US and Japanese forces clash in the Pacific in Roland Emmerich’s World War II epic, Midway.
Six months after Japan’s brutal attack on US forces at Pearl Harbor came the decisive naval battle of Midway, inflicting devastating and irreparable damage to the Japanese fleet and swiftly restoring US morale.
Although Midway is lesser known than Pearl Harbor, naval historians deem this battle in the Pacific as one of the most consequential naval engagements in world history, altering the course of World War II.
With countless films made about Pearl Harbor, it’s surprising that only one major film has been made about Midway – Jack Smight’s widely forgotten 1976 drama starring Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda and James Coburn. Enter German director Roland Emmerich, no stranger to cinematic spectacles, having helmed historical epic The Patriot and sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day.
“That first Midway movie was not very good,” Emmerich tells STACK when we meet with him at the Hawaiian premiere of his own Midway movie starring Woody Harrelson, Patrick Wilson, Dennis Quaid and Luke Evans.
“I think Midway was one of the most interesting battles that ever happened. It’s a very complex story and that’s why we had to include some of the Pearl Harbor story to show how Midway served as a comeback for the Americans. It’s always a great story to tell when the underdog succeeds.”
Emmerich is in full flow about underdogs when Harrelson saunters into the room like a shaven-headed god, all bare feet and island vibe having just flown in from the neighbouring island of Maui where he has lived for almost 20 years.
The two men first met when Emmerich cast Harrelson in his apocalyptic drama 2012. “Woody’s character in 2012 couldn’t have been any more different than in this, and yet I immediately thought of him to play Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. They are both Texans and share a certain can-do attitude,” says the director.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Nimitz was given the tough job of Commander in Chief of Pacific Areas; Harrelson warming to the task of portraying this larger-than-life hero who became a major player in US WWII history with countless public works named after him.
“I researched as much as I could about him,” says Harrelson who actually requested permission from the US Navy to spend a night on board an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, as well as visiting the National Museum of the Pacific War located in Fredericksburg, Texas, Nimitz’s boyhood home.
“Even though the US Navy had Intel in order to prepare for this battle at Midway, I believe we still would have lost that battle if it weren’t for the arrogance on the Japanese side. The Japanese were so strong at that time and so dominant at sea, I guess they just thought they were unbeatable – until Midway,” he adds.
Admittedly, Harrelson’s signing on for Midway was a bonus for casting. “We were able to go out to a bunch of actors and tell them Woody was on board,” says Emmerich, who cast Dennis Quaid as Admiral William Halsey; Patrick Wilson as naval Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton; Luke Evans as Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky; and Aaron Eckhart as Army bomber squadron leader Jimmy Doolittle.
With Ed Skrein and Mandy Moore as Navy flyboy Dick Best and his wife, even Nick Jonas wanted in on the action, portraying Naval radioman Bruno Gaido – a courageous young chap forced to bail from his plane and winding up on the deck of a Japanese destroyer.
The pop star also felt a connection to the character through his family. “A really important moment for me was when I put the uniform on,” Jonas says. “I thought back to pictures of my grandfather who served in the military, and immediately sent my grandmother a picture of me in costume.”
Unlike most US depictions of WWII, Emmerich’s Midway is almost sympathetic to the Japanese. “It was important to not present the Japanese solely as bad guys, because they were not bad guys. Yes, they had a lot of hubris and were arrogant but they are also great, honorable people – such as when Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano) went down with his carrier. So they were heroes, too.
“I also think that what this tells the audience is that, in war, there are no winners or losers. There are only losers because people lose their lives.
“We could have made this into another huge cheering scene but we didn’t want to do that because when you read about these pilots, they lost their friends,” says the director who was so keen to embody the various forms of heroism displayed by all these men that he actually sent out his script, asking the actors which character they saw themselves as.
Daredevil navy flyboy Dick Best – portrayed by Ed Skrein – is really the unsung hero of Midway, his seat-of-the-pants dive-bombing turning the tide of the war. “You see several versions of Best throughout the story,” says Skrein. “Firstly, there’s the cocky guy who turns off his plane’s engine to prove to himself he knew how to land without it. And then, after Pearl Harbor, you see the relentless Best, who’s on a one-man mission to win the war. In the space of a few months, he loses some pilot friends, which begins a dark night of the soul for Best and we see him at his absolute lowest.”
An ardent history buff, Quaid was keen to get in on the action, portraying Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, commanding the U.S.S. Enterprise, an aircraft carrier stationed at Pearl Harbor. Dealing with the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack and encroachment of the Japanese in the Pacific, he’s faced with the challenge of the US forces being outnumbered by Japan.
“My dad was in WWII, in the Merchant marines, in the Atlantic,” Quaid tells us. “The father of my friend T Bone Burnett was on the enterprise with Admiral Halsey from Pearl Harbor all the way through to the end of the war, so there’s a real personal connection to Midway for me.”
Portraying Halsey as a stubborn man, he says, “Halsey was no fan of the Army brass and was known for taking matters into his own hands. He had his own brash style but his connection with his men made him a great leader, particularly of so many inexperienced young men, some of whom were little more than boys. They looked at Halsey as a father figure who was going to get them through this.”
Quaid believes the story holds relevance today about sacrificing for the greater good. “Everybody abroad and at home gave so much,” he says. “You couldn’t get a rubber tire for your bicycle or buy gas because it was all going to the war effort. Everybody pitched in for something bigger than themselves. It’s a lesson for all of us about uniting in spite of our differences.”
Emmerich hopes that Midway is more than a history lesson. “These young pilots sacrificed their lives so future generations would live with freedom and democracy,” he says. “Politicians start wars, but never fight them. It’s the common soldier who ultimately pays the price.”