One of my favorite documentary moments ever comes from John Ford‘s The Battle of Midway. It’s a very short but memorable shot mostly consisting of a wall and then some explosions and smoke in the near distance. The camera is positioned and moving in a way that suggests it’s hiding and sort of peeking at the real, lethal action, which is close enough to jostle the embedded and endangered cinematographer. You can easily picture him behind that frame, whether it’s Ford or his second-mate, Jack MacKenzie, trying desperately to capture the bombing yet also to stay alive.
At one point while shooting The Battle of Midway, Ford was in fact knocked unconscious and injured by a bomb, and he later received the Purple Heart as a result. Even without that story, however, you can feel his courage being there in June of 1942, in the thick of the Battle of Midway enough for the film stock to clearly be shaken off the sprockets inside the camera when the enemy’s bombs hit the ground. There are only a few minutes of actual war footage in this half-hour documentary, but what’s there is powerful stuff, not only because of what we see but because we know what we’re seeing is authentic. You just can’t reenact reactionary camera movements like that.
Authenticity is one of the things that makes The Battle of Midway the greatest American propaganda film. It’s one of many wartime productions sponsored by the U.S. government during World War II, so that’s a big deal. I even consider it higher than Frank Capra’s Why We Fight films, if only for the gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. That definitely helps with the fiery reality, though, and it also allows for such glorious shots of Old Glory waving in the foreground of scenes in which the red and white stripes stand out brilliantly amidst a trinity of blues — blue ocean, blue sky, and blue naval uniforms.
That flag-waving is, of course, part of the propagandizing iconography. In another part of the film, we see a tattered American flag waving boldly through black smoke and bombs bursting in air, a literal illustration of the “Star-Spangled Banner” lyrics sung by a choir on the soundtrack. Other strong visual pieces of the propaganda include the final titles indicating quantifiable achievements of the battle, “4 Japanese Carriers Sunk,” “28 Jap Battleships, Cruisers, Destroyers Sunk or Damaged,” and “300 Japanese Aircraft Destroyed,” each of which is crossed through with colorful paint — a drippy red (bloody?) wipe, a black ‘X’ and a red ‘V’ for victory, respectively — looking like works of modern art.
Then there’s the narrative rhetoric, and The Battle of Midway has it all. A fictional old woman (filmed by Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland and portrayed in voiceover by The Grapes of Wrath‘s Jane Darwell) talking as if she’s watching the film itself, recognizing the neighbor boy on screen, gives us a personal touch for the average American to relate to. Another voice we hear is fellow Wrath actor Henry Fonda, providing major star appeal. And there’s some tongue-in-cheek humor, too, with the stuff about Tojo wanting to save the natives, which are shown to be seabirds.
With Midway, Ford, who fought to maintain control over the final cut, delivered a documentary that is undeniably positive, from its upbeat militaristic score by Alfred Newman to its recognition of specific men, including one of the more famous Marine Raiders, James Roosevelt (son of FDR, who sanctioned this film). Yet he shows the hell of war, too, with all the destruction and even acknowledgment of the burial of “our heroic dead,” not shying away from the brutal truth. Never mind if any of it is still to instigate the audience (the shots of a bombed hospital and crater that used to be a chapel are very effective).
The quality of Midway, as well as the fact that it could play to the public rather than just enlisted men, made this film the first of the U.S. government’s WWII propaganda documentaries to be released commercially. It opened in first-run theaters in New York and Los Angeles on September 14, 1942, followed by a wide national expansion. While some of the narration feels rather newsreel-ish, the film has been noted for how little exposition there is about the battle or its significance. This is a war documentary that makes the viewer feel the fight, to see what it’s like to be a soldier who may not even himself know or comprehend the specifics of each mission, and the sensation can be much more inspiring than something more informative.
This post was originally published on the Documentary Channel Blog on February 6, 2013.