A Saturday afternoon at Midway

by Norman D. Markowitz

from Jump Cut, no. 12-13, 1976, pp.
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

In the burning aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Japanese imperialism made its major bid for hegemony in the Western Pacific. an expansion of power vital for achieving Japan’s war aim of a “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.” For the Japanese, complete victory in the Pacific would have accomplished numerous strategic goals: self-sufficiency in oil and other raw materials essential for industry and war; elimination from Asia and the Pacific of its U.S. rival; consolidation, with a clear field ahead, of its victories in China and Indochina; establishment of a gateway to the Soviet Union and British India.

Putting their plan into practice, the Japanese ouickly pounced upon English, Dutch, and U.S. possessions in the Western Pacific and successfully ousted all other imperial forces from the region by April 1942. One more victory of Pearl Harbor-like proportions would have forced the Americans back to their own coastline and produced a general peace settlement—or so that Japanese believed. But where? Midway, the last U.S. naval base between the Philipines and Hawaii, was the logical choice for the projected triumph. The Walter Mirisch Company and Universal Pictures have chosen MIDWAY as their major war film of 1976. Neither Japan nor Mirisch, as it turned out, was able to achieve its strategic goals.

Thirty-four years ago, the Japanese blundered badly at Midway. They failed to close the door to their enemies in last Asia and the Pacific, much less reach San Francisco and fan out toward the Rockies. as nervous U.S. press pundits believed possible at the time. Instead, Japan suffered a humiliating defeat of its own carrier force in a war subsequently decided by carriers and island-hopping commandos. After Midway, Japan’s militarists were compelled to watch as the United States Navy cut the arteries of their Pacific empire, made tactically brilliant moves toward their home islands, and built up the overwhelming air and naval superiority that, in the opinion of many military experts, made the final atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki not only tragic but strategically superfluous.

For the contemporary U.S. filmmaker, Midway could have conjured up many exciting things. Here, after all, was an important victory in a Pacific war won solidly by Americans against an old-fashioned pre-Korea, pre-Vietnam enemy—a foe that most would agree was unambiguously the greater evil. Here also was a fearsome tale of racial aliens, perhaps about to engulf North America, exorcised in a gaudy naval battle, a situation far more compelling and genuinely theatening than LBJ’s fabricated gunboats in the Gulf of Tonkin. On paper, this should have been a cracking good war movie to coincide with the Bicentennial celebrations, the saber-rattling oratory of Reagan and Ford, and the well-orchestrated rise to power of the peanut-farming Annapolis man, Jimmy Carter. Yet, by any standard except maybe box office, MIDWAY is about as successful as Reagan’s presidential screen test on the Panama canal.

Although it was probably foolish to expect something on the level of such World War II classics as GUADALCANAL DIARY or OBJECTIVE BURMA (the blacklists, among other things, wreaked havoc with the writers of the better war films), MIDWAY probably could have been much better if the Hollywood moguls believed that war films were as commercially attractive as disaster films, or that plot and character were as important as gadgets and stars. As it is, MIDWAY is a boring hulk of a film, filled with the technological junk of contemporary mass consumer society, even with Japanese officers whose studied monotone reminds one of Nixon White House aides. It is a comment upon a system and a business where technique has replaced substance and even technique is in serious decline.

Sensurround is MIDWAY’s big gimmick, its noisy substitute for a coherent and serious motion picture. Sensurround does work well at the film’s beginning and high point, with the genuinely exciting portrayal of the Doolittle raid on Tokyo, but it falls flat when used in the extensive Midway battle scenes. The footage of exploding planes and burning ships becomes not only repetitive but undifferentiated for commercial purposes—the same shots are apparently used often for both Japanese and U.S. naval interiors.

Along with the actual Midway battle story, which the film presents quite adequately (although how the Japanese got there and the political implications of the war are left untouched), Miriscn presents a silly Father-Son-Japanese girlfriend love story, whicn can only be understood as a reminder of the Nisei concentration camps. When naval officer Charleton Heston discovers that his pilot son loves a Nisei classmate interned in Hawaii, he exclaims, “Boy, you have a lousy sense of timing.” (His dialogue is indicative of the movie as a whole.) For dramatic purposes, father and son sans Japanese girlfirend wind up squabbling on the U.S.S. Yorktown at Midway. After the son is badly burned in battle, Heston takes to the air in the old-fashioned Saturday matinee tradition to sink the Japanese carrier that had hideously wounded his offspring.

References to a possible Japanese attack on the United States in the event of defeat are dispersed throughout the film but never in a way to build dramatic tension. Indeed, except for some white-scarved, sinister looking Japanese pilots reminiscent of the old Hollywood films, the movie is even half-hearted in its chauvinism, perhaps worried not to offend Japanese audiences in today’s market. Thus, MIDWAY wastes the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune in a stiff, solemn portrayal of Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese naval commender who in reality was a colorful and complex character. On both sides of the battle, characterizations in the film are about on the level of EARTHQUAKE, another recent Heston epic. The U.S. military personnel especially are portrayed as grinning enthusiasts who go to their deaths in planes and ships like cheering spectators at a football game.

Also, the U.S. cast is studded with superfluous stars, who for box office reasons are often projected in irrelevant little cameos. Robert Mitchum scratching away as Admiral Bull Halsey, hospitalized with a skin disease and thus unable to make the battle, is the most outrageous example. In all these respects, the stars, the sensurround gadgeteering, the impersonal and roulette-wheel quality of much of the fighting and the killing, the film projects a good deal about contemporary bourgeois attitudes about the organization of society in peace and war Henry Fonda as Admiral Nimitz asks at the end of the film:

“Were we better than the Japanese or just luckier?“

The message is no more antiwar than a similar comment by a football coach would be anti-football. The film perhaps tells us a great deal more about postwar Hollywood cinema and U.S. society under monopoly rule than about WWII in the Pacific. In its ineptitude and its mirroring of the state of contemporary bourgeois society, MIDWAY reveals the general deterioration of two major U.S. film genres, the war film and the historical pageant film. It also displays for commercial purposes the empty shell of the populist nationalism that gave so many of the old war films their energy and flavor. The juice, however, is gone—as it is, of course, from capitalist culture as a whole.


As a postscript, I noticed only halfhearted cheering in the audience, composed mainly of children and Asians, when Heston and his friends sank the Japanese carriers at Midway (this was at a Saturday afternoon performance at a mid-Manhattan first-run theater). Curiously enough, some of this cheering came from the Asians, one of whom told me afterwards that he was Korean and didn't like the Japanese. Later, when Heston died an inevitable hero’s death, crashlanding into the U.S.S. V’sterprise, a female voice in the audience was heard to mutter, “serves him right for being so macho.” That was a better line than any in the film and an example of Hollywood’s failure in the film to appeal effectively to either old or new values. Heston and Hollywood had done much better with the Red Sea, which, given the present state of bourgeois politics in the United States, may be the next stop for Hollywood and sensurround.