Midway 1976

The original Midway movie has been on my mind since I was underwhelmed by the 2019 version. Tonight I made the effort to watch it again.

Either I have grown up somewhat or I was too harsh in my original judgement of it – which is probably why I have avoided it for years – but it is not as bad as I remember it.

It has a similarly contemporary stellar cast to Midway 2019 so it’s not like the quality of the actors is a factor in the failure of 2019; certainly the quality of the acting is though. I feel that the modern attempt simply lacks an awareness of basic storytelling and instead falls back on a series of cliches and one-liners that totally fail to impart any sense of urgency or drama to the story.

Watching Midway 1976 tonight, I really felt the gravity of a battle on which both sides depended for strategic survival. Ultimately for the US, Midway was the end of the beginning; for Japan it was the beginning of the end…that sense of urgency, of great issues at stake, comes through so much better in the 1976 version.

Even though it relies on live footage for most of its combat scenes, the earlier version acknowledges it in the opening credits. Even though some of the scenes cut JAG-like between aircraft types…what was a Vindicator is now a Dauntless is now a Hellcat…it is remarkable effective, more so when one remembers that this footage is of actual young men in combat, where an aircraft explodes in flame or smashes into the ocean, there are actual people aboard…It’s a lot smoother than the incredibly-detailed but chaotically-edited digital imagery of the latter version.

The earlier production also relies heavily on surviving aircraft from the era: the J2F Duck parked outside HQ CINCPAC (fond memories of the Airfix Duck that I finished in a night and painted with Mum’s oil colours – which took a year to cure!); stubby F4F Wildcats on the deck of one of the carriers (Dad brought me one back from one of his trips to Wellington – finished in a day but used the right(-ish) paints this time; and the Catalinas that spotted the Japanese fleet and rescued Ensign George Day, the sole survivor of Torpedo Squadron 8, who spent the day of the battle avoiding attention as he floated in the middle of the Japanese fleet.

1976 makes only scant mention of Pearl Harbor and starts with Jimmy Doolittle’s daring launch from the Hornet on 18 April 1982 with black and white footage from (I think, I’ve never seen the movie) Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. In the first 10-15 minutes, Midway The Earlier has established the Doolittle Raid as the chief catalyst for the Japanese drive on Midway, and established the Japanese objective “AF” as Midway. It does this without any smug smiles or glib one-liners: the characters of Nimitz, Fletcher, Rochefort, etc are well-played and feel authentic.

On the Japanese side, the characters are more Western than their portrayal in either Pearl Harbor or Midway 2019; we are spared the contemporary fascination with subtitles in favour of clear unaccented English. Even so, the characters feel less like caricatures than their modern equivalents, less 2D and more like real people. And Midway 1976 depicts the Japanese as people as well, not the brutal barbarians shown in Pearl Harbor and Midway 2019.

Midway was THE battle that changed the course of the Pacific War: Coral Sea stopped the Japanese advance south, Midway turned them around. After Midway everything was downhill for Japan. It’s a tale that deserves to be told well. Give the 1976 Midway a second chance and hunt down some of the excellent reading available on the battle…