Monday, July 20, 2009
From One End Of The Pacific To The Other
In an effort to see each of the films which originally played theaters in the glory of Sensurround (From Universal, Patent Pending) I finally took a look at the World War II battle epic MIDWAY which was released in June 1976, presumably just in time for the Bicentennial. The Netflix plot description takes note of the film apparently featuring “nearly every actor who wasn’t in A BRIDGE TOO FAR” which is a cute way to look at it, but maybe not quite accurate. A BRIDGE TOO FAR was made in Europe, financed by an independent producer and the bulk of the name actors used (the Americans anyway) were pretty much of the younger generation, part of the New Hollywood. The bulk of the big names in MIDWAY are of the old guard, still active at the time but during the last years that any of them would be considered headliners. Even the few younger names who turn up feel in that realm, as if they were cast because they were already under contract with the studio.
Because the people involved presumably cared more about the real-life story they were telling, it feels considerably more thoughtful than the disaster films that the studio released around this time but most of MIDWAY has a patched together feel, revealing it to be an epic that isn’t one at all. Not that this comparison is at all fair or valid but as much of a slog as A BRIDGE TOO FAR was, I felt the scope and effort behind making it in every single scene. MIDWAY just feels straight from the Universal City assembly line through and through. It’s not really an embarrassment and I can imagine a World War II buff being much more interested in it than I was (to paraphrase George Costanza: I’d love to be a World War II buff. What do you have to do to be a buff?) but it never becomes the great battle movie it looks like the posters promised and this only increases as it goes on.
Using a combination of actual war footage as well as battles shot for previous films, MIDWAY tells the true story of the Battle of Midway, a key event in World War II which in 1942 marked a turning point in the Pacific Theater only six months after Pearl Harbor. Though the film features a variety of Hollywood stars on the level of Fonda, Mitchum, Holbrook, Ford, Coburn and others playing real-life figures, the nominal story the film is centered around fictional character Captain Matthew Garth (Charlton Heston) who, as plans for the battle proceed has to deal with his own personal drama in the form of his son Tom (Edward Albert) a pilot who has just been arrived at Pearl Harbor for his assignment. But he has a surprise in that he has recently fallen in love with a Japanese girl who has been arrested with her parents and is looking for his father to help him. Meanwhile, plans for the battle continue as both sides try to predict what the other will do, leading to non-stop aerial action. Just not necessarily non-stop aerial action shot for this film.
I’ll give MIDWAY this much: the film gave me a real sense of not only the scale of these operations but of the near-impossible nature of trying to plan for these battles without fully knowing what lies ahead, turning everything into one massive chess game. At this early stage of the war there truly are fears of how far the Japanese can go and there’s no telling how disastrous any decision could ever turn out, with someone even expressing “deep concern for the safety of the west coast and the Hawaiian Islands”. Directed by Jack Smight (HARPER, AIRPORT 1975), there’s a no-nonsense approach taken to the exposition while somehow making all of these big names in the leads personable, which can’t quite be said for every one of these multi-star war epics. And the balanced approach the film takes means that the Japanese are never just “the bad guys” instead treating them as carefully considering every decision they make for what they feel are the correct reasons in battle, even the ones that turn out disastrously. Treating both sides with a degree of respect—of course, with an obvious emphasis on the American side--the film holds back from simple flag-waving to admit that sometimes the reasons for victory, whether skill or just dumb luck, is just the way things sometime go. The right decisions were made due to men with the brains and courage to make those decisions but even then they seem to realize that they could just as easily have been wrong.
That’s what’s intriguing about MIDWAY. What is considerably less so is the movie’s full-on approach to use stock footage, some actually shot during the war and some from earlier films, to provide much of the airborne thrills. In the retrospective documentary included on the DVD producer Walter Mirisch makes no bones about this, saying it was the only way to get the film made on a reasonable budget. While a more strict docudrama that avoided any interpersonal drama might have gotten away with this, the film that resulted is one that feels like the bulk of the footage actually shot for it consists of actors in mostly in rooms, meeting areas, bridges on the various ships and exteriors filmed in a way that manage to avoid large crowds. Stuff seems to have been shot in naval yards and on an actual ship (the Yorktown, we’re told) for at least a modicum of verisimilitude but when, say, Heston is watching planes take off or land we’re obviously cutting from the actor to stock footage, something that happens again and again all through the running time. We pretty much never see any of the actors directly interacting with any big action except for when one of them gets into a plane, which is of course rear-screen projection time. This actually results in an interesting approach at times—there’s a kind of newsreel approach to the cutting as I kept thinking about how if a certain piece of footage like a big explosion had actually been shot by the production the final film might have lingered on it more. Some of it does work pretty well, particularly one shot very late in the film that integrates actual war footage with actors in the foreground as a plane crashes into a ship, a very effective moment that may very well have inspired the moment in RETURN OF THE JEDI when a rebel ship crashes into the Super Star Destroyer, instigating its destruction.
But the preponderance of stock shots combined with new footage feels exactly like what it is much of the time and when a piece of footage is used to directly effect the story of one of the main characters near the end it winds up seriously damaging the effectiveness of the moment. The movie isn’t quite a scam—there’s enough going on throughout that I wouldn’t have felt too ripped off if I’d paid to see it, but it still feels more like a feature-length reenactment aimed at war buffs than an actual movie. The subplot of Capt. Garth’s son (the only such digression) doesn’t help much either and when the film seems to jump into this story just a few scenes in I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d stumbled onto one of those mammoth World War II miniseries from the 80s that I’ve never seen. There’s probably a valid story in the basic idea, and one that surprisingly makes the film slightly critical of what America was doing at the time, but this isn’t the film for it and the soapy plotline seems to have little effect in the end. The film is also hurt by how every Japanese character is only heard to speak English, which seriously damages any feeling of realism that the film is going for. Is it somehow less distracting when Nazis speak English in these movies? I’m not quite sure of the answer to that, but it certainly kept me from engaging with the film much of the time.
The big stars all do strong work, as we’d expect them to, with some appearing for just a handful of scenes. It’s hard for me to completely dislike any war film that features a scene where Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Hal Holbrook and Robert Wagner are crammed into a jeep together. Fonda makes us believe every once of his determination, Ford’s directness sells every moment he’s onscreen and Coburn gets one strong, well-written scene where he reasonably lets Fonda know Washington’s hesitation about his plan of action. Robert Mitchum, in particular gets a few funny moments playing his role mostly in bed, laid up with a skin disease that leads him to pick his replacement, one of those interesting indications of how the overall battle could have gone differently. In addition to the names there are a huge amount of familiar faces that turn up throughout on both sides including Robert Webber, Dabney Coleman, Erik Estrada, Pat Morita, Tom Selleck, Clyde Kusatsu and PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE’s Gregory Walcott. The great Toshiro Mifune plays Admiral Yamamoto. He seems to have been cast mostly to bring some prestige to the project but even with his limited screen time and presumably being dubbed by Paul Frees (just like he was on Frankenheimer’s GRAND PRIX) he still projects a massive amount of gravity just from his presence. I should add that Toshiro Mifune played his entire role in Japanese a few years later in Spielberg’s 1941—that was a comedy and it was willing to use subtitles!--and it adds hugely to that performance compared to here. As for an actor clearly speaking with his own voice, I spent practically half the film wondering who played Vice Admiral Nagumo until realizing that I recognized him because the actor, James Shigeta, also played Takagi in DIE HARD—those deep tones certainly stand out.
By a certain point in the final hour we’re just kind of watching these stock shots over and over again. They’re certainly impressive on their own but in this context it just comes off as part of a cut-rate effort from Universal (and this film never feels like it could have come from any other studio) trying to pretend it’s a much more expensive movie than it is. However gripping things ever gets almost feels like it’s in spite of this approach rather than helped by it in any way. As exciting as watching aerial battles might be, in a WWII film like this we also wind up spending a lot of time watching some really good actors standing around dressed up in military uniforms debating strategy. Which, after all, is never going to be as exciting as watching John Wayne and his grunts try to take a hill or whatever might happen in some other war film. I’m sure that MIDWAY was pretty great to experience in Sensurround, not that it does me much good now, and watching it this way is really only sporadically engaging. It’s probably appreciated by anyone who just loves watching all that old aerial footage and has already read books on every single one of the military commanders represented here. If so, then help yourself. It’s allowed.