I remarked in my last entry that I didn’t feel the need to see Midway (Roland Emmerich, 2019) anymore after having watched Nick Hodges’s (aka History Buffs) videos on the film. But then, after learning there was a 1976 version produced by Walter Mirisch and starring Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Hal Holbrook, Glenn Ford, James Coburn (in one scene), Robert Mitchum (in one scene), Toshiro Mifune, James Shigeta, Pat Morita (yes, as in Mr. Miyagi), and Tom Selleck (yes, as in Magnum PI) among others, I felt I owed it to myself to watch both of the films on Memorial Day 2021.
I wasn’t interested in evaluating them in terms of which I thought was “better,” but I was curious to know which film would resonate with me more or would leave a stronger impression. The 1976 version begins with this onscreen text:
This is the way it was — the story of the battle that was the turning point of the War in the Pacific, told wherever possible with actual film shot during combat. It exemplifies the combination of planning, courage, error and pure chance by which great events are often decided.
It then proceeds to “USS Hornet April 18, 1942” and footage of planes dropping bombs on a city. As a car speeds into the frame, onscreen text indicates that we’re in “Hiroshima, April 18, 1942.” The film introduces Admiral Yamamoto (Toshiro Mifune) as the first major character. Rear Admiral Ryunosuke Kusaka (Pat Morita) has arrived to inform Yamamoto that “Tokyo has been bombed…Yokohama, Kawasaki, and Yosuka were also bombed.” Along with the audience, Yamamoto learns that the US “launched long-range land-based bombs from their carriers…B-25’s. They came at treetop level and weren’t seen until they were over the city.”
Next, there’s a voice-over with Pearl Harbor as the backdrop, “Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle led the raid with a force of sixteen B-25’s…and an all-volunteer crew of airmen. Most of the planes carried three 500-pound demolition bombs…and single incendiary clusters, which were dropped on oil stores, factory areas, and some of the military installations of Tokyo. A few planes went on to make minor strikes on Kobe and Yokohama, one bomb hitting the Japanese aircraft carrier, Niyuko.
The film ends with this onscreen text:
The annals of war at sea present no more intense, heart-shaking shock than this battle, in which the qualities of the United States Navy and Air Force and the American race shone forth in splendour. The bravery and self-devotion of the American airmen and sailors and the nerve and skill of their leaders was the foundation of all. — Winston Churchill
The filmmakers’ thank you note: We desire to express grateful appreciation to the Department of Defense and the United States Navy for the cooperation which was extended on the production of this picture. We especially salute the officers and men of the U.S.S. Lexington on whose ship many of the sequences were filmed.
Technical Advisor: Vice Admiral Bernard M. Strean, US Navy (retired)
Hal Holbrook was a scene-stealer as Commander Joseph Rochefort.
The 2019 version begins with this onscreen text: This is a true account of the events that led to the most important naval battle in American history. One single day that turned the tide of the War in the Pacific.
The opening sequence establishes the “reason” for why the Japanese military felt it necessary to attack Pearl Harbor. As Admiral Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) explains to then assistant naval attaché Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) on December 4, 1937 in Tokyo, Japan’s invasion of China gave them a strong appetite to become a world power. The majority of their oil came from the United States and if that supply were to be threatened, there would be consequences.
The next set of onscreen text: Four years later, the world is at war. Japan has invaded China and Hitler’s blitzkrieg has overrun Europe. The United States has remained officially neutral.
And then Pearl Harbor happens.
The 2019 Midway ends with this onscreen text: This film is dedicated to the American and Japanese sailors who fought at Midway. The sea remembers its own.
Harlan Glenn — Military Wardrobe Master, Senior Military Technical Adviser, key military costumer
Ed Fox — consultant, military, Battle of Midway veteran (as Sgt. Ed Fox)
John F. Miniclier — consultant, military, Battle of Midway veteran (as Col. John F. Miniclier)
Rob Scratch Mitchell — aerial coordinator/pilot advisor (as Robert ‘Scratch’ Mitchell)
Chuck Myers — technical advisor: aircraft carrier
James Neuman — naval historian
Chika Onyekanne — historian: US Naval (as Lt. Chika Onyekanne U LT NHHC)
Thom Walla — consultant: military, host of The Battle of Midway roundtable
Rather than get into the storyline differences or even similarities (because I think you should watch both films if you have the slightest interest in military history or war films), I’ll share a few of the things I learned from the making-of featurettes for both films.
~ Charlton Heston was at Northwestern studying acting in 1942. Rather than wait to be drafted, he enlisted in the Air Force because he liked planes.
~ Walter Mirisch had seen John Ford‘s documentary, produced by the Navy, The Battle of Midway (which the 2019 version humorously alludes to in a couple of scenes where the director [played by Geoffrey Blake] is shown location-scouting). And later he saw The Fighting Lady, produced by Louis De Rochefort, which inspired the background story of the film.
~ Mirisch gave director Jack Smight (who’d just directed Airport 1975) three books on Midway to read.
~ Mirisch used archival footage for many of the battle scenes and had to blow up 16mm film into 35mm film.
~ All battle footage cost $60,000 to repurpose from the Navy. Per editor Frank J. Urioste, the opening sequence was black and white footage from Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo that they turned sepia; footage from Tora! Tora! Tora! was used for the attack on Midway; some footage from a Japanese film was used for the POV of their planes taking off.
~ Mirisch insisted on including the opening text indicating that there would be a lot of actual battle footage. He’d started out wanting to make a documentary about Midway but realized that he needed starpower to get it made.
~ Mirisch and Charlton Heston had worked on The Hawaiians and were both World War II enthusiasts. Captain Matt Garth (Heston) was a fictional character.
~ On why casting is so important. Mirisch reflects, “It was always my intention, if I could possibly succeed in doing it, to people the picture with an all-star cast because I felt that the star, the personality brings something to a role. It allows for more economical writing because the audience fills it in for you when they see actors of a stripe of a James Coburn or Henry Fonda or Robert Mitchum playing roles.”
~ Toshiro Mifune had all of his costumes made in Japan to ensure historical accuracy. He brought the director a samurai sword on the first day of shooting.
~ The film did really well in Japan.
~ About forty minutes of additional footage was filmed for the TV broadcast, including some scenes of Garth’s domestic life.
~ Filming locations: Pensacola, FL; Universal Studios, Point Mugu naval facilities, Fort MacArthur, and Terminal Island.
~ Technical advisor Vice Admiral Bernard M. Strean had led a squadron in the first attack on the Japanese fleet army during the Battle of the Philippines.
~ Toshiro Mifune’s first Hollywood film and second portrayal of Yamamoto, whom was not a favorite historical figure of his.
~ Robert Mitchum only agreed to play Admiral Halsey because there would only be one day of shooting … in bed.
~ Henry Fonda served under Nimitz in Guam (whom he played in the film). Glenn Ford served under Admiral Spruance (whom he played in the film). Robert Mitchum met Halsey after the war.
~ The writer Wes Tooke has always had a fascination with military history, specifically the Pacific in WWII. Tooke’s grandfather was in the Navy (Capt. Charles M. Tooke). Roland Emmerich had always wanted to make a movie about Midway.
~ B-25’s were not rebuilt, but everything else was.
~ Emmerich notes the importance of casting because the actors are the ones on the screen. Screenplay is the most important, then casting, then directing.
Which film did I enjoy more? Which film would I watch again first? The 1976 version. Et pourquoi? It’s more about battle, especially at sea, as a series of chess moves. It’s a slightly more cerebral movie. I also like the way it started with the bombing of Tokyo. And yet, I like the 2019’s depiction of the discord between the Japanese army and navy (as Nick Hodges mentions in one of his videos). As for general subject matter, Roland Emmerich’s Midway is a much more satisfying experience than Michael Bay‘s Pearl Harbor (2001). I remember getting a bit snotty while watching it in the theatre and thinking it wasn’t very good, but I don’t recall why. It’s turning twenty this year. I’m considering watching it again to see if I still get snotty and if it jogs my memory on why I didn’t like it.
Of course, after watching both Midways back-to-back, I decided to start reading Michel Paradis‘s book Last Mission to Tokyo (which I’ve had for months). I’m not done reading Jake Tapper’s The Outpost yet either. But, I’m in the final leg.