Midway is a big, honking Hollywood WWII movie that’s quite dated by today’s standards. In fact, it was dated when it was first released in 1976. Its special effects - and they’re special in name only - consist of some fairly unconvincing rear projection interspersed with grainy footage of actual battles blown up from 16mm. It has a cast of aging Hollywood beefcake rippling their jaw muscles to show they’re under enormous stress while pushing toy boats around on giant maps. It has legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, but every time he opens his mouth he sounds like Boris Badenov because actor Paul Frees overdubbed his voice. Despite its plethora of weaknesses and really bad production decisions, Midway remains an absorbing watch, and is considered by military scholars one of the most accurate dramatizations of a crucial battle ever filmed.
The Battle of Midway was the turning point of the war in the Pacific. This unremarkable but strategic atoll, roughly halfway between Tokyo and San Francisco, was an important staging area, and had been coveted by the Imperial Navy since its attack on Pearl Harbor six months earlier. Under the command of Admiral Nimitz (Henry Fonda), a daring scheme was hatched to defend the island, risking virtually the entire U.S. Navy Pacific fleet in the process. If successful, the plan would be a stunning victory for the Americans; if it failed, the west coast of the U.S. would be left defenseless against Japanese attacks.
Unlike most war movies, Midway focuses more on the braintrust than the grunts. Surrounded by his trusted advisors (Charlton Heston, Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook and James Coburn to name a few - the testosterone in this film is off the charts) we see Nimitz and his cohort calmly and cooly tighten a noose around the Imperial Navy. We see the other side too, as the Japanese commanders, led by Mifune, suddenly find themselves on the other end of a surprise attack and are caught flat-footed. The Japanese military traditions of deep deference and ultra formality work against the Imperial Navy here, causing the slow implementation of crucial decisions and eventually leading to catastrophic losses of men and materiel.
Midway also has a silly romantic subplot - you can’t make a war movie without one - involving Heston’s son (Edward Albert) and his Japanese-American girlfriend (Christina Kokubo). The fact that Midway survives its frequent hokey lapses is a testament to its compelling subject. It’s easy to dismiss a film like Midway as Greatest Generation kitsch, but at its core there is a much larger story that still impresses with its true-life heroics and iron willed audacity. Midway is not in the pantheon of great American war movies, nor does it deserve to be. But, unlike many of our recent conflicts, it dramatizes a war that was just and noble. And thanks to the brave servicemen depicted in this film, we live to tell the tale.