Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Midway (1976)

One of my all-time favorite nonfiction books, which I first read around the age of 11, is Walter Lord's INCREDIBLE VICTORY (1967), about the Battle of Midway. My parents read it and gave it to me to read, and in turn my husband and I have passed it on to our own children, along with the rest of Lord's books. Until tonight, however, I had never seen the film MIDWAY, starring Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, and an all-star cast.

I remember when MIDWAY was released in theaters, mostly because of all the advertising for Sensurround. I was a bit too young to actually go see it, and additionally, if my memory is correct I don't think it had much of a critical reputation at the time of release.

Although the universally panned subplot regarding Heston's son (played by Edward Albert) and a Japanese girl (Christina Kokubo, in a stiff performance) remains incredibly hokey and ill-considered, I think the film's reputation may have improved over the years; for one thing, we just don't have actors anymore with the stature of Fonda, Ford, and Mitchum, who play the admirals who won the war in the Pacific. Mitchum's role as bedridden Admiral Halsey is small, but the authoritative presences of Fonda and Ford, as Admirals Nimitz and Spruance, tower over the rest of the film. Further, if you leave out the romantic subplot, it's actually a very good war film which does a solid job telling the story of Midway and our "Incredible Victory."

The movie was shot, in part, on the USS Lexington. The battle scenes incorporate not only actual stock footage shot during the war, but footage from older movies. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz stated that the sepia-toned film seen during the opening credits sequence was from MGM's THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO (1944). There's a nice bit of symmetry there, inasmuch as Robert Mitchum had a small role in THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO, little knowing at the time that over three decades later some of the footage would be seen in a film in which he portrayed Admiral Halsey. (Incidentally, Robert Montgomery's 1960 film about Halsey, THE GALLANT HOURS, is high on my "to watch" list.)

Besides being an absorbing story, MIDWAY is also a lot of fun as various actors wander in and out of the cast. Hal Holbrook, Robert Wagner, and Robert Webber have good-sized roles, while James Coburn comes in for just a couple of minutes.  Cliff Robertson also has a small role.  Dabney Coleman, James Shigeta, Pat Morita, Glenn Corbett, Ed Nelson, Kevin Dobson, Kip Niven, and Erik Estrada are also in the cast. I never did spot Tom Selleck, who is credited as playing an aide.

The filmmakers chose to have the Japanese characters speaking English, which resulted in what was for me the most distracting thing in the film: every time Toshiro Mifune opens his mouth, the unmistakable voice of Disneyland's Paul Frees comes out. (Frees narrates Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln and is the "Ghost Host" of the Haunted Mansion, in addition to providing voices elsewhere in the park.) This wasn't the first time Frees dubbed Mifune; he also provided the Japanese actor with an English-speaking voice in GRAND PRIX (1966). The Disney Legends biography of Frees says that Mifune said that Frees "sounds more like me than I do."

The movie runs 132 minutes. It was directed by Jack Smight, who had previously directed Heston in AIRPORT 1975 (1974).

I watched a print recorded from Turner Classic Movies, which will be airing the movie again next weekend, on August 29th.

The film has also been released in a Collector's Edition DVD which includes footage added for television as an extra. Those of us "of a certain age" remember that adding footage to movies was a big deal on TV in the late '70s and early '80s, as the networks made their last stand against cable TV and video. Within a few years ABC, CBS, and NBC had for the most part stopped airing films in prime time.

The trailer is currently available on YouTube. The Sensurround references sure take me back to my childhood: " real you can almost feel it!"


Blogger Gordon Pasha said...

Laura: “Midway” is a very watchable film, especially with the cast. And like you, I am a Walter Lord enthusiast, who with his “A Night to Remember” started the major reinterest in Titanic, long before it became the centerpiece of a movie about a jewel being stolen.

Very much of interest in your posting was your intent to see “The Gallant Hours.” From reading your postings, I have a sense of what you like and I suspect you will love it. The great drama of war -- all so underplayed. I love that film. Best. Gerald.

8:16 AM  

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