Sunday, February 17, 2019

Midway (1976)

Director: Jack Smight                                     Writer: Donald S. Sanford
Film Score: John Williams                              Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr.
Starring: Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Robert Webber and Toshirô Mifune

Midway seemed to have learned the lessons that dogged its predecessor, Tora! Tora! Tora! and as a result it made for a much more popular film. While that film, a co-production between Japanese and American companies strove for accuracy, there was little in the way of personal conflict or drama. Donald S. Sanford’s screenplay, on the other hand, does a wonderful job of creating a fictional father-son story full of conflict that also weaves in the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans during the war as part of the love story. Why Stanford was chosen to write the film is a mystery, considering that he had written exclusively for television since the fifties. But while this film was only his third feature, his first two from 1969 were both World War Two films. Like the Pearl Harbor story from six years earlier, this film is a star-studded affair, but even more so. Not only do Henry Fonda and Charlton Heston anchor a cast of cinema greats, but the great Toshirô Mifune is the leader of nearly every recognizable Japanese-American--not Chinese--actor in Hollywood. That the film was made in time to be released during America’s bicentennial was no accident, as the film celebrated the first great U.S. victory in the war. In addition, many theaters were equipped with special surround-sound speakers that rumbled and shook as planes took off and battles raged.

The opening credits are tinted in sepia tone, aircraft being launched from a carrier in 1942 on the Doolittle Raid to bomb Tokyo, a symbolic gesture that put Japan on notice that the U.S. was intent on avenging the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The story begins with communications officer Charlton Heston trying to get a bead on where the Japanese are going to attack next. Head of the naval code-breaking staff, Hal Holbrook, confesses that they don’t have a lot of information but there is the hint of something soon. Meanwhile Heston’s pilot son, Edward Albert, is in love with a Japanese-American who has been arrested because her parents are being watched by the CIA. The Japanese navy, led by Toshirô Mifune as Yamamoto, fight to a draw at the Coral Sea and are now planning to attack Midway Island as a way of drawing out the U.S. carriers and destroying the rest of the fleet that was at sea during the Pearl Harbor attack. But Holbrook gets wind of the objective by breaking the Japanese code and, despite warnings from Washington D.C. via James Coburn that the messages might be a decoy, Henry Fonda as Admiral Nimitz sends his carriers to Midway to surprise Yamamoto. The middle of the film centers on a group of scout planes that are sent out to the west of Midway to see if they can spot the enemy. Once they spot the invasion force, the Japanese send out similar search planes to look for the American carrier force. Unfortunately, the plane that is in the enemy area gets a late start and the Japanese don’t get the location of the U.S. ships until it’s too late.

The battle was the turning point in the war in the Pacific, and the Japanese would never again seriously confront the U.S. with possible defeat during the war, despite tenaciously holding on to their island strongholds for the next three years. Like Tora! Tora! Tora! the film integrates actual color footage taken during the war and, while it’s fairly obvious, the realism it provides is something that would have been impossible to replicate at the time. An actual World War Two aircraft carrier, the Lexington, was used for location shooting and made for impressive scenes at sea. And the film also used footage from the earlier production as well. Like most feature films of the period, the direction by Jack Smight is adequate to the task but little more. For some reason most of the historical films of the seventies seem to be in thrall of the work of television directors, and so they take very few chances and as a result have very few innovations, much less drawing on the unique touches from films of previous decades. But then Smight, like screenwriter Donald Sanford, had primarily worked in television, other than a spate of features in the late sixties. His previous film before this one was Airport 75. One of the more interesting aspects of the production is an early score by the great John Williams, fresh off his Oscar win for the soundtrack to Jaws. One final aspect of the film being made in the seventies that is a huge positive, however, is the slower pace and therefore more realistic unfolding of the plot.

Despite Charlton Heston’s headline billing, this film really belongs to Robert Webber as Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher, as it’s easily his finest performance. Webber, who had been mired in television guest spots for most of the decade, hadn’t really done anything memorable since his riveting performance in The Dirty Dozen. This role, however, was far more realistic, and a great antidote to the normally overconfident portrayal of military heroes in Hollywood films. Robert Mitchum was originally offered the role of Nimitz in the film, but he suggested Fonda instead. He was then asked if he would play Admiral Spruance, but turned down that as well, and it went to Glenn Ford. Eventually he agreed to play Admiral Halsey because it only required one day of shooting as Halsey was in the hospital at the time of the attack. Charlton Heston and Edward Albert are perfect as the father-son Navy pilots. Other members of the all-star cast include Cliff Robertson, Robert Wagner, Monte Markham, Dabney Coleman, Erik Estrada, Tom Selleck, and John Shuck. On the Japanese side in addition to Mifune, are James Shigeta, Pat Morita, John Fujioka, Clyde Kusatsu, Sab Shimono, and Robert Ito. The story is a good one, and there’s a lot of tension even though the audience already knows what the outcome is. The one unfortunate aspect of the film was that Toshirô Mifune’s dialogue was dubbed by Disney voice actor Paul Frees, which apparently drew laughs from some audience members because his voice was so distinctive. Nevertheless, Midway is one of the great World Wart Two films, and one of the great films of the seventies, and comes highly recommended.

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