This old-fashioned combat flick picks up where the great 1944 war drama Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo left off—Midway dramatizes one of the many retaliatory air strikes the U.S. and Japan exchanged following Japan’s initial 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. When the story begins, the U.S. Navy is struggling to replace ships destroyed at Pearl Harbor. When an intelligence officer (Hal Holbrook) intercepts communications suggesting the Japanese are planning to attack U.S. ships stationed at Midway Island—potentially a devastating repeat of Pearl Harbor—various officers spring into action preparing defensive maneuvers. Like 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora!, this picture cuts back and forth between American and Japanese strategy sessions. In addition to humanizing the enemy, this technique lets viewers see how luck and tactical errors have as much bearing on military success as heroism and leadership.
For instance, some of the best scenes take place aboard a Japanese carrier, where Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (James Shigeta) wrangles with doubtful subordinates, resulting in indecisiveness. There’s some great stuff buried in Midway, but, unfortunately, lesser material is given the primary focus—the main storyline involves Captain Matt Garth (Charlton Heston), a strong-willed junior officer whose role in the battle is relatively inconsequential. The filmmakers waste gobs of time, for instance, on the melodramatic romance between Garth’s son and a Japanese-American civilian, which leads to trite discussions about race relations. Plus, once the bludgeoning air/sea battle gets underway, the movie introduces so many characters that text appears onscreen to identify new people.
Even with these visual aids, however, it’s hard to track which ships are where, whose plane took off from which airstrip, and, for that matter, which side is winning. Still, before things get too hectic, Midway lets a handful of charismatic actors shine in showcase moments. Holbrook is a hoot as the excitable code breaker; Henry Fonda lends authority as the top U.S. admiral; Glenn Ford is effectively stoic as a soft-spoken naval commander; and Robert Mitchum plays an enjoyable cameo as a cranky admiral consigned to bed rest. (Cinema legend Toshiro Mifune essays a small role as Fonda’s Japanese counterpart, but his lines were dubbed into English by actor Paul Frees, the voice of Rocky & Bullwinkle villain Boris Badenov.) While these virtues aren’t enough to lift Midway out of mediocrity, any American war picture that resists the temptation to demonize the opposing side is inherently admirable.