October 10, 2020

The Midway Rant

Right. By popular demand, it's time to take apart Midway. DVD finally came in from the library. First off, who the heck still puts commercials on a DVD before you get to the menu? I thought they stopped that years ago. And there's like 6 of them. Why?

The title screen. "This is a true account of the events that led to the most important naval battle in American history. One single day that turned the tide of the War in the Pacific." Oh, dear. In terms of "most important naval battle", I'd probably nominate the Battle of the Chesapeake for that, leading as it did to the British surrender at Yorktown and American independence. And the tide would have turned eventually, even if we'd lost at Midway.

So we start in Tokyo in 1937. Yamamoto shows up early on. Are they going to do the revisionist version of him, where he doesn't want the war? Yep, looks like it. At least whoever did the set dressing could tell a WWII Japanese ship from a modern American one, and none of the photos in the background are of Burkes.

And then we get to the American fleet, which at least looks right. I guess that's what 20 years of CGI gets you. Thank goodness. And now we have Dick Best, who is (a) being kind of a jerk and (b) flying an approach that is definitely not in the book and would be ludicrously unsafe. There was a time when that sort of thing was allowed, but it was long over by 1941.

And now the inevitable Pearl Harbor scene. The good: well, at least I don't see any Knoxes around. The bad: wait, you've got Zeroes flying down the middle of Battleship Row, and bombs going off next to them? I think movie planes have a general immunity to fragmentation damage. Also, that's a lot of explosions for so early in the attack. And strafing is way more effective than it should be. Tip: that is not how you kill armored warships. I think there was one bomb shown onscreen during the whole attack, and it was the one that took out Arizona's forward magazine. Which didn't do nearly enough damage to the ship based on we saw of the men on it. And while a Zero might be fragile, it won't totally blow apart on a single 20mm shell hit. Also, why do they keep strafing down Battleship Row? And Arizona sank straight down, she didn't roll over. As for the Dauntlesses during the attack, only a few were shot down.

The attack from Enterprise was an actual thing, but it was more complicated than it sounds. There were American ships out south of Pearl, and the attack actually found them, but identified them correctly. Also, I believe they landed well before dark. And then there's Best, who has mysteriously found out about the torpedo problems that (a) literally nobody knew about on December 7th and (b) didn't apply to airborne torpedoes at all.1 "Your unit is not trained for night landings with live ordnance." Nobody is trained for night landings on a carrier at this point, and I'm not sure what the ordnance has to do with it. Of course torpedo bombers practice landing with their torpedoes. Those are expensive and they don't carry all that many. And then one breaks loose, everyone acts like it could have been a huge disaster and Best uses it as a chance for "I told you so" None of this makes any sense.

And now we're doing the whole "third wave at Pearl Harbor" thing, along with the oil tanks? Seriously, people? You're making a movie about Midway, so there's no way you've never heard of Parshall and Tully. And Parshall is also well-known for his refutation of Fuchida's claims about the attack, upon which so much misinformation is based. (I also have doubts about the importance of the tanks, but that's another issue.) Also, nobody in the IJN is going to need a reminder to be united against the Army. That's what they did instinctively. And then we have "Nimitz running the Navy" (the ghost of Ernest J. King will haunt you for that) and "the [Japanese] Army got us into this war". (Yes, according to Japanese Admirals immediately after the war, WHO YOU SHOULD NOT TRUST.) Also, when did the Japanese Army end up with control over the Navy? Your picture of interservice relations in Japan is...not accurate.

Points for including the attack on Roi. Points off for launching during daylight despite saying you were going to "hit the Japs before they roll out of bed", when the actual launch was before dawn (common for carriers during WWII) and for including something that looks a lot like a battleship and definitely wasn't actually there according to Morison. And for having a torpedo malfunction based on something that was a problem for submarine torpedoes, not airplane torpedoes.2 Also, Taroa is not that close to Roi, and the strikes on Taroa went off with no losses. And where did the mountains come from? The Marshalls are coral atolls, and the highest point in the entire chain is 10m above sea level. The dogfight is bad, but not notably so. And then you have them shutting down the plane on the deck, right after a shot looking aft and showing planes parked aft of them. I do not think you understand how carrier aviation works. And Halsey calling 5:00 as a direction? That's definitely nonstandard on a ship.

At least the AA is 1.1" and not Bofors. But "don't they know they gotta lead those planes". Yes, they do. Shooting at airplanes from a ship is hard, and you should shut up. Also, the attacking planes are too low for what they're doing, and the bombs are way too close. And then you have the whole Bruno Gaido thing, which is depicted entirely wrong. Reading the actual description, the airplane Gaido was in was parked tail-out, and the bomber clipped the tail on the way past. The movie has the wing and engine hitting the deck and basically bouncing off. I assume that Roland Emmerich just stopped reading anything on the Pacific War after Midway, because that's a pretty common kamikaze strike, and you'd make an awful mess even if the fuselage missed the flight deck instead of just trashing a Dauntless or two. Unless Enterprise grew an armored flight deck when I wasn't looking. I also don't think there was any fire on the flight deck at all, and the account of Gaido's action says that he put out a small fire left by the bomber's passage.

Back in Hawaii, I don't think you understand what officer's club means, as you have a bunch of enlisted men in the background. And then Mrs. Best asks McClusky why Dick isn't commanding a squadron. Leaving aside the obvious personality issues (I'd suggest he was from 7th Fleet, but they weren't a thing yet) that just was not how things worked. And then we get the Doolittle Raid, which the men on Enterprise didn't notice aboard Hornet until just before launch. And while Pearl Harbor had them taking off in good weather, this has Doolittle flying through a giant wall of water on takeoff. Morison says the carrier were taking some green water, but that's not what we saw there. The planes are still too close together over Tokyo, but at least they're high enough to avoid fragging themselves. And then extremely low-flying Japanese bombers over China. At that altitude, they're extremely vulnerable to rifle fire. And these are Japanese planes, with the structural properties of cardboard.

"They're trying to cut our lifeline to Australia." Yes. That was the first few months of the war. A look at Kimmel and Nimitz between Pearl Harbor and Coral Sea would be a good story, but this is not that story. And we have Japanese wargaming with someone cheating on behalf of the Americans? That is not how the Japanese ran wargames. Cheating was encouraged, but only on behalf of the Japanese fleet.

I was going to give some praise to their handling of the codebreaking part, right up until they did the whole "AF is short of fresh water" bit as something that Nimitz or Layton came up with as a sneaky way of getting around Washington. That sort of thing is a pretty basic SIGINT technique. Also, the message was encrypted, just in a code we knew was broken. Also, why does Best get to double scouting flights? That's a decision taken above his level. Oh, and we have John Ford showing up at Midway.

HOW THE HELL DO YOU NOT REALIZE THE CARRIER IS GOING TOO SLOWLY TO LAUNCH? Wind over deck is trivial to measure. Also, dive bomber pilots do not have radio contact with the bridge of a ship, and cannot give helm orders. Also also, naval aviation in this era was very hazardous, and operational losses happen. Best would know this. He would also know not to be melodramatic about the consequences of a loss.

"I've given command of Task Force 16 to Admiral Spruance." YOU ARE COMPLICIT WITH THOSE ERASING FRANK JACK FLETCHER FROM HISTORY, MR. EMMERICH. I know Morison didn't think much of him, and I'm usually loathe to disagree with such an eminent historian, but this is the one thing he definitely got wrong. And why are the torpedo bombers coming in from Pearl with torpedoes aboard? "Plus the biggest battleship in the world." Not this again. The USN didn't know much about Yamato at this point. And then we have the attack on Midway, executed by a massive low-altitude formation flyby. And then the Midway group attacks the Japanese carriers. But they're flying Dauntlesses instead of Vindicators. And again, we have bomb splashes soaking the carriers. I don't think that was nearly as common as they seem to think.

During the takeoff scene, they seem to be starting their rolls awfully far forward. The Dauntless had good performance, but not that good. And then we have Nautilus, running around the Japanese fleet, and leaving her periscope up way too long. She would deserve to get sunk for that, not to mention the stupidity of staying very shallow while under attack. And then you don't even use the torpedo thing with Nautilus, where it might have been appropriate. I was going to say that at least he was willing to leave out Torpedo 8, but even that's not true. Also, bullets don't travel like that underwater. I do like the use of voice tubes.

And now, at long last, the Enterprise dive bombers are over the enemy fleet. And yet again, there's confusion over how light AA guns work. Hint: the bursts of black smoke come from heavy AA guns, which fire big, time-fuzed shells. They do not come from 25mm guns. (Yes, some types of 25mm projectile were self-destroying, but a lot weren't. Also, those bursts would be behind the planes, not around them.) For that matter, the heavy gun bursts are way too accurate, unless they somehow were using proximity fuzes. Also, a lot of the 25mm guns seem to be twins, which did exist, but were unusual.

So we're skipping everything do to with Yorktown? Now this is just irritating. And apparently nobody has heard of Wildcats in this universe. Also, 25mm AA guns are magical, and can reach really extreme ranges, because they don't have heavy AA guns. And planes are fighting at ludicrously short ranges. Also, Mr. Best, because the people who designed your bomb are not idiots, it will not go off if you drop it like that from 20' above the flight deck. That way, you don't get killed by the fragments, or have to fly through the giant fireball that instantly follows your bomb for some reason.3 Ah, and there's the payoff for that stupid stunt Best pulled at the start of the movie. I don't have the sources to hand to know if that's realistic or not. (My library on Midway is pretty thin, because I think it's ludicrously over-covered relative to how interesting it is.)

I do like how they handled the ending montage, particularly the mention of the Chinese who died for helping the Doolittle Raiders escape. That's a facet of the Pacific War that always gets overlooked.

So what's the verdict? On the whole, it's a better film than Pearl Harbor. But not that much better, and Pearl Harbor is so bad that it's starting to climb back up the "so bad it's good" curve. Not very far, but at least it's somewhat focused, instead of a mixtape of "Dick Best and whatever stuff I find interesting about Midway". Which doesn't include FRANK JACK FLETCHER, THE GUY ACTUALLY IN COMMAND! I can tell that this was done by someone who cared more about WWII than Michael Bay did (the production design was spot-on), but Emmerich's interest in WWII was fighting with his interest in cinematic spectacle, and every time the later won, it made the movie much worse. With a slightly more restrained director and a better script, it could have been great. Also, as my last point, did you really have to make Dick Best such a, well, dick?

1 I checked one of my books, and discovered that I'd forgotten about the serious problems suffered by some of the earlier versions of the Mk 13 aerial torpedo. I would like to amend my criticism to "this does not get paid off properly".

2 As noted earlier, this complaint was wrong, but in the course of finding that, I discovered that no torpedoes were launched during this attack.

3 Also, I later checked Lundstrom's The First Team and Hiryu was already on fire when Best attacked. VS-6 from Enterprise attacked first and missed. Then VB-3 from Yorktown showed up and put four bombs into her before Best and his wingmen dived. The erasure of Yorktown continues.


  1. October 11, 2020Aaron said...

    I enjoyed the Midway scene in Isoroku (a film that paints a romanticized portrait of Yamamoto’s life). The Dauntless attack seemed more realistic and the location of the bomb impacts on each carrier seemed to match Tully and Parshall’s charts. The ships and formations in the film are quite good though the focus is not on combat.

    There is a Zero that crashes into Yorktown though which is obviously inaccurate.

  2. October 12, 2020Chuck said...

    I was going to say something about the Mk. 13, but you are already on it. I mostly remember it for how tragic it made the Devastators at Midway, with their horrific losses made all the more futile by the fact that the torpedoes they launched did, and had been most likely to do, absolutely nothing. (There is the role they played in distracting the Japanese CAP, but they paid a high price for it.)

  3. October 14, 2020Jack said...

    To get my biases out of the way, this is the first movie that my 3 year old son (at the time) and I went together to go see. He was cheering when the Japanese carriers were being bombed. So this film does have a special place in my heart for that reason.

    My biggest issue with this movie is that it tried to tell too much for a 2 hour movie. They went from Pearl Harbor to the sinking of Hiryu at Midway. They included the raids on the Marshalls, Bruno Gaido's antics, the Doolittle Raid, Coral Sea, Army-Navy dynamics in Japan, and Halsey's coming down with shingles. There was a lot that could and should have been removed for brevity and conciseness. The 1976 film with Charlton Heston starts with the Doolittle Raid as nearly an afterthought. If they wanted to do this much, they should have made a miniseries.

    The not showing of Fletcher is understandable as this film is focused on Dick Best and the Enterprise. The damage the Yorktown took made it so that Fletcher could not command effectively, and he did hand over operational command to Spurance. I also disagree with this review where you have a problem with the wargame. According to Parshall and Tully, this did occur exactly how it does in the film.

    Yes the islands aren't realistic, but only 2 things that are unforgivable. The first was having VT-8 attacking the Kido Butai after VT-6. It was a case of poor proofreading. The second is showing Adm Yamaguchi as the man who needed to be listened to. He was foolish in attacking the US fleet after the 1020 attack on Kido Butai. The Hiryu needed to be preserved at all costs, but he went headlong into the US fleet rather than turn away, and paid the price. In the film, he as shown as voice of reason that was ignored, but he sense of honor required him to attack anyway. It is historical revisionism up there with the Lost Cause Myth of the US Civil War.

    This film has many flaws, but it is much more historically accurate than many others I have seen. The main one is that it tried to have too much in it for a 2 hour movie.

  4. October 14, 2020bean said...

    My biggest issue with this movie is that it tried to tell too much for a 2 hour movie. They went from Pearl Harbor to the sinking of Hiryu at Midway.

    This is very true.

    The not showing of Fletcher is understandable as this film is focused on Dick Best and the Enterprise.

    I do not buy this. If it was more focused on Best, then I'd understand, but it's also got a bunch of other stuff. Nimitz and Layton. The Japanese side. Heck, John Ford. Halsey is a major character, and he wasn't even at Midway. And if your scope is that broad, then Fletcher deserves his place, too. Particularly given how badly he's been treated by a lot of historians.

    I also disagree with this review where you have a problem with the wargame. According to Parshall and Tully, this did occur exactly how it does in the film.

    Interesting. There's a reason this is labeled "rant" and not "fact checking". (I should also admit to not owning a copy of Shattered Sword. Read it several years ago from the library, and haven't really needed it since.)

    Definitely with you on Yamaguchi.

  5. October 15, 2020John Schilling said...
    The not showing of Fletcher is understandable as this film is focused on Dick Best and the Enterprise. The damage the Yorktown took made it so that Fletcher could not command effectively, and he did hand over operational command to Spurance.

    But Fletcher was in operational command for the most important segments of the battle. Not Spruance, not Halsey, and not Nimitz. Any movie that includes both Dick Best and Chester Nimitz, has to include Jack Fletcher.

    I do like the idea of a movie with a tight focus on Dick Best in 1941-1942. That would be an unusual but highly effective viewpoint for those critical events, and it wouldn't be as redundant as this one was (look, we've got better special effects than they did in 1976 or 2001!). The saga of Dick Best would make for a good story. And it's a story that can include Halsey and Spruance as supporting characters while leaving out Fletcher, because Fletcher was never on the same ship as Best.

    But that story, particularly compressed to a single movie, has no place for Chester Nimitz. Or Isoroku Yamamoto or Chuichi Nagumo, and certainly not for John Ford. In that story, Pearl Harbor is just a place with lots of smoking wreckage for us to see as Best saw it. Jimmy Doolittle flies off the deck of the Hornet into the mists of history, not into adventures with partisans in China. Rochefort and Layton never break a code in that movie, and the USS Nautilus does not exist.

    Also, Dick Best cannot afford to be the Worst sort of Dick.

    I would like to have seen that movie, particularly with these production values. This was not that movie.

  6. October 15, 2020Matt B said...

    Ahhhhh I've been looking forward to this rant! Pretty much what I figured. I enjoyed the movie okay enough... but even with ignoring the historical inaccuracies it could have been way more enjoyable. I think like Jack said, it tried to tell too much in too short a time.

  7. October 16, 2020John Schilling said...

    And strafing is way more effective than it should be. Tip: that is not how you kill armored warships. I think there was one bomb shown onscreen during the whole attack, and it was the one that took out Arizona’s forward magazine.

    HBO is showing this repeatedly, and I couldn't resist watching the Pearl Harbor sequence again. There were a few more bombs in the background, I think. But there was also a squadron of Kates, torpedoes still attached, flying lengthwise down battleship row. One of them bothered to drop its torpedo on the approach; the rest just lit up the battleships with their forward-firing 7.7mm machine guns. Verified by replay and freeze-frame.

    The stupid, it burns.

    And Arizona sank straight down, she didn’t roll over.

    I believe that was actually the USS Oklazona.

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