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Film / The Battle of Midway

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Lower left: bomb falling from a Japanese plane

"Midway Island. Not much land right enough, but it's our outpost. Your front yard."
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The Battle of Midway is a 1942 short film (18 minutes) directed and partially shot by an uncredited John Ford.

Despite being 47 years old at the time of Pearl Harbor, Ford was inducted into the US Navy and given the rank of commander. He was made head of the photographic unit for the Office of Strategic Services. In the middle of 1942 Ford was sent out to Midway atoll, consisting of two small islands in the central Pacific that were in use as a Navy base, one of the United States's most forward bases in the Pacific theater after the capture of Wake Island by the Japanese.

Ford arrived at Midway under the impression that he was supposed to film a Day in the Life of sailors at a lonely Pacific outpost. At the beginning of June he was told something different: that the Japanese were advancing towards Midway, and an attack was imminent. On June 4, 1942, Ford and an assistant cameraman went to the roof of the power station at Midway and took live footage of the Japanese bombing raid on the island. The dramatic shots include a Japanese Zero spiraling into the ocean and a giant plume of smoke billowing up from the Midway airplane hanger after it was completely destroyed by a Japanese bomb. Another cameraman took footage of planes from an American aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet, taking off to attack the Japanese.note 

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Ford suffered a superficial shrapnel wound on his arm which got him a Purple Heart. The short won one of the first Oscars for "Best Documentary", the distinction between documentary features and documentary shorts not being made until later. note 

Alfred Newman composed the music.


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Tropes:

  • Audience Surrogate: In addition to the main narration traffic, some of John Ford's regular actors, including Henry Fonda, can be heard in character as average Americans chatting about the planes and the pilots.
  • Born In The Theater: In the most famous shot in the movie, the picture goes out of frame. The force of a Japanese bomb knocked the film in Ford's camera out of its sprockets. Ford left the shot in the movie.
  • Call-Back: Before the combat starts Ford includes some shots of the "gooney birds", the awkward waddling little seagulls that are the main wildlife on Midway atoll. Later, we see a gooney bird waddling around the wreckage.
  • Due to the Dead: Ends with a funeral at sea for servicemen killed in the Japanese attack.
  • Fighter-Launching Sequence: Planes taking off from Midway atoll (the airstrip on Midway was what made it important), and from the USS Hornet.
  • Narrator: Along with a conventional narrator track, Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, and Donald Crisp give voiceovers in character. They identify one American pilot, and follow that up by narrating footage of his mom and dad and little sister back home.
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: The color guard at Midway goes out at 0800 on June 4 to raise the flag, as they do every day. With Japanese bombs raining down all around them. As the flag goes up the pole the narrator says "Yes. This really happened."
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene: A scene after the battle shows the bombed and burnt-out hospital on the atoll, with a Red Cross marker on the collapsed roof, a sign "that the enemy was bound to respect." Since this is a propaganda film, no one points out that even if the Japanese were trying to avoid bombing the hospital, bombing that precise was impossible when attacking a target as small as Midway atoll.
  • Stock Sound Effects: Ford had no sound recording equipment. While the footage of bombs falling and planes crashing on and around Midway is authentic, all the combat audio was added in later.
  • A Storm Is Coming: As the camera points to a picturesque setting sun while the narration explains that Midway has received intelligence of an impending Japanese attack, rumbling that could be either thunder or falling bombs is heard.
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