Wednesday, January 15, 2014

MIDWAY



(June 1976, U.S.)

There was a time during the course of my blog when it seemed as if I was posting many war films. These titles often started with the words "battle" or "bridge". After some time, it became a bit of a writing struggle to try and come up with new and insightful view and opinions that would distinguish one war film from another. How much really changes, when you think about it? You have soldiers that you can only hope are memorable character and historical battle sequences that are meant to excite the eyes and the senses. Perhaps each film offers a different piece of world history, world war or drama on the home front. MIDWAY offers all of it (well, not really much on the home front scene), but what clearly distinguishes this film from other combat films is just how 1970s this World War II action film really is. Its stars include the modern performances of classic movie stars like Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum and Hal Holbrook. The musical score is by John Williams during his time in between JAWS and STAR WARS. The marketing campaign of the day tied it's combat action in with the continued growing popularity of 70's disaster films and it was theatrically presented in a rather silly and short-lived cinematic gimmick called Sensurround which was meant to augment the physical sensation of engine noise, explosions, crashes and gunfire. MIDWAY was one of only four films to ever use this (look up the other three!).

So this war film chronicles the Battle of Midway Island, a turning point in World War II in the Pacific. The Imperial Japanese Navy had been undefeated until that time and greatly out-numbered the American naval forces. The story follows two threads; one is centered around the Japanese chief strategist Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (played by Toshiro Mifune, made famous by Akira Kurosawa films), and the other around two fictional characters: Captain Matt Garth (played by Heston) and his grown son, Ensign Thomas Garth (played by Edward Albert), both naval aviators. Matt, a senior officer, is involved in various phases of the United States planning and execution of the battle, while Tom is a young pilot who's also, by horribly-timed coincidence, romantically involved with an American-born daughter of Japanese immigrants, who's been interned with her parents since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Matt, in an effort to assist his son, investigates the charges against the Japanese family, but it seems that this "Romeo and Juliet" forbidden love between these two kids is ultimately doomed due to the perils of battle and war. The film also depicts the creation of a complicated battle plan. Unknown to the Japanese, American signals intelligence has broken the Japanese Naval encryption codes and they now know ahead of time that the ambush will take place at Midway Island which includes tricking the Japanese into confirming it. American Admiral Chester Nimitz (played by Fonda), plays a desperate gamble by sending his last remaining aircraft carriers to Midway before the Japanese to set up his own ambush. Success comes to those who fight to save Midway, but not without heavy cost. By the end of the film, our own military leaders reflect that the enemy had everything going for them and still lost the battle. Were the Americans better than the Japanese or just luckier? Those who know and have studied the history of World War II will ultimately answer that one a lot better than I ever could.

In terms of pure combat film clich├ęs, MIDWAY can easily be accused of violating everything from its dialogue to perhaps its overuse of authentic combat stock footage. The film makes a bold attempt to capture the glories of World War II in a radically altered geopolitical era that was the 1970s. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you're a general fan of war films. If nothing else, MIDWAY may be considered a crucial and necessary rung in a ladder of war films throughout the decades that seek to define history and our brave American soldiers. Without MIDWAY and titles that came before and after it like BATTLEGROUND (1949), THE LONGEST DAY (1962), TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970) and PLATOON (1986), we might never have eventually been given Steven Spielberg's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), perhaps the last truly great war film ever made!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Miss Haruko Sakura: "Damn it, I'm an American! What makes us different from German-Americans or Italian-Americans?"
Captain Matt Garth: "Pearl Harbor, I guess."

(our own generation may very well ask the same question about September 11, 2001)

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