beginning of U.S. Marines, many of them gloriously shirtless, arriving on the island to beef up its defenses; and a glorious shot of a bright red sunset with a sailor playing accordion on the deck of a ship. Naturally, the director — being John Ford — dubbed in an accordion version of “Red River Valley,” his all-time favorite song, no matter what the musical sailor had actually been playing!

Much of the stock footage in Midway must have come from other sources than this film — or at least Ford’s final cut — including the spectacular shot of a plane making an emergency landing on the deck of a carrier and crashing into another plane, breaking in two from the impact. According to an “trivia” poster, in the real clip (used in Midway to represent the crash of Charlton Heston’s son) the pilot was almost completely unharmed and walked away from the crash! The Battle of Midway was no doubt the patriotic rouser Ford and the U.S. Navy (which produced it) intended, complete with shots of various servicemembers (including the president’s son, James Roosevelt — this was back in the days when presidential children actually fought in America’s wars instead of getting arrested for drunk driving!) and at least four narrators: Donald Crisp and Irving Pichel doing third-person and Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell (possibly on a break from their duties at 20th Century-Fox shooting The Ox-Bow Incident) enacting the parts of a servicemember and his mom back home: I’d had no idea that at least one person, Fonda, had been involved in both The Battle of Midway and Midway! — 6/1/11