War has been a popular subject in documentary and narrative movies since the dawn of the motion picture camera. Harrowing and inspiring tales of personal struggle, heroic valor, and epic battles of nearly every major war have been immortalized in movies, providing us with a glimpse into the sacrifices made by those who fought and died around the world. World War II in particular has long been a popular stage for the cinematic arts, pitting some of the greatest heroes and villains in history against each other with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.
A great war movie needs many things, not least of which is a great battle, and few WWII naval battles were greater than the Battle of Midway. On June 4, 1942, six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the outnumbered United States Navy under Admirals Chester W. Nimitz, Frank Jack Fletcher, and Raymond A. Spruance met Japan’s more experienced Imperial Navy under admirals Isoroku Yamamoto, Chūichi Nagumo, and Nobutake Kondō at the North Pacific atoll known as Midway. What followed was a decisive United States victory and the first major Allied victory against the Japanese in what is often regarded as “the turning point of the Pacific.”
With Lionsgate set to release their action-drama Midway this Friday, November 8, we look back at some of the depictions of the famous naval battle on the silver screen.
THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY (1942)
Title card from The Battle of Midway (1942)
During World War II, five Hollywood directors (Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, William Wyler) risked their lives to document the greatest struggle mankind had ever seen. The thirteen documentaries they made put on full display the outstanding courage and sacrifice of those who served, the horrific conditions of war, the intense struggle of battle, and ultimately, the ecstasy of victory in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. The footage they captured proved to be a powerful message to American audiences back home. The Battle of Midway was John Ford’s first of two short WWII documentaries.
Action aboard a U.S. Navy warship in The Battle of Midway (1942)
Ford and one of his cameramen, U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate First Class Jack MacKenzie Jr., filmed the battle from atop the island’s power station, providing them with a 360-degree view of the attack. A second crew was stationed on the deck of the Hornet, an aircraft carrier off the coast of Midway. Ford, MacKenzie Jr., Kenneth Pier, and Joseph H. August captured four hours of color footage alongside earth-shattering explosions and imminent danger.
Narrated by Academy Award® winners Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell, the striking images of battle are woven together with explanations of the island and shots of soldiers before and after the conflict. The Battle of Midway won the 1943 Academy Award® for Best Documentary, and in 2006, the Academy Film Archive preserved it as part of their War Film Collection.
Excerpt from the Midway (1976) one-sheet
Jack Smight (Harper, The Illustrated Man) directs this 1976 portrayal of the Battle of Midway, chronicling the conflict from the Doolittle Raid in April 1942 to the decisive U.S. Victory on June 7, 1942. Donald S. Sanford’s screenplay tells the story from both sides of the battle, following Japan’s chief strategist Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Toshirô Mifune) and two fictional U.S. Navy aviators, Captain Matt Garth (Charlton Heston) and his son, Lieutenant Tom Garth (Edward Albert). Along with WWII documentary footage and recycled shots from the 1970 Pearl Harbor epic Tora! Tora! Tora!, Midway utilized a new technology known as Sensurround, a process developed by Cerwin-Yega and Universal Studios to add extended-range bass for sound effects that resulted in patrons not only hearing but feeling low-frequency sounds like earth tremors and the hum of bombers.
Henry Fonda as Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz in Midway (1976)
Henry Fonda lent his talents once again to the re-telling of the Battle of Midway, this time through his portrayal of fleet admiral of the United States navy, Chester W. Nimitz. He’s joined by an A-list cast, led by Academy Award-winners Charlton Heston, James Coburn, and Cliff Robertson, with Robert Mitchum and Toshirô Mifune portraying dueling Admirals William F. Halsey and Isoroku Yamamoto. respectively.
Excerpt from the Midway (2019) teaser poster
The latest movie to feature the pivotal naval battle, Midway focuses on the experiences of the WWII leaders and soldiers who used their instincts, fortitude, and bravery to overcome the odds and secure an Allied victory. With the use of modern technology and a near $100 million budget, veteran director Roland Emmerich looks to recreate the battle with as much realism as possible.
Director Roland Emmerich behind the scenes on the set of Midway (2019)
Emmerich is no stranger to heroic tales of valor, having directed some of the most patriotic movies of the last twenty-five years, including Independence Day (1996), The Patriot (2000), and White House Down (2013). He’ll be working with a talented cast lead by past collaborator Woody Harrelson (Natural Born Killers, Zombieland) in his portrayal of Admiral Chester Nimitz. Harrelson’s co-stars include action movie veterans Luke Evans (Fast & Furious 6, Dracula Untold), Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight, Olympus Has Fallen), Ed Skrein (The Transporter Refueled, Deadpool), and Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Aquaman), along with Mandy Moore, Dennis Quaid, Nick Jonas, and Darren Criss. Dean Schaller plays the aforementioned, real-life cinematographer Jack MacKenzie Jr.
Roland Emmerich's Midway arrives at Regal theatres this Friday, November 8.