Thursday, December 5, 2019

MIDWAY MOVIES

The movie of the season is Roland Emmerich’s revistation of the Battle of Midway, released last month.  Being more than somewhat familiar with that historic event, and a  sometime reviewer, I’m devoting this month’s blog to Hollywood’s treatment of the epic WW II naval battle.

Background: 

In June 1942 the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a major effort to capture Midway Atoll some 1,200 miles northwest of Oahu.  Occupying two sand spits was less important than destroying America’s remaining aircraft carriers and thereby—presumably—forcing a settlement with Washington.  Never mind that it was never-ever going to happen.

Short version: the operation turned to hash for the Japanese.  They lost all four aircraft carriers committed to the effort, plus a large cruiser, versus one U.S. flattop and a destroyer.  Midway was one of the significant battles of history, as it ended Japan’s strategic initiative and set the stage for America’s oceanic trek ending in Tokyo Bay three years later.

Hollywood’s first treatment of Midway remains the best in some ways.  Task Force debuted in 1949 with full Navy cooperation, tracing the development of carrier aviation from 1922 into the jet age.  The perspective is two fictional fliers: Walter Brennan (a thinly disguised Admiral Marc Mitscher) and Gary Cooper representing a tailhooking everyman.

Director Delmer Daves was a versatile writer-director whose credits included Pride of the Marines, (John Garfield and Eleanor Parker, 1947) Dark Passage, (Bogart and Bacall, 1947) and Spencer’s Mountain (Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara, 1963.)  The Midway portion of Task Force is relatively short and somewhat condensed to the point it’s hard to distinguish USS Enterprise from her sister Yorktown, sunk in the battle.  But the film was shot aboard real-live carriers with real-live airplanes: a Dauntless dive bomber and a Wildcat fighter.

Brennan delivers the movie’s best line.  While awaiting a contact report on the enemy fleet, he turns to Cooper and asks, “Do you know any satisfyin’ profanity?”

Coop of course did not, but events unfold in the film pretty much as in fact.  Largely lost on the audience is appearance of Wayne Morris, a genuine navy fighter ace, as a torpedo bomber pilot who barely survives the Midway massacre.

Lapse-dissolve, fade in three decades later…

If there’s a worse navy film than Midway 1976, I’ve not seen it.  Writer Donald Sanford’s previous credits included Submarine X-1 (1968) and The Thousand Plane Raid (1969) so presumably he knew something about World War II but it’s not evident on screen.  

Reputedly director Jack Smight flew with the Army in the Pacific but again, there’s no proof.  Mainly he worked on a variety of TV programs though he directed an early disaster movie, Airport 1975.

Midway ’76 remains a different type of disaster.

Despite the all-star cast with Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford and Robert Mitchum, the plot is convoluted, folded, spun and mutilated.  The carrier phase of the battle stretches into two days for no apparent reason. 

Film editing is appallingly bad, in no way retrieved by the Sensurround gimmick accompanying explosions and stuff.  Near the end Heston’s Dauntless morphs into a Helldiver (18 months early) into my late friend George Duncan’s F9F Panther (read: jet) that explodes on landing.  There’s also a 1960s Forrestal class aircraft carrier.  Ferpetesake.

Absolutely the worst performance is Hal Holbrook as code breaker Commander Joseph Rochefort.  Holbrook gained acclaim for his Mark Twain one-man shows but in Midway he plays Samuel Clemens playing a hayseed Rochefort lurching toward victory.

There’s also a pointless and unlikely Navy-Nisei romance that only detracts from the narrative flow.  

Short version: I counted something north of 70 factual and technical errors, the huge majority being avoidable.  Yes, in the 1970s computer graphics were unavailable but just a bit of judicious film selection would’ve gone a long-long way.

Now, as to this year’s release: OK, it is not terrible.  Certainly it is immensely better than Smight’s miserable product.

The Battle of Midway community—and there is such—was distraught at Woody Harrelson as Pacific Fleet commander Chester Nimitz.  Part of the reaction was due to Harrelson’s fame as the not-so-bright Cheers bartender.  But while I was prepped to hate the portrayal, I came away admiring the performance. 

Patrick Wilson is excellent as intelligence officer Edwin Layton, and Brennan Brown  is immensely more credible than Twain-Holbrook as crypto genius Rochefort.

I knew four of the people portrayed in the movie: dive bomber squadron commander Dick Best, his daughter Barbara, his radioman-gunner Jim Murray, and Jimmy Doolittle.  Briton Ed Skrein captures Dick’s focused intensity without having known him (Dick died in 2001) although Emmerich owes Dick a posthumous apology for the hyena-gagging introduction when Best dives near vertically on the Enterprise, shuts down his engine, dips below the flight deck, pops up and lands without lowering his flaps.  Not only is that stunt impossible, it gives missions of viewers the impression that one of the most professional naval officers of his era was a hotdogging flyboy.

Dick’s back-seater was Chief Radioman Jim Murray who in the film is demoted to a tense, uncertain newbie rather than the veteran that he was.

Aaron Eckhart is too tall and too hairy to resemble “General Jimmy” but his selection is galaxies better than foul-mouthed Alec Baldwin’s miserable casting in the egregious Pearl Harbor.

Unlike Smight’s version, which tried covering all the bases, Emmerich almost exclusively limits himself to the Enterprise from Pearl Harbor onward.  Having written a lengthy Big E “biography” (see February 2012) and knowing dozens of her veterans, it’s a subject close to my heart.  But history is ill served in Wes Tooke’s script, which barely acknowledges that Enterprise’s sisters Yorktown and Hornet were engaged at Midway, with “Yorky” being sunk.

Emmerich is known for blockbusters dating from Independence Day (1996), often relying on computer-generated imagery.  Midway’s CGI ranges from mediocre to good, with ships better done than planes.  Some of the aircraft perform maneuvers that defy credibility as well as gravity, but that’s not unique.

The Japanese are fairly well portrayed, especially Etsushi Toyokawa as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.  

There are dozens of “gotchas” in the film, many noted by the consultants and obviously ignored.  One of my lesser gripes is based on some 500 hours in open-cockpit airplanes: nobody flies with his helmet's chin strap unfastened.  Yet Kommodore Emmerich’s fliers routinely do so. (Attempting added credibility, I’ll note that I’m probably the only Midway movie reviewer with flight time in a Dauntless.)

Those reservations aside, Midway ’19 helps correct the cinematic record begun so well in 1949 and miserably fumbled in ’76.  Internet comments about the “great” 1976 version merely remind us that some people have no business expressing their opinions but hey—it’s still a relatively free country.


Which is partly what Midway was all about.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

REMEMBERING LEYTE GULF


This month marks the 75th anniversary of the greatest naval battle of World War II.  From October 23 to 26, 1944, the U.S. and Imperial Japanese navies clashed in Philippine waters.  The context was General Douglas MacArthur’s promised Return to the islands when he fled the unstoppable Japanese in early 1942.  Subsequently the Joint Chiefs in Washington decided to merge the Central Pacific and Southwest Pacific offensives in the Philippines rather than Formosa (now Taiwan) thus setting huge forces in motion.

Oddly enough, the Battle of Leyte Gulf had little to do with Leyte Gulf, but it was the dominant feature of the campaign.  The scale could only be imagined today: 236 American and about 80 Japanese warships plus U.S. torpedo boats and submarines while both fleets deployed significant support vessels such as tankers and provision ships.  The Americans brought about 1,500 tailhook aircraft aboard 34 fleet and escort carriers while the Japanese Navy had approximately 300 planes in four carriers and ashore.

The U.S. Third Fleet was led by Admiral William F. Halsey, the jut-jawed seadog who had been at war against Japan since December 7, 1941.  His carrier commander in Task Force 38 was Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher, a pioneer aviator who relied heavily upon his excellent staff.  The amphibious force was led by Seventh Fleet’s Admiral Thomas Kinkaid.

Leyte Gulf has been told and retold dozens of times, and requires little expansion here.  The Imperial Navy deployed three units: two powerful surface forces transiting the islands from west to east, and a minimal carrier force well to the north, which was bound to draw attention of the aggressive “Bull” Halsey.

Leading four Japanese carriers was Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, who had clashed with Mitscher off the Marianas in June.  “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” all but destroyed Tokyo’s carefully hoarded supply of trained carrier aircrews, leaving Ozawa with a small crop of rookies.

Historians still argue whether Leyte Gulf was a carrier battle.  The previous five, dating from Coral Sea in May 1942, all involved mutual exchange of carrier air strikes.  They resulted in loss of three U.S. flattops (plus one to a submarine) and nine Japanese—totaling fewer than the fast carriers Mitscher owned in October 44.  While a few of Ozawa’s planes flew within range of TF-38, none accomplished anything significant.

The battle began with U.S. submarines stalking Japan’s surface forces west of the Philippines on the 23rd.  Events peaked the next day with continuous air strikes that sank one of the two biggest ships afloat but otherwise did little to deter Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, who continued toward his goal of attacking U.S. shipping in Leyte Gulf.  His passage through San Bernardino Strait was reported by U.S. night owls but was ignored by Halsey and Mitscher with disastrous results the next day.

Meanwhile, Japanese land-based aircraft USS Princeton on the 24th, the first American fast carrier lost since October 1942.

Hours later, Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura’s southern force was annihilated in the last major surface action of all time, a nocturnal slugfest in Battle of Surigao Strait.  Outnumbered about six to one, he lost his life and his command, only one destroyer surviving.  

Partly due to unnecessarily complex communications, Halsey assumed that his battleships, Task Force 34, were guarding the Leyte side of San Bernardino Strait.  With word of Ozawa’s flattops to the north, he took TF-38 to destroy Ozawa, leaving Kinkaid’s amphibious command vulnerable to surface ships.  The only American force in the way was “Taffy Three,” six small carriers with their escorting destroyers.  During the Battle Off Samar, the immensely outgunned “small boys” fought back with guns, torpedoes, and whatever aircraft could be launched.  Other escort-carrier planes added to the effort, forcing Kurita to disengage.  

Throughout the day the U.S. Navy lost two escort carriers (one to the first kamikaze mission) and three destroyers.  

Halsey’s aviators and “black shoe” surface warriors sank all four of Ozawa’s carriers, but by then his flattops were almost empty shells.  The execution continued into the 26th, raising the toll to 28 Japanese warships.  The Imperial Navy never recovered.

MacArthur’s forces largely secured the Philippines in April 1945, providing another advanced fleet base for the Pacific Fleet.  

Late that year the U.S. Navy owned 6,000 ships including 90 aircraft carriers of all types.  It was two-thirds more than 12 months before and over three times the figure in 1941.  That month more than 3,000,000 men and women wore navy uniforms.

Today the Navy has about 490 ships and submarines with 438,000 uniformed personnel.  Congress mandates eleven carriers but at this writing only two are deployed. The new USS Ford (CVN-78), an enduring boondoggle, was delivered incomplete and may not deploy for another four or five years.  Her primary aircraft, the F-35C stealth fighter, is perennially troubled, and in fact took over two years just to qualify in carrier landings.  The Lightning II remains in low-rate production until it meets required mileposts for operational capability.


There’s still a great deal of misty-eyed sentimentality about “the greatest generation,” though none of the hundreds of WW II vets I’ve known, met or interviewed bought into Tom Brokaw’s unsupportable assertion.  But one thing seems certain: the aircrews and sailors who fought Leyte Gulf represented the greatest assembly of naval talent and capability of the era.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

SEPTEMBER REMEMBER

On this anniversary of 9-11 I'm stepping aside in favor of Cdr. R.R. "Boom" Powell, former naval aviator, former airline captain and active historic aircraft pilot.  With our unindicted co-conspirator Cdr. Jack Woodul, we wrote a WW I epic called "Duel Over Douai," but this heartfelt contribution from Boom commends its attention to all...yesterday, today and tomorrow.

A flight to New York, late September, 2001:
I saw Ground Zero last evening. Marie told me to look for the hole. I said I did not think anything would be visible. Weather was poor, flight path not close. I was wrong.
After flying mostly above the clouds from Norfolk while the sun set and a gray and turbulent descent, visibility underneath was crystal clear with urban lights glowing off the cloud base. The Verazzano Bridge was a positive fix. To the west, the Statue of Liberty was lighted with her torch and crown shining gold even at a distance. Up New York Harbor the buildings of lower Manhattan rose like dark cliffs from the water. Emanating from the ground in their midst was a bright light, volcanic in intensity. The source of the light hidden by the dark sided buildings. Unearthly. Strange. An apocalyptic radiance of catastrophe. Its brightness made starker by the dark shadows of the standing structures. Ground Zero indeed. An opening to hell… except for the light’s color.
The light was pure, clear, white. White; all colors, but no color. White; the color of heaven, the color of snow, of summer cloud, the color of hope.
I stayed with my face against the airplane window until the vision was well past. There were glimpses of the arc lamps illuminating rescue and reclamation efforts – almost blinding in the night, but then the source was shielded again and only the fountain of light flooded up and out making the clouds as white as day. The rain had restarted when we got off at La Guardia and the wind was cold, biting, from the north. The summer of 2001 is gone. And there is a lighted hole in Manhattan and our country’s soul.