Review: John Ford’s “The Battle of Midway,” Narrated by Donald Crisp

One pilot documented in
One pilot documented in "The Battle of Midway"

In 1941, having finished How Green Was My Valley, director John Ford left Hollywood and volunteered his services to the Navy. He was assigned as a Photographic and Intelligence Officer, and spent his time making training films and documentaries. In June he was sent on a top-secret mission to the Midway Atol, to shoot what would end up being, as the opening of his film declared, the “greatest naval victory of the world to date.” His 18-minute film The Battle of Midway documented life on the islands and the strategic importance they had, leading into the battle itself. Ford, along with cameraman Jack Mackenzie Jr., filmed from a rooftop while lieutenant Kenneth Pier shot footage from an aircraft carrier. Their images are startlingly realistic, clearly shot by real people in a real situation. Most famous is a moment where a bomb hit the roof and knocked Ford unconscious, one that would come to influence war films for decades. “The image jumps a lot because the grenades were exploding right next to me,” Ford told an interviewer in 1966. “Since then, they do that on purpose, shaking the cameras when filming war scenes. For me it was authentic because the shells were exploding at my feet.”1

What makes The Battle of Midway separate from much of the war propaganda is that it feels distinctly like a John Ford film. Along with the battle footage, Ford fits in moments of comedy and beauty. He takes the time out to goofily follow around some of the island birds, or to show us some servicemen taking a break by the ocean at sunset. He recruited narrators from his previous films, including Donald Crisp and Henry Fonda, and had How Green Was My Valley composer Alfred Newman put together the music. It may ultimately serve mainly to rally Americans by showing them that the war can be won, but The Battle of Midway still has moments that inspire as much awe cinematically as the most expensive Hollywood productions of the year.

Where to Watch

Stream it on Netflix / Archive.org

Buy it on DVD

Rent it on Amazon

For More on The Battle of Midway

Read Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back and watch the documentary adaptation on Netflix

Read the review in The New York Times

References   [ + ]

1. Sean Axmaker, “The Battle of Midway”, Turner Classic Movies, accessed June 17, 2017.