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Midway (1976)

by Glenn Erickson Nov 09, 2021

Walter Mirisch’s slam-bang, eardrum-pounding Sensurround stock footage orgy for the Centennial Year gathers an impressive lineup of big stars to celebrate the U.S. Navy’s biggest aircraft carrier battle: Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Toshiro Mifune. Director Jack Smight manages the talky, exposition-laden account of a sprawling, complicated battle rather well, at least in terms of clarity. What is unwatchable pan-scanned on TV isn’t half bad for fans of big-scale war movies. PI gives us an approximation of Sensurround (I think), and also John Ford’s short subject The Battle of Midway from 1942.

Region B Blu-ray
Powerhouse Indicator
1976 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 132 min. / Street Date October 25, 2021 / available from Powerhouse Films UK / £15.99
Starring: Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda.
Guest Stars (in alphabetical order): James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Toshiro Mifune, Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson, Robert Wagner. Also starring: Edward Albert, Robert Webber, Ed Nelson, James Shigeta, Christina Kokubo.
With: Monte Markham, Biff McGuire, Christopher George, Kevin Dobson, Glenn Corbett, Gregory Walcott, Pat Morita, Dabney Coleman, Erik Estrada, Ken Pennell, Phillip R. Allen, Clyde Kusatsu, Robert Ito, Tom Selleck, Sab Shimono, Steve Kanaly, Kip Niven, John Lupton, Clint Ritchie, Mitchell Ryan, John Schuck, Larry Csonka.
Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr.
Art Director: Walter Tyler
Film Editors: Robert Swink, Frank Urioste
Original Music: John Williams
Written by Donald S. Sanford
Produced by Walter Mirisch
Directed by
Jack Smight

Another movie titled Midway was released in 2019; one look at the horrendous CGI mess in the trailer told me to stay away from what looked like an abomination worse than Pearl Harbor (2001). So if it’s really the best movie ever made, somebody tell me.

45 years ago I also avoided Midway after seeing a trailer (in Sensurround!) that convinced me it would just be a jumble of repurposed WW2 stock shots and a parade of movie stars in need of a paycheck. I saw a few minutes on TV but wasn’t tempted to watch more. This deluxe Powerhouse Indicator Blu-ray tempted me to give it a chance, and although it’s certainly not great art . . . I enjoyed it. This review will try to explain why, while admiring the film’s attempt at a fair docudrama approach, and its really rather ingenious editing.

Don’t worry, we still have integrity here. Midway is on the mediocre side, but it doesn’t claim to do anything more than depict and explain an important historical battle. Critics had slammed the very good 1970 epic Tora! Tora! Tora!, but producer Walter Mirisch saw big opportunities in the third huge naval battle of WW2, that took place six months later about 1400 miles West of Hawaii. It’s big, complicated and spectacular, and was covered by many naval cameramen, some of them under John Ford. Keeping straight exactly what happened is difficult, with two aircraft carrier forces desperate for good information about the other. Chance timing was everything: the Japanese carriers didn’t know whether to arm their planes with torpedoes to attack unconfirmed U.S. ships, or to arm them with bombs to attack Midway Island. The eventual U.S. victory was partly blind luck. It was also terribly costly, what with the loss of the carrier Yorktown and entire waves of attack planes. *


Back at Allied Artists in the 1950s producer Mirisch had made the economical, successful Navy story Flat Top, with Navy cooperation and a huge volume of Navy battle footage. He took a practical approach to Midway, leaning heavily on that past experience. For the screenplay he hired Donald E. Sanford, a TV scribe who had written a trio of war films a few years back, including Mosquito Squadron. Scores of able-bodied star-caliber actors were looking for work in the middle 1970s, a perfect talent pool from which to assemble the large cast. Charlton Heston leads off as Captain Garth, a staff officer who talks to the big brass but also knows the lower rank aviators leading the naval squadrons; as he’s a pilot as well, Heston’s Captain also takes to the air at the finale.

Some big-name stars appear only in isolated single scenes to present specific exposition. Robert Mitchum is Admiral William Halsey, who is sidelined by a skin infection and sits out the battle in a Pearl Harbor hospital; Admiral Spruance (Glenn Ford) takes his place. James Coburn is a Captain bringing confidential ‘advice’ from the Navy department; he and his too-long haircut figure in just one scene. I only noted Cliff Robertson in one scene in a Honolulu bar.


With such a hairy battle to explain, the movie gives us two solid hours of officers on both sides debating strategy while conducting the battle from ships that can’t get decent information: it looks as if the Japanese lose because the radio on one of their scout planes goes dead just when they sight a U.S. carrier. Director Jack Smight’s good blocking keeps scenes of men staring at plotting boards from becoming dull, and his big stars perform like team players, straight and on the level. Leading off is Henry Fonda as Admiral Chester Nimitz; he’s the guy who, when an armada must be committed to battle, has to make incredibly risky decisions with only a few clues and his own gut instinct to guide him. Fonda is basically replaying the same part he had ten years before in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way and his solid performance gives the movie real weight. Like almost all the stars around him, Fonda is years older than the real man he’s portraying. Also from In Harm’s Way comes Burgess Meredith’s colorful ‘Naval Intelligence’ character, nicely played this time by Hal Holbrook — his folksy accent gives us a lift.

The emphasis remains on straight docudrama, the bigger story of a humongous, unmanageable naval encounter between dozens of warships and hundreds of airplanes. Director Jack Smight keeps the cast in motion and gives each star little bits of business. On the periphery of the big discussions are reliable players like Robert Wagner and Robert Webber. Charlton Heston’s Captain is something of a fly on the wall — he talks to everybody and is ‘pals’ with the Admirals, yet he also delivers telegrams and runs for coffee. Smight and cameraman Harry Stradling block these scenes not for art but for clarity. There’s none of the god-awful exposition blocking of modern TV shows like N.C.I.S., where security agents gather around a magical computer monitor and exchange fact-dumps as if they were reading from a laundry list.


In truth, the Japanese side of the show is a bit like this. Tora! Tora! Tora!’s Japanese scenes were directed in subtitled Japanese by Japanese co-directors; Yamato’s top staff tended to confer like monks in a retreat. In Midway Toshiro Mifune’s Yamato is surrounded by eager officers that chirp away on exposition disguised as declarative opinions, until Mifune grunts and makes a decision (or says something faux-profound). As usual, Japan’s most famous international actor is dubbed by Paul Frees, which to our ears makes it seem that Admiral Yamamoto is already part of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. Like James Coburn, Mifune is present just to show his face. In most shots he stands stock still and pretends that he follows the English dialogue spoken by his subordinates.


Our sympathy goes out to Vice Admiral Nagumo, played by The Yakuza’s James Shigeta. Poor Nagumo just keeps rolling snake eyes through the whole engagement — just when his planes are armed with torpoedoes, they have to be re-armed with bombs. His search planes never give him the info he needs. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here about command: when faced with a situation with too many unknowns to make the ‘perfect’ decision, a commander needs to choose one path and follow through. Nimitz took seriously some good intelligence advice and committed everything he had to one course, a gamble that paid off. Nagumo hemmed and hawed, ensuring that the bad luck pendulum would swing his way every chance it got.

Midway’s dramatics are of the show & tell variety — just an effort to tell a complicated story as clearly as possible, without resorting to outright fiction. The biggest concession to ‘current events’ is the inclusion of a Japanese internment subplot, a glaring soap-opera sidebar involving Captain Charlton Heston’s son, Flight Lieutenant Tom Garth. He’s played by Edward Albert, who gets a lot of screen time but poor billing. Edward Albert is in love with a Japanese woman whose Honolulu family has been placed under arrest; Tom begs his father to get her freed. Thus Charlton Heston is shown asking for favors, and also interviews the woman, played by beautiful Christina Kokubo (also from The Yakuza) The Albert-Kokubo romance is present for obvious PC reasons; she comes off as an anti-Manzanar activist of the ’70s. As the lovers have no scenes together it all ends as just ‘one of those tragic things.’ We’re reminded of older movies that ‘bravely’ introduced interracial romances and then resolved them by killing off one of the lovers: Red Buttons & Miyoshi Umeki in Sayonara, John Kerr & France Nuyen in South Pacific.


What can I say about Midway’s dramatics except that it’s efficient?  I was able to keep the main players straight, and the technical talk was clear enough to follow the main thrust of the battle. That’s no mean accomplishment in a war movie: after enduring three hours of demoralizing defeat in A Bridge Too Far we never really learn why the push into Holland fails, why the men and materiel already committed don’t merit a redoubled effort. That fight must have been much more hopeless than what we’re shown.

My Stock Shot Navy is going to MOIRDERIZE Your Stock Shot Navy.

That brings us to the mechanics of the movie, which from an editorial point of view is something of a shock, a real cut-price epic. Almost no NEW action footage was filmed for the movie. Only two (stellar) editors receive credit but a small army of assistants and archivists must have toiled away in the cutting rooms. Midway is filmed in widescreen Panavision, which means that all the WW2 footage, 16mm and 35mm, has been optically cropped to 1:2.35. Footage from more than one battle theater is sourced to provide enough shots for extended combat; we recognize all the spectacular footage used in Flat Top and Victory at Sea. Sometimes it’s repurposed oddly, as when shots of Kamikaze strikes not showing targeted ships are used in a different context. But the actual god-awful hit on the Yorktown ‘plays itself.’  Building those extensive battle scenes must have been a pain in the tail, with cans and cans of stock shots having to be organized on Moviolas and Kem tables, as opposed to a non-linear computer program. The cutaways to cockpit shots with young flyers — Glenn Corbett, Erik Estrada, Monte Markham, Larry Pennell — are even more obvious as those in old Republic Pictures. But at least the banter is less insulting, with no cries of ‘Take that Tojo!’


Even more cannibalistic is the wholesale cribbing of stock footage from older feature films, some of which is jaw-droppingly obvious to any fan of war movies. The entire title sequence is a sepia-toned, Panavision-ized lift from 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. I recognized handsome live-action warships from The Wings of Eagles and bits of model work and destruction from Away All Boats. Great volumes of footage are repeated from Tora! Tora! Tora! — look close and you’ll see the Arizona’s unmistakable masts in the middle of shots supposedly on Midway Island.

Several shots of ships and planes are the work of the legendary effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya, from the 1960 color Toho epic Storm Over the Pacific aka I Bombed Pearl Harbor. They’re easy to spot because some of the sky backgrounds are painted on an obvious cement block wall. A few distant shots of aerial combat are sourced from Battle of Britain, with the producers not caring that the planes fighting are Spitfires and Messerschmitts.

I didn’t sit through Midway on TV because of the commercials, but also because the pan-scan transfer made me feel I was missing more than I was seeing. In full wide-screen Panavision the movie plays halfway decently. The Navy okayed filming in shipyards and on real ships. It’s really Henry Fonda and Charlton Heston out there at sea, keeping things from getting too claustrophobic.


The filmmakers keep the scorecard straight but ultimately cannot convey the awesome enormity of a battle spread out over hundreds of miles of ocean, with entire ships exploding and sinking and brave men losing their lives one at a time. A major character is a 9th- inning casualty, and the other stars that witness his death more or less have to ignore it, like a penalty issued in a football game. But the show is respectful to the memory of the battle, a decent entertainment. A stellar parade of acting talent gives it their best.

And we fully understand why Midway did far better at the box office than did Tora! Tora! Tora! . . . we win.


* Unauthorized personal sidebar: I learned to edit TV commercials from a Mattel Toys producer-director named Pat Shields, who was also noted for TV shows and instructional films — he directed the famed public service film Safety Belt for Susie, and also the difficult TV series Lancelot Link – Secret Chimp. Pat’s story helped explain his eccentric nature: in WW2, while practically still a teenager, he was an air gunner in the Battle of Midway (gulp). Pat was in the first wave of torpedo planes, almost all of which were caught like sitting ducks and shot down. His plane was one of the first hit, and he spent three days bobbing in a life raft before being rescued, convinced he was going to die. Mr. Shields was a nervous but very creative man, extremely patient at times but with a strong temper… and not a lot of love for the Japanese.



Powerhouse Indicator’s Region B Blu-ray of Midway is a flawless widescreen encoding; Blu-ray lets us critique all the details, admiring how those editors made such different stock footage cut together well. The Panavision image is at all times attractive, which wasn’t the case for the pan-scanned TV version.

Also, John Williams’ music score is quite good — not melodic and certainly not overly jingoistic, it helps bind together the fractured storyline.

PI’s comprehensive extras include an illustrated booklet with essays and review excerpts. Presented in Standard Def is the film’s TV version, shown in two parts and pan-scanned, just as it was on network television. It’s a full hour longer, most of which is devoted to character sub-plots. It is easier to spot some of the actors seen just briefly in the theatrical cut.

One weird thing is to see what happens to some of the actual WW2 battle footage. Take one of the aerial gunnery camera shots: originallly filmed in 16mm Kodachrome, they were taken to Technicolor Hollywood where 35mm enlargement separations were made, for color features like The Fighting Lady. At some point an Eastmancolor composite color negative was made for further feature use. For Midway’s theatrical cut, all these shots had to be cropped from 1:33 to 2:35 Panavision, by taking a horizontal slice out of the center of the frame. The image is bigger and grainer. NOW, for the TV version, a 1:33 square is cut out of that Panavision frame, blowing the shot up much more … it’s now heavily cropped on all four sides, like looking through a keyhole!   Those TV version shots have a different, almost impressionist look.


Authors Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin handle the commentary track, explaining the real-war context of Midway, and also reminding us that it was a big hit. We’re also treated to a featurette from 1976 and a making-of piece from 2001. Especially interesting is a piece on Sensurround, which I know from its debut on Earthquake from two years before. PI’s specs list an alternate ‘sensurround’ track on the disc, but on my equipment both tracks seemed to play equally LOUD. I’ll be looking for a review by someone with the audio equipment who can determine that the booms are enhanced (sorry). When I heard Sensurround for the trailer for this show, I thought it was going to deafen me. Sound effects-wise, this must have been a daunting movie project.

An excellent extra is the original Oscar-winning 18-minute short subject The Battle of Midway from 1942. Even if we missed the name ‘Lt. Cmdr. John Ford’ in the credits we’d know the film was his. The battle footage is gripping — Ford witnessed the battle personally. Watching this powerful show, we remember that when it was released in September of ’42 the outcome of the war was in no way decided. The War Office needed honest but positive propaganda, which explains the overplayed sentimental voiceovers. The very recognizable Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda worry over the wounded men in the Navy footage. A lot of Americans were unprepared for the mass casualties of the war, and any public coverage of bodies on beaches — or entire aircraft carrier flight decks exploding in flames — had to be carefully presented. Ford’s commitment to the fight is total … it’s as if Ma Joad and Tom Joad are witnessing the battle too.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Region B Blu-ray rates:
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent Original mono and 2.1 Sensurround
Supplements (from PI): The film’s two-part TV version (101 mins and 92 mins): the extended TV cut reframed to 4:3 (SD); new audio commentary with Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin (2021); The Making of Midway (2001, 39 mins): documentary looking at the film’s production; Sensurround: The Sounds of Midway (2001, 5 mins): a look at the film’s use of the Sensurround audio system; The Battle of Midway (1942, 18 mins): award-winning documentary directed by John Ford relaying the battle with footage shot by Navy cameramen; They Were There! (1976, 7 mins): Charlton Heston presents this archival documentary featuring interviews with three combatants who survived the battle; The Guardian Interview with Robert Wagner (1983, 71 mins): archival audio recording of the film and TV star in conversation with Joan Bakewell at the National Film Theatre, London; trailer, radio and TV spots, Image Gallery, Super-8 cut-down version; 36-page booklet with an essay by Lee Pfeiffer and Dave Worrall, archival articles and an overview of critical responses.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
November 6, 2021

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.