The Battle of Midway
Reviewed in March 2009
Director: John Ford. Propaganda documentary about the U.S. military victory over the Japanese in the Battle of Midway, comprised largely of direct combat footage. Voice Cast: Donald Crisp, Irving Pichel, Jane Darwell, Henry Fonda. Screenplay: John Ford, Dudley Nichols, and James Kevin McGuinness.

Photo © 1942 the United States Navy/20th Century Fox
Funded by the U.S. Navy and laureled by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Battle of Midway is a peculiar amalgam of vérité combat footage between the U.S. and Japanese forces, of experimental techniques with montage and saturated color that heighten the beauty and the horror of the battle, and of quintessential John Ford-isms that slice the ideology of the moment down to folksy, even jokey human size. Explicitly commissioned and delivered as propaganda, there's no huge percentage outside of hardline-historical circles for pressing The Battle of Midway for emblematic fidelity to the facts. Certainly there's no arguing with the camera's witnessing of the dive-bombing Japanese planes, the gutted terrain and demolished infrastructure on the atoll, or the ground-to-air artillery punching black, smoky holes in the Pacific sky. From the standpoint of film, it's fascinating to see Ford slashing away at his own defining proficiency with "classical form," fluorescing the blazing oranges and black plumes to proto-Kenneth Anger levels, and disrupting the vertical hold on his image. There's an expressionist urgency to the way he uses airplane wings and belching smoke to cut his frames diagonally from corner to corner, without making the footage look too pre-fabricated or worked-over. And yet, if Ford were wholly interested in the mirage of unmediated history, he would be less likely to have old standbys Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda ventriloquizing humble, Fordish, tough-squishy dialogue between the pilots and gunmen we see in the footage and their imagined mothers and neighbors back home—and even less likely to devote two short, facetious sequences to the egret-ish shorebirds whom the film names as the imperiled "residents" of Midway's black and rocky beaches, natives whom Tojo has promised to "liberate." There's a clear picture here of the WWII propaganda machine firing on all pistons, and also of the perennial tendency of American media to condense historical complexity down to a bouillon cube of shock footage and jingoistic sarcasm. But the sum of the images and sounds is both arresting and moving nonetheless, and it's as provocative as a new (and an old) way to contemplate Ford as it is seminal as a time-capsule for martial history and for wartime image-mongering and tribute-paying in the days before television, handheld cameras, and megacorporate news crews.B+

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Documentary

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