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Midway (film)

Movie poster. Courtesy of University Pictures
View in the Densho Encyclopedia

Epic war movie that tells the story of the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the Pacific War, from both the American and Japanese perspectives. Made for a modest budget despite its all-star cast, Midway was successful at the box office. In addition to employing many Japanese American actors in the roles of Japanese naval officers, the movie has a subplot involving the internment/incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Synopsis and Internment Subplot

The plot depicts the Battle of Midway in semi-documentary fashion on both the American and Japanese sides, populated largely by real historical figures as portrayed by actors. The main American character, Capt. Matt Garth (Charlton Heston) is a composite character, however. Much of the first half of the movie portrays the chess match between Adm. Chester W. Nimitz (Henry Fonda) and his advisers on one side and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Toshiro Mifune) and his men on the other; the second half of the movie largely consists of battle scenes. Despite being outnumbered and outflanked, Nimitz's bold ploy of anticipating the Japanese attack on Midway led to a major Allied victory, resulting in the sinking of four Japanese aircraft carriers. The movie ends with Nimitz wondering if the Americans were really better than the Japanese or just luckier.

All of the scenes involving Japanese characters were conducted in English, which led to Japanese American actors portraying nearly all of the key roles except that of Yamamoto. As such, a near who's who of Japanese American male actors appear in Midway , led by a nearly unrecognizable James Shigeta as Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo and major roles for Pat Morita , Robert Ito, Sab Shimono , Yuki Shimoda , and others.

Midway also includes a major subplot that invokes the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans. Garth's son Tom, a young navy flier, reunites with his father in Hawai'i at the beginning of the movie and informs him that he has "fallen in love with a Japanese girl." While training in San Diego, Tom had met Haruko Sakura (Christina Kokubo), a Nisei student at San Diego State University and the two intend to marry. Wanting to seek the approval of her parents, Haruko goes to see them in Hawai'i, where she and her parents are promptly rounded up by the FBI and interned. Insisting that, "Haruko was born here; she's as loyal as either you or me," Tom asks his father to see if he can do something to free her before she and her family are shipped off to mainland internment camps.

Matt goes to see the Sakuras, who are interned in Hawai'i in what looks like a Quonset hut that has been divided into small rooms. Embittered by her treatment, Haruko indignantly asks Matt, "Damn it, I'm an American! What makes us different from German Americans or Italian Amerians?" to which he replies "Pearl Harbor, I guess." She tells him that she has refused to see Tom because her parents have forbidden their marriage, which she will accede to. Later, Tom goes to see her at her internment site, where they talk separated by a fence; she tries to tell him she doesn't love him anymore but can't do it. Meanwhile, Matt goes to see an old friend in the Office of Naval Intelligence to ask him to take a look at the Sakura's case, which he very reluctantly agrees to do. The subplot is largely dropped in the second half of the movie, though an apparently free Haruko is seen greeting a wounded Tom as he is being taken off a ship at the end of the movie. [1]

Background and Response

Hollywood producer Walter Mirisch had long wanted to do a movie about Midway and personally hired Donald Sanford to write a screenplay. He pitched the movie to United Artists, but was rebuffed, due in part to the financial failure of the similar World War II epic Tora! Tora! Tora! in 1970. When Mirisch moved to Universal, he pitched the idea again and was granted approval, provided he could keep the budget down and attract a major star. Charlton Heston agreed to be in the movie, playing a fictional character amid the real historical figures. Henry Fonda agreed to play Nimitz, whom he had played before and greatly admired. Mirisch crafted the movie to include many cameo parts that could be filmed in one day, allowing such stars as Robert Mitchum, James Coburn, and Cliff Robertson to sign up for minimal fees. To further keep down the budget, he decided to use as much existing footage as possible, acquiring not only Japanese and American footage of the actual battle, but the rights to use footage from prior American and Japanese World War II movies. The U.S. Navy also agreed to cooperate the with the filmmakers, allowing the use of the USS Lexington . John Guillermin was hired to direct. The $5 million budget was a fraction of the $25 million Tora! Tora! Tora! had cost. [2]

Two months in, Mirisch fired Guillermin who struggled with filming under low budget conditions and replaced him with Jack Smight. The crew began shooting in Pensacola, Florida, where the Lexington was based, in May 1975. The Lexington was still in use, going on week long training cruises with student pilots who practiced day and night landings. The crew was allowed to go on these cruises, shooting around the training using World War II era planes rented from local collectors. The crew did additional filming in the Los Angeles area at Long Beach and Point Dume and at Universal's studios. Post-production work included the meshing of the old and new footage to look seamless, as well as the dubbing of Mifune—whose English proved too heavily accented—by Paul Frees. The movie also employed Universal's "Sensurround" process—an enhanced sound system that used speakers on all sides of the audience that had been developed for the movie Earthquake . [3]

Midway opened in June 1976, just prior to America's bicentennial celebrations. Despite lukewarm to poor reviews, the movie proved popular, and it became one of the most successful movies of the year. After its theatrical run, it was released in Japan and internationally and also shown on television. Nearly an hour's worth of new footage was added for the TV version, allowing it fill two two-hour time slots. In 1992 a re-edited three-hour version was shown on the 50th anniversary of Midway. Mirisch claimed it "produced the greatest amount of profit" of any film he made. [4]

Film historian Robert Niemi placed Midway at "the end of the heroic era of American-made World War II epics," calling it "a final, anachronistic attempt to recapture World War II glories in a radically altered geopolitical era, when the old good-versus-evil dichotomies no longer made sense." In his analysis of Japanese images in American film, Wang Xiaofei credits Midway with portraying the Japanese military figures as "fearless and professional" and their leaders as "wise, calm, and handsome," while noting its popularity in Japan. He also writes that the emphasis on luck playing such a key role in the U.S. victory "had progressive racial implications" in that the Japanese "lost the battle not because they were racially inferior or because they could not think and act as individuals." [5]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

Might also like Magnum P.I., "Forty Years from Sand Island" (1983); I'll Remember April (2000); Come See the Paradise (1990)


  1. This portrayal of incarceration essentially grafts what happened on the West Coast onto Hawai'i: in Hawai'i, families were not incarcerated, and the glimpse of the camp they were held in looks much more like West Coast " assembly centers " than actual Hawai'i detention facilities such as Sand Island or Honouliuli .
  2. Walter Mirisch, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), 290, 327–32.
  3. Mirisch, I Thought We Were Making Movies , 330–39; AFI Catalog of Feature Films , accessed on March 12, 2015 at .
  4. Mirisch, I Thought We Were Making Movies , 337–39; AFI Catalog of Feature Films .
  5. Robert Niemi, History in the Media: Film and Television (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2006), 119; Wang Xiaofei, "Constructing Japaneseness: War, Race, and American Cinema, 1924–1992" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California, 2009), 292–93.
Media Details
Release Date 1976
Runtime 132 minutes
Director Jack Smight
Producer Walter Mirisch
Screenplay Donald S. Sanford
Starring Charlton Heston (Captain Matt Garth), Henry Fonda (Admiral Chester W. Nimitz), James Coburn (Captain Vinton Maddox), Glenn Ford (Rear Admiral Raymand A. Spruance), Hal Holbrook (Commander Joseph Rochefort), Toshio Mifune (Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto)
Music John Williams
Cinematography Harry Stradling, Jr.
Editing Robert Swink
Studio University Pictures
Gross Revenue $60 million
For More Information

For More Information

AFI Catalog of Feature Films . .

Mirisch, Walter. I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008.

Wang, Xiaofei, "Constructing Japaneseness: War, Race, and American Cinema, 1924–1992." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California, 2009.