So I watched Midway…

To be clear, the current Midway movie is at least the third film– counting John Ford’s WWII-era propaganda short and the verbose 1976 Henry Fonda flick– to be centered around the pivotal battle of the Pacific War.

What I liked:

Great effort overall.

Lots of little known stories were highlighted such as efforts of Station Hypo and the vastly unsung work of CDR Joseph J. Rochefort and his busy swarm of ex-musicians from the stricken battleships USS California and West Virginia.

Also, as 15 submarines were present at Midway, and the straggling Japanese destroyer Arashi— detailed to sink USS Nautilus without luck– led the U.S. planes to the unexpecting Japanese carrier task force, it was nice to see SS-168 detailed a bit. This included filming scenes in the torpedo room and control tower aboard the ex-USS Bowfin (SS-287), which was a nice period touch.

The Marines and Midway-based air groups are given a few minutes of camera time. Many forget they were part of the battle as well. More on the Marines of Midway, here.

Obsolete fabric-covered SB2U-3 dive bombers of Marine Scout Bombing Squadron 241 taking off to attack the Japanese fleet striking force on the morning of 4 June 1942, during the Battle of Midway. Part of Marine Aircraft Group 22 (MAG-22), they would earn a Presidental Unit Citation for their role in the epic naval clash.

As there are exactly zero functional TBD Devastator torpedo bombers that made it out of WWII, it was amazing to see them digitally recreated and flying in squadron order, Ride of the Valkyries-style, to their doom.

Wreck of the Lexington showing TBD Tare-3 flown by Ensign N. A. Sterrie USNR who claimed a hit on the carrier Shoho during the second attack at the Coral Sea. Tare-4 flown by Lt. R. F. Farrington USN who claimed a hit during the first attack. This is amazing as there are only four known TBDs in existence anywhere in the world– all crashed. Only 130 were made and 35 lost at Midway alone (Photo via RV Petrel)

Likewise, in many scenes, the Chicago Piano, the quad 1.1-inch AAA gun mounted across the U.S. fleet in the early part of WWII, was shown in action although most examples are at the bottom of the Pacific at this point.

These…(RV Petrel)

Unlike the 1976 film, which tried to tell the story of the battle through the eyes of a fictional third party staff officer, much like Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, the new version is told through a focus on Dick Best, the legendary leader of Enterprise’s VB-6; and LCDR Edwin T. Layton, Nimitz’s intel boss.

In another departure from the 1976 film, rather than fill the ranks of the IJN with Hawaiian nisei actors and a token Toshiro Mifune (whose lines were dubbed in English!), the current production used a number of high-profile Japanese actors including Etsushi Toyokawa and Tadanobu Asano (you will recognize him from all of the Thor movies as well as 47 Ronin).

What I didn’t like

A lot of this is nitpicky from a nerd who built SBD, F4F and TBD models as a kid in the 1980s while dog-eared copies of Infamy and At Dawn We Slept sat on the desk, so take it with a grain of salt.

While the movie spends the first 45~ minutes or so delving into the six months of the Pacific War from Pearl Harbor to Midway, this seems like too much of a setup, one that could have been condensed to spend more time on the actual battle itself. For instance, of the aforementioned amount, a good 10-15 mins are spent on the Doolittle Raid (with Aaron Eckhart lending his magnificent chin to portray Doolittle himself). While those “30 Seconds over Tokyo” were important to the war effort, they had little to do with Midway.

While the story of SBD gunner AMM1c Bruno Gaido is told– and deservedly so– his execution at sea was botched in the film. Gaido and his pilot, Ensign Frank O’Flaherty, were picked up by the destroyer Makigumo and tortured for over a week then tied to weighted gas cans and thrown overboard on/about 15 June. The movie implies they were killed soon after rescue during the battle and that O’Flaherty may have given actionable intelligence that was used to sink Yorktown. This is shameful.

Speaking of Yorktown, there were three U.S. flattops at Midway but Yorktown is only glimpsed a couple times and Hornet barely even gets a mention, leaving the otherwise uninformed viewer to think Enterprise pulled off the whole thing on her own. Sure, the seagoing action is largely from Dick Best’s point of view, but still…

As for the Japanese fleet, the bushido code of RADM Tamon Yamaguchi– a Princeton alumnus who clashed with Nagumo and was the commander of the Japanese Carrier Striking Force’s Carrier Division Two– is retold and he is shown going down with his stricken flagship, IJN Hiryu, on the predawn of 5 June. However, the movie has him only meeting this fate accompanied by Hiryu’s commander when in fact he had 20-30 men of his staff all resolutely remain behind to ride her to “enjoy the moon together.”

Carrier flagship Hiryu: Last Moments of Admiral Yamaguchi at the Battle of Midway. oil painting by Renzo Kita, 1943.

Even with the above complaints lodged, the movie is still a much better effort than I hoped for. Of course, it is very CGI/greenscreen heavy, but this is the nature of the cinema these days.

All-in-all, it could be used as an educational tool in high school history classes, in my humble opinion.

For those interested in delving more into Midway, check out Shattered Sword.

3 comments

  • I liked the film as well and fully understand that it was a Hollywood effort, not a history documentary. Even so, where were the Wildcat fighters? I saw none. The film’s attack of the Enterprise Air Group on Roi in the Marshall Islands revealed that the island was studded with volcanic mountains which allowed for a Starwars-like chase scene. In fact, Roi is flat as a pancake and barely above sea level.
    And the Hollywood types could not resist the usual self-referential entry with a couple of valuable minutes wasted on movie director John Ford’s presence on Midway. I am a Ford film fan, but at Midway he was shooting a camera, not a gun. There were thousands of more deserving Midway stories to be told before rehashing that well-worn one.
    I was prepared to dislike Woody Harrelson in the role of Admiral Nimitz, but found that he was surprisingly effective.
    I give the film a B+ rating and am glad that I saw it.

  • I agree, the film is good for what it is. Cinema. I see it as a good visual supplement to books and lectures.

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