“Midway” is another one of those big, spectacular Hollywood war films with an equally big and equally spectacular cast … and you shouldn’t miss it – especially if you enjoy movies about war. “Midway” is second of four films to be released in “Sensurround” sound – a thundering bass to have the audience “experience” it – and it uses footage from other films in war sequences and just about everyone in Hollywood somewhere in the film. You won’t be disappointed because it is: (a) a World War II story, (b) a big screen spectacle film and (c) you see just about every actor alive that filmmaker could get in front of the camera. If you haven’t seen the newest version of “Midway,” then check this one out first … you’ll like it better.
(1976; 132 minutes; rated PG; directed by Jack Smight and starring Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda and Hal Holbrook – and the rest of Hollywood circa 1970s)
A BIG MOVIE ON THE BIG SCREEN
(NOTE: I expanded this review with some additional opinion, more trivia and the updating of links on Aug. 31, 2016. I again expanded the review on May 29, 2020.)
Big spectacle films have one serious pro-con: Bad performances are limited by the scarce screen time of most of the actors, but you never get enough of the good. So it goes with “Midway,” the big screen spectacular from 1976 that was the second of four films released in “Sensurround” sound. It featured a thundering bass that “moved” the audience to be able to “experience” the action in the film. You get great performances but not enough from Hal Holbrook, James Coburn and Toshiro Mifume (although his voice is dubbed in English).
The biggest players with the most screen time are Henry Fonda as “Adm. Chester Nimitz” and Charlton Heston as “Capt. Matt Garth.” Both are solid and convincing, especially Heston, who plays a fictional character whose career and life weave through and tie together all facets of the story amid actors playing real historical World War II heroes.
If you need to know the plot about the film (it is the most important battle victory in the Pacific for the U.S. in WWII), here it is: The Japanese are looking to knock out the U.S. fleet in the Pacific once and for all and have chosen Midway Island as the battleground less than a year past their attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S., with intelligence leading the way with details of the Midway plan, counters with fortitude, strategic creativity and fighting tenacity.
Enough of the details and it’s no spoiler to know that the U.S. wins.
“Midway” uses footage from several other war films, most notably from 1970’s “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (click here for my review) about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as offering extensive use of archival battle scenes from the U.S. military.
Instead of a chronological rehash of the film, I’ll go at it by listing some of the cast, how they performed and the context of their careers (details about actors’ careers is via IMDb.com):
- An Oscar winner (not for this one), Heston carries the film and gives a surprisingly deep effort. He’s the only actor, outside Edward Albert, who plays his son “Lt. Tom Garth,” with this chance to accomplish a deep effort in this film. Heston has to address the issue of Japanese internment because of Albert’s relationship with a Japanese woman; his role as a father and officer; and doing his duty. Heston does a great job here. He won for his leading role in “Ben-Hur” in 1959, Heston was also in the original “Planet of the Apes” as well as 129 other credits in a career spanning six decades. He was just so-so in “Two-Minute Warning” (click here for my review) but became a legend in Hollywood with work in films such as “The Ten Commandments” and the sci-fi cult classics “Soylent Green” and “The Ωmega Man.” He died at 84 in 2008 of pneumonia.
- An Oscar winner and two-time nominee (not for this one), Fonda is at his efficient, commanding best here as “Adm. Chester W. Nimitz.” He snaps through each scene as the top commander role in the film. Fonda won for best actor for “On Golden Pond” opposite Katherine Hepburn (who won herself as best actress) in 1981, the year before his death at age 77 of a heart ailment. Fonda portrayed a number of soldiers in classic films such as “Battle of the Bulge” (click here for my review) and “The Longest Day,” in one of his nominated roles. He is also known for classic drama roles such as “12 Angry Men” in a Hollywood career that can only be described as legendary. His other nomination came from “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1940.
- An Oscar nominee and four-time Primetime Emmy winner, Holbrook is the other actor with significant but not enough screen time. He plays “Cmdr. Joseph Rochefort,” the head of the intelligence unit that breaks the Japanese code. Holbrook gives a nice turn as the off-center character and his signature voice is perfect for the role. Holbrook is best known for TV’s “Evening Shade” and has a string of other TV appearances and films such as “Wall Street” and “Lincoln.” He was nominated for 2007’s “Into the Wild” and I liked him best as the foil to Clint Eastwood in “Magnum Force” (the second “Dirty Harry” movie – click here for my review).
- An Oscar winner (not for this one), Coburn was a veteran of “The Great Escape” war classic (click here for my review) and follows Fonda’s cue with an efficient effort as “Capt. Vinton Maddox” that’s as crisp as any officer’s salute. Sadly, like so many here, Coburn didn’t get enough time on screen. I liked him best as a war-weary German soldier in Sam Peckinpah’s “Cross of Iron” (click here for my review) and he was nominated for “Affliction.” Coburn died at 74 in 2002 of a heart attack.
- A Golden Globe winner and two-time nominee (not for this one), Glenn Ford, who plays “Rear Adm. Raymond Spruance,” played “Pa Kent” in “Superman” as well as 109 other roles on TV and in films. Ford’s performance is not notable, but he is solid and that keeps this filming moving forward. He won for “Pocket Full of Miracles” with Bette Davis and was nominated for “Don’t Go Near the Water” and “The Teahouse of the August Moon.” Ford died at 90 in 2006 of complications from multiple strokes.
- An Oscar nominee (not for this one) and Hollywood bad-boy, Robert Mitchum plays “Adm. William ‘Bull’ Halsey” and is laid up in a hospital and must hand over his command. Another Tinsel Town legend on both professional and personal fronts, Mitchum is surprisingly sharp in this role as the feisty aircraft carrier tactician and is a prime example of an actor getting too little time with so much more to give. Mitchum was nominated for “Story of G.I. Joe” but got a lot of attention way back in 1948 when he was arrested on a marijuana charge. Scandalous … but way, way ahead of his time! Mitchum died at 79 in 1997 of lung cancer and emphysema.
Even the headliners don’t get much time in this one even though it is more than two hours in length. With such a lack of time, it’s almost impossible to give a grade for their work (good or bad). So, here’s a rundown of some of the lesser characters and who plays them:
- Oscar winner Cliff Robertson and six-time Golden Globe nominee Robert Wagner both have small roles as “Cmdr. Carl Jessop” and “Lt. Cmdr. Ernest L. Blake” respectively that should have been bigger given the actors’ abilities. Robertson’s Oscar came for 1968’s “Charly” and most recently has been in the first three “Spider-Man” films. Wagner, the husband of the late Natalie Wood (they were married twice), had a signature role on TV’s “It Takes a Thief” his prolific career that notches more than 150 acting credits with the first in 1950. Robertson, who had 114 credits in his career, died at 88 in 2011.
- An Oscar nominee (not for this one), Pat Morita, best known for his role in his nominated work in “The Karate Kid,” plays Rear Admiral Ryunosuke Kusaka. It’s straightforward acting, but he wasn’t given much to work with. Morita, who also voiced in Disney’s “Mulan,” died at 73 in 2005 of kidney failure.
- You’ll instantly recognize Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Erik Estrada plays pilot “‘Chili Bean’ Ramos.” A year later, Estrada had snagged the co-lead role on TV’s “CHiPs” (click here for my look at that great series) and became a TV icon with more than 140 acting credits through mid-2020. Good job, Erik!
- A Golden Globe winner (not for this one), Tom Selleck has a small role here as “Aide to Capt. Cyril Simard” and would go on to much bigger things as TV’s “Magnum P.I.,” among a variety of roles. He got his win and six Globe nominations for “Magnum P.I.”
- Steve Kanaly, like Selleck, has a small role and he plays “Lt. Cmdr. Lance E. ‘Lem’ Massey.” He would go on to be a star on TV’s iconic “Dallas.” I thought he did a nice understated turn in “Dillinger” with Warren Oates (click here for my review).
- Kip Niven, who plays reconnaissance pilot “Lt. Howard P. Ady,” was earlier one of the vigilante cops in Clint Eastwood’s “Magnum Force” and had a lengthy career in TV. He died at 73 in 2019 of a heart attack.
- Christopher George of TV’s “The Rat Patrol” plays “Lt. Cmdr. C. Wade McCluskey,” while “Baywatch’s” Monte Markham plays “Cmdr. Max Leslie.” George died at 52 in 1983 of a heart attack
- Kevin Dobson, known for a succession of TV roles including “Kojak,” plays “Ensign George Gay,” a flier who floated in the ocean after being shot down and was rescued.
“Midway” was the 10th ranked film of 1976 with $43.2 million at theaters, according to Wiki. By comparison, the No. 1 film was “Rocky” with $117.2 million and the No. 2 film was “To Fly!” (a short by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum) with $86.6 million, according to Wiki. Here are films from that year that I’ve reviewed:
- “All the President’s Men” (classic Redford-Hoffman) – click here for my review
- “The Enforcer” (tepid ‘Dirty Harry’) – click here for my review
- “The Gumball Rally” (outstanding car flick) – click here for my review
- “The Omen” (excellent horror) – click here for my review
- “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (Clint’s best western) – click here for my review
- “The Shootist” (John Wayne’s last film) – click here for my review
- “Silver Streak” (good comedy-drama) – click here for my review
- “Two-Minute Warning” (so-so thriller) – click here for my review
Here are other cast and film notes via IMDb.com:
- In real life, Gay was the lone survivor of his squadron from its attack on the Japanese. He was an adviser on “Midway” and lived for a number of years here in my home region of Southwest Florida before passing at age 77 of a heart attack in Marietta, Ga., according to Wiki. His ashes were spread in the Pacific near where his squadron launched its attack during the battle of Midway.
- Dig deep into the list of “uncredited” actors and you’ll find NFL football great Larry Csonka as “Cmdr. Delaney.” Wow! The Miami Dolphins’ legendary fullback in this film!
- Many of the actors were much older than the men were at the time the battle took place in 1942.
- John Wayne reportedly turned down the role played by Mitchum.
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The clip showing “Tom Garth’s” plane crashing and breaking in two is one of the most used crash sequences from WWII. In the actual crash, the pilot was hardly even shaken up and immediately climbed out on his own.”
- Click here for IMDb.com’s trivia page … or click here for IMDb.com’s page with the complete list of the cast members …
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