Midway (1976)

Now, Hop In Your Sushi Boat And Git!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Midway is one of the better battle recreation movies to be released in the wake of The Longest Day (1962), detailing the first on-screen recreation of the battle, which was the turning point of the pacific war in this flawed but worthwhile Dubya-Dubya II venture. Universal Studios was the most old-school studio in the 1970s and concurrently Midway is an unashamedly old-school film within the era of New Hollywood and one which plays into the 70’s disaster movie trope of featuring an all-star cast, many of whom were residing in their twilight years. Ensemble pieces of this nature can easily provide an excuse for a cast to phone-it-in but the famed personalities in Midway all do shine even with some players of the cast only getting brief cameos. Much of the film’s roaster were veterans of the war itself including Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Cliff Robertson, Robert Webber, screenwriter Donald S. Sanford and director Jack Smight (something exceedingly rare among contemporary Hollywood). 

The king of larger-than-life actors, Charlton Heston leads the picture and portrays one of the characters not based on a historical figure in the role of Matthew Garth (the same name as Montgomery Clift’s character in Red River), and being fictional he is given his big hero moment at the climax of the battle. Of the cameo appearances I feel Cliff Robertson is given the most memorable in which he delivers a great, cynical monologue about the “the wait and see-ers” in relation to the warnings given in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor, while Robert Mitchum provides some welcome comic relief as the agitated hospital patient William F. “Bull” Halsey Jr (“I know, I’m a son of a b**** of a patient”). I also find it humorous that Joseph Rochefort (Hal Holbrook) wears a dressing gown over his army uniform and Captain Gareth does ask a “very personal” question in regards to the hygiene of him and his men (“You know, it really stinks down here. How often do some of your people take a bath?”). However, the most memorable piece of casting in Midway would have to be that of Japan’s Japan’s all time greatest film star, Toshiro Mifune as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (the third film in which he has portrayed the famed Japanese admiral). Reportedly Mifune’s Japanese accent when speaking English was so thick that his lines had to be dubbed by actor Paul Frees yet regardless, his sheer physical presence alone does bring a great sense of weight to his scenes. I do wish however the film had the Japanese characters actually speak Japanese rather than English. Come on, we’re big boys, we can read a few subtitles. It also doesn’t help that many of the Asian actors in these scenes have obvious American accents.

Much of Midway plays out as men of authority talk battle tactics over giant maps, feeling like a giant game of chess between both sides as we are given much background insight into the decoding methods employed prior to the battle. These scenes are among the best directed in the film with the layers of texture and effective use of interior space. Likewise, very little new combat material was filmed for Midway with footage taken from Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Battle of Britain (1969) and Storm Over the Pacific (Hawai Middouei daikaikusen: Taiheiyo no arashi), the latter of which was made 16 years prior (and also starred Toshiro Mifune). I do love the shot of the Imperial Japanese flag over the upper half of a battleship in the background, only to be disappointed to find out its footage taken from another movie. There is an obvious change in grain structure with this footage although it’s not overly jarring and I have seen worse examples. I am left with spilt feelings on the film’s use of actual combat footage taken from the Battle of Midway itself. On one hand, it completely contrasts with the newly filmed footage but perhaps an argument can be made that it’s taking the documentary-like aspect of the film to its logical endpoint by using actual footage from the battle. The battle itself does feel drawn out and repetitive and is clearly edited around the Sensurround system (which was the big selling point in the film’s promotion), with the same angle shots of pilots flying planes used repeatedly and an overreliance on the use of subtitles to identify locations, ships, squadrons and individuals.

The other major topic Midway explores is the US government’s internment of Japanese-Americans during the war (“execute order 9066”). I enjoyed the subplot involving Gareth’s son Thomas (Edward Albert) having fallen in love with a Japanese-American girl named Haruko Sakura (Christina Kokubo), of whom her family is being interned in Honolulu over their membership of so called Japanese Patriotic Organizations and the owning of subversive magazines (“Damn it, I’m an American! What makes up different from German-Americans or Italian-Americans?”). However I do wish this subplot could have been explored in greater depth as the film only scratches the surfaces of the subject matter nor is the sub-plot given a proper resolution as come the film’s end Haruko sees an injured Tom coming off the boat on a stretcher, but that’s it.

In 1978 a TV version of Midway was broadcast in which newly filmed scenes were added to the film. This TV version inserts an entire section detailing the Coral Sea Battle of which the newly filmed footage is competently made but just feels like filler (and still includes a large amount of stock footage). Also included in this version are scenes in which Charlton Heston reprises his role as Captain Gareth in a relationship with a woman named Ann (Susan Sullivan) who is never mentioned in the original film. These scenes are very cheesy and shot in a manner that is more televisual than cinematic but more significantly, they do not contribute to the narrative or enhance the final demise of Gareth. The final inclusions in this version are two scenes involving the Japanese commanders, the first of which is actually a terrific addition to the film. In the scene, James Shigeta reprises his role as Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo in which he speaks to the son of Yamamoto who he expresses doubts that Japan is fighting a war they cannot win as the two walk through some striking historical Japanese architecture (of which the film states is Nagumo’s residence in Tokyo). The direction and acting of this scene is top-notch and help further humanize the Japanese side in the one worthwhile addition in the TV version. I can’t say the same however for the second of these two scenes as the latter by contrast is poorly directed in which two Japanese commanders react to the defeat at the Coral Sea – a simple static and very bland shot. Midway is already a flawed film as it is and these extra additions (bar the one aforementioned scene) really don’t help matters, with Henry Fonda not even showing up until 57 minutes in. The TV version of Midway is included in the 2021 Powerhouse Films Blu-ray release.

Throughout Midway the American soldiers use the pejorative term “Jap”, yet the film portrays a mutual respect for enemies among the high ranks of both the US and Japanese militaries. Yamamoto speaks of how “I have travelled widely in America, my friends. Their industrial might is awesome” while Admiral Nimitz (Henry Fonda) concludes following the battle, “It doesn’t make any sense, admiral. Yamamoto had everything going for him. Power, experience, confidence. We’re we better than the Japanese, or just luckier?”. Despite being a picture detailing a Japanese military loss, Midway was a big hit in Japan. It is not a jingoistic film and treats both sides in a fair and dignified manner, perhaps nowhere more so than Yamamoto’s final appearance in which he accepts responsibility for the loss and states “I am the only one who must apologize to his majesty”.

Rocky (1976)

The Philadelphia Story

I may sound like a bit of a fanboy when I talk about the Rocky franchise but I just legitimately love all these movies so much. This is a series which always inspires me and has aided me during my darkest days. Rocky was one of the first movies to have such a profound impact on me, making me appreciate cinema on a deeper level. I first saw Rocky on TV and week after week came back to watch the sequels; such joy I had and memories I never forget.

I don’t think there is a fictional character whom I’ve been more emotionally invested in than Rocky Balboa. Could there be a character who is more honest or down to Earth? A man who has next to nothing yet has such a positive outlook on life (“Naw I ain’t got no phone, I had to pull it you know because people calling me all the time, and who needs the aggravation, right?” – such profound wisdom). The character is also a mystery and an enigma; who are his parents and what about his early years? Apart from a few brief snippets of information, it’s up to the viewer’s imagination instead of giving us a pointless origin story which Hollywood is so keen on nowadays. The character is biographical of his creator Sylvester Stallone throughout the whole series; his fictional alter ego. Just like Rocky, Stallone had next to nothing before making it as a star. Just like how the character rises to the challenge against impossible odds, the movie also beat impossible odds by becoming one of the biggest sleeper hits of all time. Likewise what movie or character is more identified with a city or has such reverence for the location it was filmed.

All the films in the series reflect the periods in which they were made. It’s 1976, America’s Bicentennial year. Perhaps the country didn’t know it needed an injection of optimism after years of cynical and pessimistic film as well as political upheaval. Don’t get me wrong, there will always be a place for cynicism in movies but with such movies dominating the mainstream at the time it was clear that enough was enough. It seems like happy endings where against the law in the first half of the 70’s, but Rocky brought them back for better or worse, and film snobs will look down on it for that. But yes, I do blubber away at this ending and Adrian’s uttering of “I love you!” is the greatest “I love you!” in cinema history. The ending has that same feeling of joy and happiness as seen in the ending of many Frank Capra movies. Speaking of Capra, Rocky’s response to being asked if he wants to fight Apollo Creed for the world heavyweight championship is like Gary Cooper in Mr Deeds Goes to Town when he is told of the vast sum of money he has inherited.

As the filmmakers didn’t get permission to shot for many of the on locations, guerilla filmmaking techniques where employed in the making of Rocky; capturing the streets of Philadelphia in all their glory with that distinctive that gritty look of 70’s films while aided with the use of the then-new technology in the form of the steady cam. You’d be hard pressed to find a movie which is more naturalistic and unmanufactured as Rocky.

It’s astounding that such a low budget film could have had such a great soundtrack and score. Bill Conti’s score to Rocky always makes me feel melancholic; the Rocky soundtracks have given me hours upon hours of listening pleasure. I even watch the end credits of all the films for the music (well except the first one as the end credit music here is quite dreary). The Rocky movies are also responsible for my love of montages. I’ll never forget the feeling of exuberance I felt watching the film’s training montage for the first time and hearing Gonna Fly Now; we’re talking the goosiest of goosebumps.

Roger Ebert compared Stallone to Marlon Brando in his original review, and in 1976 no one could have seen this man being a future action movie star, but I maintain the man is more intelligent than people make him out to be. He’s made a respectable career out of what he is capable of doing. How many people can claim to have been able to write installments in a film series which has lasted four decades and still manage to keep the long-running story interesting? During the filming of Rocky, he had to do script rewrites on the spot such as upon discovering the ice rink for Rocky and Adrian’s was completely empty or the shorts on the giant poster of Rocky in the stadium where the wrong colour.

When I watched this film at a younger age, I never fully appreciated the romantic angle, yet watching it from a more mature perspective. Rocky and Adrian are like two misfits who don’t fully fit in with the rest of society. There is a goddess with Adrian, and only Rocky can see it. The scene in which Rocky invites Adrian to his apartment after their first date took my breath away like few other love scenes have ever done. The sexuality on display is immense with Stallone in a vest and the gradual build-up to their first kiss, and I’m sure they did it.

The world of Rocky is populated with such unforgettable characters. Rocky’s trainer Mickey Goldmill is one of the greatest mentors in film history (either him or Obi-Wan Kenobi in my book) with his grouchy and curmudgeon manner. I feel Burgess Meredith is an actor who got better with age, so no surprise his most famous role came to him at the age of 68. Paulie (Burt Young) is one pathetic hateful loser, abuses his sister, is violent and yet you can’t help but feel sorry for him. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) on the other hand, dam! What a showman with his charisma, confidence, cockiness, and ego; the archetype of a leading man from a blacksploitation film. Yet despite being a black man, he is surely one of the most patriotic characters ever put on screen who shuns any left wing mentality of victimhood; sounds like a dam monster movie!

One more recent viewings of Rocky I’ve also come to appreciate Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell) more as a character. A charismatic loan shark who employs Rocky and has a real liking for him, giving him money for his date, attends his fight with Apollo and doesn’t try to take over his boxing career whereas many other mobsters would. Yet Rocky’s lenient collecting style by refusing to break the thumbs of clients who don’t pay up causes problems for Gazzo yet he treats Rocky almost like a brother. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that in the original script for the film, Rocky and Gazzo where brothers.

When Rocky visits the empty arena before the fight you can feel the pressure and weight that bestows him. By the time the final fight comes around I’m so emotionally invested in this character that I’m rooting for him like it’s a real fight. During the fight itself, the punches look real and there’s no sped up footage like boxing films of the past; while Bill Conti’s score ups the intensity and suspense for some serious emotional impact.