NO RIGHT TO WIN
A CONTINUING DIALOGUE WITH VETERANS OF
THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY
The best of the Battle of Midway Roundtable in book form
Updated: 9 April 2010
MORE VIDEO REVIEWS
©2010, Ronald W. Russell
1. Days That Shook the World (revised)
2. The Pacific (revised)
3. War and Remembrance
1. Days That Shook the World: the Battle of Midway
Page 322 in No Right to Win includes previews of BOM-related video productions that were forthcoming at the time the book was completed. The first of the two was televised only a week after the book was published. Days That Shook the World: the Battle of Midway was shown on 5 September 2006, and I wrote a detailed review of it for the 11 September issue of our newsletter. The following is an abridged version of that lengthy review.
This British production stands out from all of the rest in that it is not just a straight documentary—numerous key scenes are dramatized by actors playing the roles of some of the BOM’s principal figures, such as Simard, Spruance, Waldron, Gay, Best, Nagumo, Tomonaga, and Yamaguchi. Such dramatizations add a lot of interest to the production, which otherwise would simply be another BOM documentary and not a very accurate one at that.
But on the Roundtable we're not just interested in a production that's entertaining—it also has to be faithful to the battle's factual history. This program manages that in a very general sense, but it fails quite significantly in many of the details. While that's more or less common with virtually all of the earlier BOM films and videos, this one was made in 2005, long after the failings of those earlier efforts had been identified and long after modern, reliable references on the BOM had become available. That being the case, the type and quantity of the glitches found in this production seem particularly difficult to justify.
As for the age-old problem of wrong ships and planes, this one is actually not too bad in that regard. There were numerous scenes of F4Fs, TBDs, SBDs, PBYs and Zeros, including good shots of some modern restorations in flight. The Hellcats, ship-launched TBFs, and Essex-class carriers that we usually see weren't there this time, except for one distant shot of an Essex taking a hit while the narrator was talking about bombs striking Akagi.
Some of the aircraft had pre-BOM or 1943 markings, but that's to be expected.
However, what was not expected was the extent to which this program erred with much of the BOM's history. Here are just some of the problems that I noted:
§ The program begins with a claim that it is based on eyewitness accounts and "new operational evidence." The "new operational evidence" is not defined, and you will be hard-pressed to find anything in the production that is both new and factual.
§ The program made almost no mention of the importance of communications intelligence at the BOM, and the one thing they did say they got wrong: "the Americans broke the Japanese naval code a few weeks before the battle."
§ One scene showed RADM Spruance transmitting by voice radio directly to the PBYs from the Enterprise. Not hardly!
§ Japanese bombers approaching Midway are said to have appeared "out of nowhere." That would have been surprising to the Marine radar operators on Sand Island who spotted them 93 miles out.
§ There was no mention of the strikes by the Marine, Navy, and Army bombers from Midway. SB2U Vindicators (from the John Ford Battle of Midway movie) are shown taking off without explanation.
§ The narrator says that VT-8 "followed Spruance's course only so far" before breaking away in a different direction. The program makes no mention of Ring or Mitscher, nor is there any mention of the Hornet or its air group except for VT-8. Also, there is no mention of torpedo planes from the Enterprise or Yorktown.
§ As usual, George Gay is described as the "sole survivor" of VT-8 at the BOM. Gay, of course, was the squadron's third survivor that morning, after Earnest and Ferrier of the TBF detachment.
§ This program was wholly focused on Richard Best and VB-6, insofar as the American dive bombers are concerned. There was absolutely no mention of Wade McClusky or VS-6. There was scant reference to dive bombers from the Yorktown. The names of LCDR Leslie and VB-3 never came up. Viewers are almost led to believe that Best and VB-6 won the entire battle by themselves. The narrator at one point even says that "for the Americans, all hope rides with Richard Best and Bombing 6."
There were several more errors tallied in my notes, but I have to bring this lengthy article to a close at some point. Before I do, it's only fair to say that the program was actually very good in many regards. Again, the dramatizations of BOM events were refreshing and mostly done rather well. The actor who played the part of Japanese admiral Yamaguchi was particularly good—he looked and acted very much like the aggressive warrior the admiral is said to have been.
In closing, readers may think that I've gone a little too far in criticizing this program, but I believe all of the criticism is warranted. This is the twenty-first century; the time for excusing simple errors like those above has passed. At this late date, the producer of a BOM film who doesn't bother to look up the battle's details in reliable references nor engage the aid of experienced consultants (and pay attention to what they tell him!) cannot expect unqualified acceptance of his flawed production.
After this review appeared in The Roundtable Forum, I was criticized for being too much of a nitpicker on a production that was limited to only 60 minutes of air time in order to tell the whole BOM story (plus commercials). While I readily admit to being very detail-focused on matters of history, I can’t buy the excuse that errors like the foregoing are to be given a pass due to the constraints of time. That criticism might have a measure of validity if no one had ever before made a top quality one-hour video portrayal of the BOM, but of course, that’s not the case. The Discovery Channel, Fox News Channel, and PBS productions (p. 318-320 in No Right to Win) are excellent, yet they predate this newer video by as much as eleven years. Plainly, its producers were driven more by the bottom line than historical accuracy. That may work with the general public, but not in a history forum, and it’s from that viewpoint that we must evaluate it.
2. The Pacific
The second pending production mentioned on page 322 in No Right to Win was the Tom Hanks-Steven Spielberg project originally entitled The Pacific War, and subsequently renamed The Pacific for broadcast on HBO. We had high anticipations for this new miniseries since advance publicity suggested a full episode on the BOM. Our assumption was that the employment of Roundtable member Hugh Ambrose (son of producer/author Stephen Ambrose) as one of the project’s chief consultants would ensure an accurate rendition of the BOM story, told with the 21st century state-of-the-art imagery.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. The project seemed to lie dormant for many months, then word arrived via Hugh Ambrose that the Midway portion of the screenplay had been cut. The story starts with the Guadalcanal Campaign. Regretfully, then, it appears that a top quality BOM movie, including all of the drama and modern technical wizardry that Hollywood can bring to the big screen is still but a future aspiration.
As a small consolation, Ambrose wrote a book version of The Pacific that goes well beyond the HBO series, which features the wartime stories of three Marines. The book adds two more real life characters, including BOM VS-6 pilot Mike Micheel, whose Midway and Guadalcanal stories are related in full.
* * * * *
3. War and Remembrance
You may recall the extensive TV miniseries from the 1980s, The Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance. The vastness of the two productions was remarkable by any measure, most likely setting records that endure today. The Winds of War centered on a fictional family caught in the run-up to World War II in the 1930s, and the sequel covered pretty much the entire scope of the war itself. Both series are now readily available on DVD.
When I began reading, watching, and reviewing BOM literature and media productions some years ago, a few of our Roundtable members commented to me that the battle was covered rather well in War and Remembrance. After finally obtaining a copy of the DVD set (long after No Right to Win had gone to the publisher), I have to say that anyone with an interest in the BOM will want to watch it at least once, and maybe a second time if you haven’t seen it since its original run. In a nutshell, it may well be the very best of its class: re-enactments of the battle, as opposed to documentaries.
The episode is centered mainly on a fictional Enterprise SBD pilot, LT Warren Henry, who appears to be a composite of LT Joseph Penland (VB-6) and LT Earl Gallaher (VS-6), or a senior pilot of similar status in the air group. There are very good scenes of Henry and the rest of his squadron’s pilots in their ready room just prior to launch on the morning of June 4th—it looks very authentic, with the pilots plotting their intended course on the large plotting board that each carried. We’ve read a lot about that very thing on the Roundtable from our BOM veteran pilots. It was refreshing to see that level of authentic detail in the production.
The script is also very authentic in the scene from Howard Ady’s PBY, with the famous radio messages correctly delivered, such as “two carriers and main body of ships, carriers in front, course 135, speed 25,” plus Ady’s comment that sighting Kido Butai was “like watching a curtain rise on the Biggest Show on Earth”—a direct quote from Ady himself (see Morison Vol. IV, p. 103, footnote). There was nothing contrived out of thin air for what the producers might have thought the audience wanted to see or hear, like the ridiculous “Strawberry Five” voice radio calls in the 1976 Midway movie.
There were numerous other examples of this video’s attention to the authentic details of the battle. Among those that I noted were questions among Spruance’s staff on the Enterprise flag bridge as to why Ady had only reported two Japanese carriers. “Where are their other carriers?” one officer asked, which reminded me of that same subject, discussed at great length on the Roundtable. (See the
"The Flight to Nowhere" on these update page.)
But the most remarkably authentic touch in my view was the thorough treatment given to the conflict between TF-16 Chief of Staff Captain Miles Browning and the Enterprise squadron commanders, and ultimately with Spruance himself. Browning is clearly shown as an aviator with an inner streak of brilliance that was masked by severe character flaws. There is an excellent climactic scene just prior to the launch on June 5th for which Browning had dictated a bomb load and launch point that would have assured the entire air group of running out of fuel before returning to the ship. The much-documented confrontation between Browning and LT Gallaher (VS-6), LT Short (VS-5), LT Shumway (VB-3), LCDR McClusky (CEAG), and CAPT Murray (Enterprise CO) is acted out in detail, with dialogue straight out of
Miracle at Midway, including Admiral Spruance’s argument-ender: “I will do what you pilots want.”
The scene then shifts to a personal give-and-take between Browning and Spruance, in which the admiral rips into his chief of staff for botching the morning launch on June 4th, botching the enemy’s predicted course, and botching the establishment of Point Option for the returning pilots. “We won yesterday in spite of my staff,” he says. “We mainly won because of luck!” Browning then storms off the bridge in a snit, very much as described in the various histories that we’ve read. Again, the attention to elements of detail not bothered with in other BOM productions is very refreshing in this film.
If the production has a weakness with regard to the BOM, it would be the scant coverage given the Hornet and Yorktown as well as the communications intelligence aspect of the battle. Those things are mentioned and due credit is given, but there is very little on-screen content. The attack upon the atoll is covered a little better, with a few clips from the John Ford movie. However, the limited scope of the film isn’t too surprising, since the story primarily revolves around LT Henry and the Enterprise air group.
And of course, there are the usual problems with non-authentic ships and aircraft, but I think we can let that pass in a 1980s production. They actually had several good scenes of real SBDs, and many other flying sequences were passably executed with some decent models. We’ve grown accustomed to far better imagery with modern CGI techniques, such as hoards of very real-looking Zeros in the 2001 Pearl Harbor movie. But those skills didn’t exist 20 years earlier, so you have to give them credit for what they did with limited resources. Indeed, they at least avoided those ubiquitous archive clips of Hellcats, Helldivers, and carrier-borne Avengers that we see in any number of other BOM depictions.
The same is true of the ships. There were no CV5-class carriers to film in 1980, so we see views of more modern ships (although a real SBD occasionally launches from one). The Japanese ships were even worse, with scenes of AA crews manning 40 mm. Bofors quads aboard Kido Butai’s carriers. Again, such shortcomings are attributable to the limits of what was possible in the 1980s, and they were thoroughly overshadowed by the production’s quality in other respects.
One of the final scenes hit close to home on the Roundtable. After the June 4th battle, LT Henry is seen walking by the VT-6 ready room on the Enterprise. He pauses to look inside—no one is there. The pilots’ uniforms, left behind after changing into their flight suits, are hung on clothes hooks on the aft bulkhead. Henry looks poignantly at the still-waiting uniforms and the empty chairs, then slowly turns and leaves. It was a stark reminder of the same thing actually experienced by our own Clay Fisher aboard the Hornet that afternoon when he paused to look inside VT-8’s ghostly ready room (see No Right to Win, p. 125).
This episode of War and Remembrance comes close to the BOM script that we on the Roundtable might write ourselves. The historical details are remarkably accurate, as is the dialogue among the characters, and the director’s choices for scene selection are unique among all BOM renditions. As with the fascinating Browning vs. Spruance scene, you’ll see elements of the BOM here that won’t be found in any other production. I highly recommend it to all.
The War and Remembrance DVD set is available for purchase on the Internet (see E-Bay, Amazon, etc.), but it can be rather pricey. The BOM segment is contained on only one disk, number 3 in Volume 1 of the series (a.k.a. Vol. I, Part III). If you subscribe to an on-line video rental service like Netflix or Blockbuster, you can get just that one disk, which is what I did. It also occurs to me that the set might be found in local public libraries.
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