“Pearl Harbor is the greatest intelligence failure in history. This can never happen again.” That’s a quote from the film Midway, directed by Roland Emerich and written by Wes Tooke. The Emerich film features Woody Harrelson as Admiral Chester Nimitz, and Aaron Eckhardt as Col. Jimmy Doolittle.
The film offers moviegoers a clear action drama set around real-world 20th century wartime events. “Midway” follows the American retaliation for the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and that single decisive victory that changed the course of the war in the Pacific. The narrative follows two naval officers and includes several critical role-players, including Adm. Chester Nimitz, Gen. James Doolittle and Adm. William Halsey.
The Navy’s Role in the Making of “Midway” the Movie
Historians from the Naval History and Heritage Command helped writers and producers during script development and production. The goal was to make a movie that was as accurate as possible — give or take a few small Hollywood-style inconsistencies — and the historians who helped said they were impressed with the final product. Navy technical advisors were on the set throughout the filming and helped the actors play their parts accurately.
Woody Harrelson played Nimitz, who took control of the U.S. Pacific Fleet after Pearl Harbor. In preparation for the role, Harrelson called on Navy Rear Adm. Brian Fort, commander of Navy Region Hawaii at the time, for help in understanding the man Nimitz was and the decisions he made.
Harrelson also visited USS John C. Stennis while the ship operated in the Pacific. He got a close look at air operations at sea, saw the launch and recovery of various naval aircraft and spent time on the navigation bridge watching its operators. Harrelson also met with sailors, and even played piano at an impromptu jam session.
Actor Patrick Wilson plays intelligence officer Navy Lt. Cmdr. Edwin Layton in the film. He visited retired Navy intelligence officer Capt. Dale Rielage to compare notes about Layton’s education, his pre-war experiences and his relationships with Nimitz and the codebreakers at the famed Station Hypo.
How “Midway” Was Made
The battle scenes for the movie were actually shot in a large hangar in Montreal, Canada. Inside the hangar were models that were 80% of the size of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise — only one-third of the carrier was made into a model because that’s what would fit into the hanger. Dozens of planes also were made into models that were 80% of their actual size.
The set included giant wind and rain machines to simulate the weather. The machines even make it rain sideways, which he said made it a challenge not to be blown overboard. The rest of the movie was shot in and around Ford Island in Honolulu. A good deal of computer-generated imagery and visual effects went into the movie to make it more affordable. For instance, the sinking of the battleship USS Arizona was computer-generated imagery.
For those who are a bit rusty on mid-century American history, the Pearl Harbor quote refers to the World War Two attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by the Japanese Imperial Fleet on December 7, 1941. This was the attack that drew the United States into the war, with 20 U.S. warships damaged or destroyed and a quick declaration of war against Japan.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, American strength and fitness to win the war was not necessarily to be taken for granted; the United States suffered a critical blow to its naval defenses and some in the highest levels of political power wondered if the nation was up to the task of participating in World War Two after being reluctantly dragged into the conflict.
The Roland Emerich film unfolds here, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and the run-up to the Battle of Midway. The film examines the human drama behind the broader war story as well as the physical cost of the Pacific campaigns of the era.
Midway is an important part of the World War Two narrative because it established the United States as a force to be reckoned with by Japanese Imperial forces even after a decisive Axis victory like Pearl Harbor.
As we’ll see, it’s not just military strength that wins these battles, but also quick decision-making and the ability to see and exploit an advantage when it presents itself.
A Brief History Of Japan’s Role In World War Two
In 1940, Germany, together with Japan and Italy formed a reciprocal agreement called the Tripartite Pact. This meant that if one country was attacked, the response would be as if all three countries party to the pact were threatened. The three nations agreed to help one another out in this context if attacked by countries not already caught up in the war.
At this time, the United States had not been drawn into the conflict, but the attack on Pearl Harbor would change that a year after the agreement was signed. America declared war on Japan as a result of the attack, and it wouldn’t be long before Germany and Italy responded to America in kind as per the Tripartite Pact.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces invaded the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong and elsewhere.
The Battle Of Midway
The Battle of Midway took place June 3 through June 6, 1942. This important military engagement came at a critical moment in the war; Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor six months earlier and it was assumed that American forces were substantially weakened. But Midway wound up being a costly miscalculation. The Japan war effort was weakened after Midway, and put U.S. forces in a position to exploit that weakness.
Japanese strategy at Midway involved a scheme to draw American forces into a conflict over territory that was just out of range for American aircraft departing from Hawaii. It was also assumed American aircraft carrier strength was weaker than it actually turned out to be.
Another Japanese naval tactic en route to the battle was to spread its ships out along the way to hide the total strength of the forces in the area, giving U.S. troops a false sense of security. Japan was convinced it was heading into another devastating victory.
Some earlier wins for the Japanese during land-based campaigns did nothing to disprove this notion, and Imperial forces were ready to attack the United States fleet…if they could get them to take the bait.
This approach, combined with the assumption that American forces were still substantially weakened by Pearl Harbor, would be the undoing of the Japanese fleet and pilot corps at Midway.
What Could Have Happened
The American fleet should have been tricked into entering a fire fight with a leading attack group only to be picked off by other Japanese vessels, ready to fight but still en route to the battle at its start.
But Japan had no way of knowing its communication codes had been broken and American forces knew plans to use the “divide and conquer” tactic ahead of time. Admiral Chester Nimitz positioned the American fleet to use the element of surprise against Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku who thought he was setting his ships in place to crush the Americans instead.
Japanese losses at Midway included a death toll upward of three thousand troops aboard Imperial aircraft carriers, destroyers, and heavy cruisers. Four of Japan’s aircraft carriers were destroyed, or sunk. On the United States side, casualties were exponentially lower, and the American fleet lost the USS Yorktown and USS Hammann.
Depictions of the Battle of Midway In The Movies
At the time of this writing, the most recent cinematic treatment of Midway comes from director Roland Emerich, who was also responsible for The Patriot, plus Stonewall and White House Down. Emerich is not the first director to tackle a film about Midway, but this 2019 release is likely the most special effects-heavy of any past fictionalized treatment of the story.
The other Midway was directed by Jack Smight and released in 1976. That version of the on-screen story of Midway starred Jason Robards, Pat Morita of The Karate Kid fame (Morita played Mr. Miyagi), Charleton Heston, Henry Fonda, and Hal Holbrook. Those who are unfamiliar with mid-20th century filmmaking will likely watch the 1974 version with a dim view of its wartime stock footage, but the all-star cast makes the film worth a look.
A short documentary film called The Battle Of Midway is even older; this one was a short subject film directed by the legendary John Ford (who directed Stagecoach, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers) in the same year the battle actually occurred.
There are plenty of other films and productions about this historic World War Two battle including, but certainly not limited to:
- The World at War
- The Fighter Pilot
- Task Force
- Dive to the USS Atlanta
- Five Came Back
- Days That Shook The World
- War and Remembrance
- Secrets of the Dead (Japanese SuperSub episode)
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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