Resource: What can we learn from Midway?
War movies are often very revealing. Think, for a moment, about who is represented, how they are represented, how much screen time is devoted to them, and how well rounded are they as characters. Is there an improvement over time, say, between the unseen menace that lurks in the streets of an Iraq War movie, and the unseen menace that lurks in the woods in its predecessors about the Vietnam war? Why do we still seem to be living with the legacies of the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War (as well as more contemporary conflicts)
, and what is it about the way that we remember them and represent them that means they resonate today? With that in mind, we might think about what use we can make of a film like Midway in the classroom, given it’s timeliness.
There were certainly some concerns about the way that the battle was going to be represented, given both America and the broader Western representation of military enemies from the East, and of propaganda aimed at the Japanese in particular. It must be acknowledged that these pitfalls were largely avoided, with the Japanese in the film less of a racialized demonic menace than we have encountered elsewhere. Rather, the strands in the film where Japanese characters were prominent tended to watch more like a political thriller, rife with the internal machinations in the Japanese Navy, between the branches of the military, and in Japanese society. If one looks solely at the way that the enemy is portrayed, it seems like this is a war film for a more modern age, one that leaves stereotypes behind.
But of course, there is always more than one side in a fight, and we must also consider the way that the Americans are represented. Here, Midway shows that old habits continue to die hard, with a hard-split running down the middle of the film. On the one hand, you have a strand with the intelligence officer Edwin Layton and Admiral Nimitz, and their attempts to deal with the Navy and to crack the code that will eventually lead to victory at Midway. This does not feel out of place with those scenes focusing on Admiral Yamamoto and the Japanese side of the conflict. However, when almost any other American is on screen, what we have instead is a romance in the typical vein of the American war film.
So, what ‘types’ can we identify in Midway? Reluctant heroes, a WW2-typical dislike of military brass, an idea of the ‘exceptional man’ who achieves things because of his refusal to walk the line, and the heroism of the American fighting man. In terms of cinematic elements, look at the way that these men are shot – the focus is almost always on them in these attacks, especially in the earlier portions of the film, and listen for where the soundtrack kicks in. How does the presence of stringed instruments contribute to the romanticism of men like Dick Best.
Finally, the film gestures in it’s opening scene to put the war in the Pacific against a wider political backdrop – to spell things out a little more rather than the war becoming a spectacle. But this is just more of a gesture than anything. More to the point, this only really applies to the Japanese side. The myth of the American involvement in the war as a response to Pearl Harbor is left intact. The film never really makes the tensions between the Americans and Japanese fully explicit, doesn’t answer why Yamamoto needs to appeal to the Layton not to box them in, nor does it address what the Americans are doing with territory in the Pacific in the first place.
None of this is to say that Midway is a bad film – indeed, I think an important point to make can be that it’s perfectly acceptable to like romance, and if there wasn’t something potent about these myths they would not survive - though for the reasons noted above I personally find it a rather disjointed narrative that seems not to reconcile the things it wants to be. But nevertheless, several aspects of this film tap into attitudes and feelings that stretch across American war narratives, and as a very contemporary production I think this can be used to show the ongoing relevance of thinking about such questions.
Peter Templeton is Fellow of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University.