Follow TV Tropes


Film / Midway (1976)

Go To

A war film from 1976 about the World War II Battle of Midway. Directed by Jack Smight and screenwritten by Donald S. Sanford, it is a grand production with such stars as Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda. It has two intertwining threads, one following the Battle itself and the other following the fictional American officer Captain Matt Garth (Heston), whose son is a fighter pilot who is at this inconvenient time engaged with Haruko Sakura, a Nisei ("second generation," an American child of Japanese immigrants) girl.

The campaign is shown from both sides' perspective and shows the Japanese as honorable and brave enemies. History is mostly followed though there are some inaccuracies notably Kamikaze's being used at Midway; while it was not unknown throughout the war for already-downed planes of both sides to attempt crash into an enemy ship in a Taking You with Me gesture, Kamikazes were never official policy even in Japan until toward the end, and they would have been fairly rare. It may be a case of being betrayed by the Stock Footage, as most of the color footage filmed in World War II was late in the War, and scenes from Leyte Gulf and the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa (when Kamikazes were in use) are used for this battle. This has something to do with the fact that there is zero special effects budget for this movie.

The All-Star Cast includes Henry Fonda as Nimitz, Glenn Ford as Spruance, Toshiro Mifune as Adm. Yamamoto, Hal Holbrook as Rochefort, Robert Mitchum as Halsey, and Pat Morita (of The Karate Kid fame) as Kusaka. A pre-stardom Tom Selleck has a bit does Hall of Fame NFL fullback Larry Csonka.

For the 2019 film, see here.

Midway provides examples of:

  • Ace Pilot: Genda for Japan, several for America.
  • Actor Allusion: When Henry Fonda, as Nimitz, is speaking to Robert Mitchum, as Halsey, Halsey mentions that Nimitz once told him, "When you're in command, command." This is very similar to a line Fonda spoke to John Wayne near the end of Fort Apache. According to IMDB, Wayne turned down the role of Halsey, which would make the allusion more obvious.
  • Airstrike Impossible: Infamously, Torpedo 8's attack on the Japanese fleet, with no escort or dive bomber support.note  During the battle, Torpedo 8 was effectively wiped out, with all 15 planes destroyed and only one man out of 30 surviving, ENS George Gay USN. Two other torpedo squadrons fared little better that day, even with fighter support. Torpedoes of the day required the bomber to fly slowly at low altitude in order to properly release the torpedo, all while enemy Anti-Air gunners and fighter escorts did everything they could to blast them out of the air.
  • Artistic License – History: Lots of the operating details as shown don't stand up:
    • The Japanese planes were below decks, though fully fueled and the torpedo planes armed, when the dive bombers caught them, not up on the flight decks as implied in the film. This actually made the damage worse as the planes and ordnance were blowing up inside the carriers, not up on deck where some of the explosive force would have been vented into the air.
    • Tone's scout plane number 4 was late launching, but this was exactly why it found the Yorktown. Had it taken off when planned, it would have missed the American carrier completely (and one of the punctual scout planes in fact did so).
    • The attack on Akagi almost didn't happen. Confusion within the Enterprise's dive bombing squadrons led to both of them doubling up on Kaga. Only quick thinking on Dick Best's part enabled his element of three planes to attack Akagi; Best himself struck the crippling blow while the other two scored damaging near-misses.
    • The Japanese were about half an hour from launching a strike, not five minutes, when they were hit. This was just one of many myths about the battle generated by Fuchida's influential account; suffice to say in-depth research has proven Fuchida to have been "economical" with the truth.
  • Batman Gambit: It is suspected that the code word AF means "Midway". Therefore Midway is instructed to radio in the clear that it is short of fresh water in the hope that the Japanese intercept it and radio it back. The Japanese fall for it and the US Navy had the confirmation they needed to doom its enemy. Which is Truth in Television. To avoid risking the Japanese picking up on this, the orders were sent to Midway via an underwater telegraph line (the island was settled in 1903 to install part of the original trans-Pacific telegraph cable, in fact).
  • Battle Epic: An All-Star Cast delivering a grand epic of Midway, the battle that was the turning point in the Pacific war.
  • The Big Board: The commanders on both sides use these as they plan their moves and counter moves.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Matt dies trying to land his plane after the final run against the last Japanese carrier. On the bright side, his son survived and it's implied he and his Japanese-American girlfriend will remain together. As for the battle itself, America crushes the Japanese fleet essentially dooming their empire as they cannot replace their ships and crews as well as the Americans can.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer:
    • Rochefort, head of US codebreakers
    • He has a whole entourage of fellow Bunny-Ears Lawyer's around him. Which really isn't how either Rochefort or the rest of his Codebreakers were in real life. While Rochefort was known for wearing a smoking jacket and slippers around the codebreaking office, he was neither insomniac nor unhygienic.
  • Captain Obvious: Literally in this case; why yes Captain Garth, 10% is indeed one word in ten.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Shown very well
    • Admiral Nagumo feels the weight most and is nervous and indecisive. On the American side Admiral Fletcher is also like this, to a much lesser extent.
    • As Yamamoto says, "I am the only one who must apologize to His Majesty."
    • Admiral Nimitz has to cope with the possibility that he's fallen for a ruse and leaving Hawaii or the West Coast open to a Japanese attack.
    • Admiral Spruance feels this way at first after Halsey recommends him as his replacement. He swiftly settles into the role.
  • Composite Character: Charlton Heston's character of Captain Matthew Garth is a composite of three different people. His role pre-battle as an intelligence officer and a colleague to Rochefort is that of Lt. Edwin Layton, his presence on-board the Yorktown before and during the battle was that of an unnamed intelligence officer, and his final dive bomb attack was actually carried out by C. Wade McClusky (played in the film by Christopher George). Vinton Maddox (James Coburn) and Ernest L. Blake (Robert Wagner) are likewise a composites of several different U.S. Naval officers.
  • Conflicting Loyalty: Haruko's family is falsely accused of this by The Government. To be fair to them there is some evidence in the father's background; namely he has an honor-debt to an old friend who is a Japanese Nationalist and has back issues of Japanese patriotic periodicals (possibly no more then "ethnic heritage" magazines of the type that can be found in large bookstores today but never explained). At the time The Government would unfortunately think the whole thing looked suspiciously like a Honey Trap.
  • Death from Above: Dive Bombers were used by both sides, most famously the American SBD Dauntless dive bombers which devastated the Japanese carrier force due to showing up at exactly the worst time for the Japanese defenders.
  • Decisive Battle: What the Japanese want it to be: a massive gambit to draw out the U.S. Pacific fleet and demolish it once and for all. Unfortunately for them, it does become the decisive battle when the U.S. fleet demolishes theirs.
  • Determinator: Matt Garth's son flies a crippled fighter back to his carrier after being half burned alive.
  • A Father to His Men: Admirals Nimitz, Nagumo and Yamamoto
  • Foregone Conclusion: Since the film takes place during World War II, we already know that the U.S. will defeat the Japanese in the Battle of Midway.
  • The Hero Dies: Matt Garth at the end, when his plane crashes.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: On both sides. It evens includes a ship: the Yorktown takes a beating from Japanese dive-bombers, but stays afloat despite suffering three direct hits. Later the same day, a second wave of Japanese torpedo planes mistake it for an undamaged carrier and attack it, sparing the Enterprise and Hornet from serious damage.
  • Hopeless War:
    • Adm. Yamaguchi: "A few hours ago, we filled the sky with our planes. Now we win, or lose, with six fighters and ten torpedo planes."
    • Yamamoto points out that the United States has enormous industrial strength and that their only hope for victory is to wipe them out before they can start mass producing on a larger scale.
  • Irony: Admiral Nimitz has an Info Dump speech about how he grew up on the Texas Prairie where a life at sea seemed both literally and figuratively distant. This is a little bit of Artistic License – History though as his family had been seafarers in Germany before immigrating to America two generations before. Likewise the town where he grew up, Fredricksburg, is only about 200 miles from the large Naval Base in Corpus Cristi. Also the Naval Academy makes a concerted effort to accept students from every state, many from much farther away from any sea port than where he grew up.
  • Magical Native American: Lampshaded. George Gay in VT-8 says that their commander, Lt. Cdr. John Waldron, has a better chance of finding enemy ships by virtue of having Sioux ancestors. Waldron really did bring this up frequently. There may have been some truth to this, as he really was half-Sioux (Gordon Prange, in his book "Miracle at Midway", says Waldron claimed to be one-eighth Sioux; and Walter Lord, in his book “Incredible Victory”, refers to a ‘streak’ of Sioux heritage to which Waldron liked to attribute his battle intuition), and he broke formation and led his men straight to the Japanese Fleet (Torpedo 8 was the only Hornet squadron to find the enemy that morning). Unfortunately, Waldron's skill led to him and all but one of his men (the aforementioned Gay) dying in their attack.
  • Mood Whiplash: The Japanese go from being masters of the Pacific Ocean to having three of their four best carriers sinking within half an hour.
  • My Girl Back Home: When the fleet returns to Pearl Harbor civilians including Haruko are shown watching while casualties are wheeled in.
  • Nose Art: One of the American torpedo planes has a Felix the Cat drawing on its nose.
  • Old-School Dogfight: Much of the latter half of the film is a series of old-school dogfights as Japanese and American planes duel over Midway.
  • Radio Silence: This is often a two-edged sword and it hurts Japan badly.
  • Radio Voice: Chatter from the pilots is heard over the radio on ships hundreds of miles away.
  • Scotty Time: For the trap to work, the Americans need the Yorktown in working condition after Coral Sea. Problem: the ship is so damaged the engineers say it would take months to repair. Incredibly, they still get it in working condition within three days, just in time for the battle, and its involvement proved critical. This is exactly what happened in Real Life.
  • Shot-for-Shot Remake: Much of the scenes involving Yamamoto are reshoots of scenes from two earlier war films, Admiral Yamamoto and A Turning Point In Showa History: The Militarists in English language with some actor changes.
  • Staging the Eavesdrop: American Navy Intelligence deduce that the Japanese are planning on targeting two sites, coded A-F and A-O. The air base on Midway Island is instructed to radio in the clear that its fresh water condenser is broken in the hope that the Japanese intercept it and radio this update to Fleet Command. The Japanese fall for it and the US Navy had the confirmation they needed: A-F is Midway Island.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Garth's son Tom and Haruko. (Culturally anyway. Haruko is an American citizen.)
  • Stock Footage:
    • Most of the combat footage you see is real, taken by Navy cameramen, but is actually footage from battles later in the Pacific War. Very little if any is actually from the Battle of Midway itself which took place in 1942. Most scenes depicting attacks on ships (both American and Japanese) are taken from 1944-45 Kamikaze attacks. One plane returning to the Yorktown that crash lands and falls apart is a famous 1944 carrier landing on the Essex. They also reused a lot of footage from Tora! Tora! Tora! (which miffed the that film's director), as well as combat footage from war films by Eiji Tsuburaya such as Storm over the Pacific and Attack Squadron.
    • There's no known footage extant from the carriers of either side (though famously there is from Midway Island itself)note . The Japanese carrier Akagi had a newsreel cameraman named Teiuchi Makishima onboard, but his footage of the attacks on the carrier Kaga and the vessel he was on were lost when he abandoned ship. There's perishingly few photographs of the Japanese ships from the battle at all, taken almost entirely from B-17s. Frustratingly, pictures were taken from an Enterprise dive-bomber during the actual attack, but short on fuel, the plane landed on the first carrier it could find... which wound up being the Yorktown. Shortly thereafter, the Yorktown was sunk and the pictures lost.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Whole aircraft carriers blowing up.
  • Translation Convention:
    • Except for Toshiro Mifune (who's dubbed), most of the actors playing the Japanese are Japanese-American actors like Pat Morita and their dialogue is all in English.
    • All of the Japanese plotting table markers include English translations for the audience's benefit.