Monday, September 3, 2012
Midway (1976): A Review (Review #435)
Sunset Comes to the Empire of the Rising Sun...
Midway at first would appear to be just another war movie about the critical sea battle that turned the tide (no pun intended) toward an Allied victory in the Second World War. However, there is an added element in Midway: a love story subplot. Now, what's so special about that? Don't many war films have stories about soldiers and sailors leaving their wives and sweethearts on the home front? Well, yes. However, Midway might be the first one to feature an interracial romance that addresses a still little-known and shameful part of American history.
The romance angle of Midway is a love story between an Anglo pilot and a Japanese-American, with the added complication of her and her family being forced into an internment camp as a result of American paranoia over native-born citizens of Japanese ancestry or naturalized Americans of Japanese extraction being 'fifth columnists'. The fact that the film acknowledges interment camps quickly elevates Midway about other rah-rah war films and tries to give voice to a low point in the treatment of citizens whose only crime was being the wrong ethnicity.
The Japanese had devastated the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the Doolittle Raid (the fabled 30 Seconds Over Tokyo) was the response. The Japanese fleet under Admiral Yamamoto (Toshiro Mifune) have opted for a plan to knock out the Americans: another surprise attack on Midway Island while misleading the Americans into thinking they will aim for the American West Coast. What the Japanese don't know is that the Americans, thanks to Commander Joseph Rochefort (Hal Holbrook) have managed to break the Axis codes and now are fully aware of their plans. Admiral Nimitz (Henry Fonda) decides to gamble his remaining aircraft carriers on his hunch that they are really heading to Midway and meet them there.
If he's wrong, he will leave the entire Pacific coast (Alaska, Washington State, Oregon, and California) vulnerable to a Japanese invasion. It's a tough decision, but he, along with Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance (Glenn Ford), with a little help/prodding from an incapacitated Admiral Bull Halsey (Robert Mitchum) decide to go with their instinct that the enemy is going to Midway.
Into the mix comes Captain Matt Garth (Charlton Heston). He will be part of the planning of the Midway defense and oversee the pilots, one of whom is his son, Lieutenant Matt Garth (Edward Albert). Tom asks his father for a favor: his girlfriend Haruko Sakura (Christina Kukubo), has been locked up along with her parents on suspicion that they (along with all other Japanese-Americans) will aid the enemy. Tom begs his father to pull some strings to let her and her parents out. Matt is first unhappy to be put in this position (telling Tom he and Haruko had 'lousy timing) but promises to see what he can do.
Captain Garth's plate is pretty full: he is helping plan the battle while the Japanese continue to sail towards Midway. Out of the Japanese naval command, Yamamoto appears at first reluctant to act without full assurances that the Americans know nothing of the plan. The Japanese are firm to the point of arrogance about the success of their plan. Midway then shifts between Captain Garth's visit to the interment camp (where he sees the injustice of the camps) and the actual battle itself (some footage of which was culled from other films, including the Oscar-winning documentary The Battle of Midway). The film ends with both Garths making sacrifices for the cause of freedom.
Midway is epic in its size and in its all-star cast (Heston, Fonda, Holbrook, Mitchum, Mifune, along with appearances by James Coburn, Robert Wagner and early appearances by future TV stars Erick Estrada and Tom Selleck). It takes its time going over the planning of the battle, and once we do get to the three-day battle the sequences (both filmed for Midway and from other films) are quite thrilling, giving that sense of immediacy and horror of the battle. Granted, Midway is a long film but I rarely noticed that it dragged. You can put it to the fact that I'm a history buff but I found that the film moved relatively well.
In regards to the love story, it is a hit-and-miss matter. We don't really see Tim and Haruko together until the end and it almost seems to be an afterthought among the mayhem of war. However, I think Midway deserves major props for even attempting to acknowledge interment camps and the complications of interracial romances. Credit therefore should be given to screenwriter Donal S. Sanford for introducing this complication to Midway and drawing from actual history. People today still aren't as fully aware of interment camps and the violation of the rights of Americans by their own government, so while Midway might still have not delved as deeply as it could have on the subject, just by raising the subject it takes a positive step forward.
I think the acting almost all around was strong. Heston knows how to project authority, and seeing him work with Fonda (who specialized in strong characters who also had doubts) is a great treat. I would argue that only Albert was particularly weak with his younger Garth, but he really wasn't given much to do. One thing that is pleasing is seeing Toshiro Mifune make an English-language film (even if it clear that his voice was dubbed, in this case by Paul Frees). It might have worked better for Jack Smight if he had directed them to just put subtitles and make it easier to have someone like Mifune speak in his native Japanese.
We also have an added bonus of having John Williams write the score. He knows how to put music that enhances the scenes.
Midway might not be the best film about this crucial battle, but on the whole the film moved well and took a bold step by bringing up a subject that is still a bit hush-hush. Not a great film but an entertaining one.