The Dark Herald Recommends: Midway

The Dark Herald Recommends: Midway

I thought I should do something for Pearl Harbor Day.

In 1976 WWII was about as far away for audiences as the Gulf War is for us. Midway was that fresh of a memory when the Charleton Heston film with that title hit the theaters.

I was seriously considering a Does Not Recommend rating for this film. It’s borderline.

Roland Emmerich loves him some epic spectacle. The kind of films he loves making are the BIG ones. The sort of screen grandeur you would have expected Charleton Heston to have headlined back in the Fifties.

This has always been his preferred metier. Stargate, Godzilla, Independence Day, 2012, it’s not just being a master of disaster, the man like to paint with a big brush on a big canvass. It’s not a surprise that he was entranced by the idea of directing a film about the biggest naval battle in American history.

Quick overview for the historically illiterate.

For six months after the disaster of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had run the table. They had had a string of victories on land and sea and that had seemed unstoppable.

But in truth, they were rapidly becoming overextended. Unlike Germany’s early victories that got them factories, railroads, and built-up infrastructure. Japan’s wins mostly got them more raw materials and rice paddies. These are not great for building ships and planes.

An invasion of the continental United States wasn’t realistic. For that matter even trying to take Hawaii looked like it would be a Japanese Gallipoli. And they could not absorb that kind of damage and still hang on to China. 

The fact was that they needed to get America out of the war before Russia became a problem for them.

There is a saying that goes, Generals always refight the last war. This isn’t quite true. They refight the last war that they liked.

American and European Navies had been refighting Jutland for twenty years. But the place that held magic memories for the Nihon Kaigun was the Tsushima Straights and the destruction of the Russian fleet in 1905.  Repeating Togo’s crushing victory was the not-so-secret dream of every admiral in the Japanese fleet.

The objective of Operation MI wasn’t to take Midway, that was incidental, the true goal was to engage the US Pacific Fleet in a battle of annihilation.

Yamamoto felt that an aggressive strike at Midway Island that threatened Hawaii would force Nimitz to sortie the US fleet to protect the island. He would then swoop in with his numerically superior battleship fleet and crush the American Navy. With the Pacific fleet sunk and Hawaii and the American west coast unprotected, a peace initiative with the United States could then be pursued.

Lieutenant Joe Rochefort of Signals Intelligence started hearing a lot of chatter about objective AF. Midway island seemed a likely candidate, so to confirm this, a fake transmission was sent in the clear that the water condensers On Midway were out of commission. The Japanese obligingly reported that the water condensers were out on AF. Admiral Nimitz now knew where the enemy was going to be and when. 

The Japanese fleet was divided into three groups, the invasion taskforce, the air taskforce commanded by Nagumo, and the main battle fleet commanded by Yamamoto himself.

After the first bombing run on Midway, the Japanese carrier born bombers were being rearmed for a second wave attack on the island when the American fleet was spotted. Nagumo changed targets, deciding to go after the American carrier force, and started rearming his bombers for a torpedo run on the US Fleet. At that most critically vulnerable moment, the American dive-bombers arrived and started their run when the Japanese carrier decks were covered with bombs. A single squadron of dive-bombers proved absolutely devastating. In minutes three Japanese carriers were burning and would soon sink. The remaining Kaigun carrier, Hiryu, counter-attacked and took out the USS Yorktown. Leaving only USS Enterprise and USS Hornet. Admiral Spruance attacked again and the Japanese lost the Hiryu. 

Yamamoto was a devout poker player and in high-level poker, you are playing the man not the deck and the Japanese commander in chief thought he was facing Admiral “Bull” Halsey. Yamamoto (perhaps rightfully) thought that Halsey couldn’t resist pursuing the wounded carrier fleet, so he ordered the remnants of Nagumo’s task force to make a disorganized retreat toward his battleship fleet. Hoping to smash the American navy with raw dreadnaught firepower. But Halsey was in sickbay and Admiral Spruance was in command of the American task force, he chose not to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and withdrew without further engagement. Battle concluded. 

A funny thing about the Battle of Midway is that at the time it was thought of as strategically indecisive. The immediate view was that this crushing victory was merely a status quo anti-plus for the United States. After all, we didn’t sink any battleships and that’s what really counted right? However, opinions changed as to the importance of aircraft carriers and in 1944 work was halted on the American super-battleship USS Montana. When she put to sea a year later she had been converted into a supercarrier and was named the USS Midway.

I can’t fault Emmerich for sweating the details. He made sure every single tiny thing was period accurate. There was a shit ton of Pacific War minutiae that was correct down to the buttons on the sailor’s shirts and a FOD walk on the deck of the carrier after flight operations. The events of the battles were painstaking in their authenticity. The bow of the Arizona blew off just like it was supposed to. The Akagi went up when the aviation fuel vaporized just like it was supposed to. He got every small detail right as well as the sequence of events. In fact I would have to say he did a better job on that than the 1976 version did.

Comparisons between the two films are unavoidable. Emmerich’s version scores over the older work in several areas. Detail accuracy as I already mentioned. Better cinematography for another, the ’76 version was overly reliant on decades-old battlefield footage. Emmerich’s was also more historically accurate. Opinions of historians over some key events have changed and the 2019 version of Midway reflects those.

In the end however, the 1976 film is better movie. 

Why? Because it was limited in scope. 

Emmerich’s version is just too big. Too much is getting crammed into too short of a running time for the events that it’s chronicling. Midway stretches from a dinner in Japan before the war to Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raid and then the battle of Midway itself. These are three major events and they are packed into a two hour and eighteen minutes run time.

It also tries to shoehorn in From Here to Eternity romance elements and there isn’t enough time for that either. This is aside from the fact that Emmerich is no better than Michael Bay about stuff like that. Also, there were clearly major cuts made that leave you going, “Woah minute what just didn’t happen? Did I miss something?” For example, there is a build-up to the Battle of the Coral Sea and then we don’t see any of it. There is cheering when the Yorktown joins the fleet but there wasn’t enough build-up for the audience to be happy about it. The Hiryu launches its counterattack, then we only hear of the Yorktown being sunk afterward. Too many payoffs without setups and setups that weren’t paid off.

This film would have made a very good 1980s mini-series if left intact. But here there is too much story being crammed into too little time. 

In summary: If you know something about the Battle of Midway already then it will probably interest you. But if you don’t there really isn’t much here for you.

The Dark Herald Recommends with Reservations.

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Comments (7)

  • William Stroock Reply

    Spot on I think.

    December 8, 2020 at 8:01 pm
  • Peter Gent Reply

    Maybe he will release and extended version…

    December 8, 2020 at 9:00 pm
    • The Dark Herald Reply

      If it was owned by Warner Media I would guarantee it.

      December 8, 2020 at 9:45 pm
  • William Stroock Reply

    I think for all its 1970s feel Midway tells the story much better. A lot of times the Emmerich version feels like a video game. And what’s with Dennis Quad devouring the scenery? I was always impressed with the original’s physical fighter planes. And when I first saw it about 1980, it felt utterly contemporary. I was 7.

    December 8, 2020 at 9:45 pm
  • CAG Reply

    All your observations are spot on. In addition I would point out that one of the glaring omissions were the F4F Wildcat fighters that should have been part of the air wing! Yes, I realize they were probably omitted because they played relatively little part in the battle sequences featured, but it was JARRING to see and overflight of the carriers and only see SBDs and TBDs on the deck!

    December 8, 2020 at 10:56 pm
  • Ken Prescott Reply

    To do the battle proper justice as a spectacle, you’d need to make it a miniseries that breaks the big meal down into smaller, digestible courses. The movie was too wide-sweeping, compressing six months into a couple of hours. The 1976 movie started with the Doolittle Raid and dealt with it and Coral Sea swiftly–a few minutes apiece to set the stage and give the audience a little context.

    I did appreciate that they worked in some elements of the latest scholarship about the battle, particularly the lack of a proper flag planning space for Nagumo and his staff, and Raizo Tanaka’s hyperaggressiveness and fatalism. But I knew enough of the story to begin with; I had to explain a lot to my wife afterwards.

    December 9, 2020 at 2:52 am
  • Qualitarian Reply

    I agree with your assessment overall. My impression leaving the theater was “too much, too fast,” history delivered via firehose.

    As a WWII model airplane dork, I did notice some errors regarding the aircraft (sometimes the early-war national markings lacked the red dot in the center, sometimes they were correct; wrong mark of B-25 in the Doolittle sequence; anachronistic gun mounts in the SBDs). I’m pretty sure most of that stuff was CGI, it wouldn’t have been any more difficult to get it right.

    Maybe they deliberately muffed it to generate controversy, like Trump’s misspelled tweets?

    December 9, 2020 at 5:33 am

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