Monday, April 13, 2020

Midway: A battle, a book, and two movies

I miss the old movies from the 60s and early 70s. My dad loved them, we'd watch them together and I actually learned a lot of military history from watching those Saturday reruns (some of that history I admit had to be corrected). One of those was the 1976 movie Midway with Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda. This was on our list of classic war movies, so I bought a copy on DVD for my dad a few years ago. When the new version of Midway came out in 2019 with Woody Harrelson as Admiral Nimitz, I had to see how it compared, so I added a copy of that version to my collection.

Which version is better you ask? Tough question. Right off the top, I’ll tell you I liked the older version better. But for the life of my I couldn’t figure out why. Is it because the Charlton Heston version used real aircraft and historical footage? (the onboard carrier scenes were filmed on the USS Lexington.) Maybe the computer-generated battle scenes in the 2019 version were a turnoff. That and a bit of overacting? Maybe? Just a little? Amazon customers couldn’t help. Both movies are well received with thousands of reviews. Well, maybe we should ask which one was more historically accurate. And that’s where the book comes in.

I admit that I am not nearly as familiar with WWII naval history as I am with the land-based battles. I did not know a great deal about the Battle of Midway. When I don’t know about something, I can’t just take Wikipedia’s word for it. I have to go find a book. No disrespect to Wikipedia, it’s a great resource for background information. I just have to have a book. I chose “The Battle of Midway” by Craig L. Symonds. The book was really good. I’m not the only one who thinks so, it has 4.7 stars on 590 reviews. The book begins with Admiral Chester Nimitz taking over as CincPac in the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. We’re given all of the background we need that leads us up to the battle, including the Battle of the Coral Sea, the breaking of Japanese codes, and the Doolittle Raid. The book then provides a blow by blow telling of the Battle of Midway that occurred just six months after Pearl Harbor. I enjoyed reading it.

Which movie was more historically accurate? First, ignore the storyline in the first movie involving Heston’s fictional character and his son. Then I would say with the broad-brush strokes they are both historically accurate. But I have to admit that when it comes to details and character portrayals, the 2019 Woody Harrelson version beats out the 1976 version. For example, Joe Rochefort, the officer in charge of breaking one of the Japanese codes that were so instrumental in the American victory was portrayed in the 1976 movie as eccentric and unconventional. That is not a true description of this brilliant officer, and he was more accurately depicted in the 2019 movie. As it turns out, the 2019 movie did a much better job of showing the real men who played integral parts in the battle. McClusky really did damage his lungs with a faulty air tank, and Admiral Yamaguchi did, in fact, choose to go down with the Hiryū. As it turns out, it seemed like the 2019 movie of Midway was based on Symonds’ book.

I know I haven’t helped you choose just one of these. But hey, while you are socially distancing yourself you’ve got time to enjoy all three. My recommendation, as always, is to read the book first. 😉

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