[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
To make an uninvolving movie out of one of the most decisive battles of the Second World War may seem a dubious challenge, but there’s no denying Universal their full credit in meeting it. Midway has very little to recommend it. Persons who never subjected themselves to Sensurround with Earthquake have their opportunity here (the closest I got was seeing—but scarcely experiencing—the sample sequence run for the benefit of the TV audience at last year’s Oscars, to the exclusion of film clips from the careers of Academy honorees Jean Renoir and Howard Hawks); the opening, tinted monochrome actuality footage of aircraft-carrier takeoffs and a long, riveting approach to a headland is vivid enough in its own right, and the roar and shudder of engines undeniably enhances it. But after that, Sensurround has pretty well shot its wad.
Some of Harry Stradling Jr.’s present-day cinematography has been grossed up in order not to clash conspicuously with the 1942-vintage color of subsequent actuality shots, but the conference rooms and planning sessions are strictly TV-banal. Jack Smight directs them that way, too: wearisome reaction shots drum in what few tactical and strategic points the script attempts to make about the way the battle was anticipated, waged, and won—or lost, since the Japanese point of view comes in for a generous portion of screen time; and Smight’s formulaic attempts to punch up an offensively trivial subplot about father Charlton Heston’s involvement in the romance between son Edward Albert and Nisei girlfriend Christine Kobuko drew deserved chortles from an audience impatient to bring on the heavy stuff: It would be an understatement of Mindanao Trench proportions to say that Smight manifests no talent for action and spectacle; air battles in particular are smears of incoherency that have nothing expressively to do with the epistemological issue of keeping one’s bearings in combat. Midway picks up on the Longest Day technique of superimposing place and character names over appropriate shots, but the effect is to convey a desperate “Now hear this! Now hear this!” from the filmmakers rather than the building intensity of a complex military action. The new film does not follow its predecessor in permitting the enemy to speak their own tongue; and while this enables an Occidental audience to pick up on humane inflections in the speech of an adversary who might otherwise seem too foreign (thanks to war-film cliché conditioning as much as anything else), it creates problems—like Toshiro Mifune as Admiral Yamamoto dubbed by (if my ear does not misgive me) sci-fi narrator and Hanna-Barbera cartoon voice Paul Frees. That’s as good a symbol as any for the colossal, and by no means necessary, irrelevance of Midway.
Direction: Jack Smight. Screenplay: Donald S. Sanford. Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr. Art direction: Walter Tyler. Editing: Robert Swink, Frank S. Urioste. Music: John Williams.
The players: Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Hal Holbrook, James Shigeta, Robert Webber, Edward Albert, Christine Kobuko, Toshiro Mifune, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum, Robert Wagner, Dabney Coleman, Cliff Robertson, Ed Nelson, James Coburn.
© 1976 Richard T. Jameson