‘Midway’ Director Profiles Unknown Heroes Behind Navy’s Greatest Comeback
Roland Emmerich is the writer and director behind some of the most badass military movies of our time. He loves to combine state of the art computer graphics with amazing battle sequences.
You can thank him for the dogfights in “Independence Day” and for the famous "Aim Small, Miss Small" quote from “The Patriot” (I still whisper this line every time I snap in at the rifle range). But now, Emmerich is taking on the most pivotal moment in the U.S. Navy's 244 year history: the Battle of Midway.
We Are The Mighty joined the director for a sneak peak into the film's key scenes and to discuss how he had to convince the Navy that he was the right man to direct a film about their greatest comeback — a film that he's been trying to make for over 19 years.
"You can't tell the story of Midway without Pearl Harbor," Emmerich explains before we watch the opening sequence. He's right. That infamous day, December 7, 1941, was arguably the U.S. Navy's greatest defeat, but it was also the first key moment that led the American Navy towards their victory at Midway.
The film's depiction of the surprise Japanese attack is incredibly accurate — especially the scenes on battleship row, as well as the salvage operations afterwards. The U.S. carriers were away from Pearl Harbor that day and this stroke of luck would come back to haunt the Japanese fleet.
"The Navy is a family and I wanted to show that," Emmerich tells us. Many of the Naval Aviators who would be pivotal during the Battle of Midway returned to Pearl Harbor as the fires still raged and oil slicks covered the water.
In the following hours and days, the sailors of the carriers USS Enterprise and USS Hornet would learn that their friends from basic training, prior deployments, and even the Naval Academy had been killed in the attack. “Midway” depicts the personal toll that the attack took on these sailors and we watch the seeds of revenge being planted.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy and the entire military struggled to determine a response. With only a few carriers and support ships left to fight against the massive Japanese Navy, there could be no room for mistakes. The U.S. needed to make a comeback and fast. "It's important for the audience to understand how bad the situation really was for Nimitz… morale was low," Emmerich describes.
He goes on to explain how Admiral Nimitz, played by Woody Harrelson, took command of the Pacific Fleet facing not only a daunting enemy but also a shortage of experienced sailors to strike back. The coming battle would depend upon a series of unknown heroes.
However, Nimitz did have one advantage: the intelligence unit under command of Lieutenant Commander Edwin T. Layton, played by Patrick Wilson, had broken the Japanese code and were ciphering through thousands of messages in an underground bunker nicknamed the "Dungeon."
Even members of the Navy Band were pulled in to help with the effort. However, the codebreakers could only guess as to the location of the Japanese fleet and the leaders in Washington decided it was time to hit the Japanese homeland instead.
Despite their desire for revenge on the Japanese fleet, the crews of the carriers Enterprise and Hornet were assigned to escort duty, and to make matters worse they would be escorting Army Bomber pilots. The mission known as the "Doolittle Raid" is a key moment both in history and in the film.
As the massive waves of the North Pacific rage over the carrier decks, we are transported into the ready room where dive bomber pilot Lieutenant Dick Best, played by Ed Skrein, is frustrated that the Army pilots are given the chance to strike the Japanese first.
When the fleet is detected before the scheduled departure point, the bomber pilots under Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, played by Aarron Eckhart, make the pivotal decision to launch despite the weather and the risk of running out of fuel. Emmerich reinforces the tension in this scene on the flight deck where Navy pilots take bets that the massive B-25 bombers won't even make it into the air.
The entire scene is incredibly powerful and only reinforces Emmerich's reputation for blockbuster filmmaking. While this is a scene we can watch over and over again, it was a moment the carrier crews would never forget. They wanted their own piece of history and it would soon come with a gamble from a gutsy Admiral Nimitz.
With only one chance left for a strike on the Japanese fleet, Nimitz relied on Layton's codebreakers to determine the exact location of the next battle so that the U.S. could surprise the enemy just as they had surprised the U.S. months before. Layton and his team were not able to directly read the Japanese code, but they could make predictions based on bits of information.
All signs pointed to Midway as the target, and even with the risk of failure, Nimitz ordered the two carriers into battle. In addition, Nimitz knew that his Naval Aviators, especially Lt. Dick Best, were prepared for the gloves to come off.
"The World War II generation was special and I wanted to ensure their heroism was not forgotten," Emmerich explains, as we prepare to watch the final battle of Midway. We are in the cockpit of an American Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber above the same Japanese fleet that struck Pearl Harbor.
With enemy aircraft swarming overhead and massive fires from anti-aircraft guns below, Emmerich's “Midway” shows the insane odds these pilots faced as they thrust their aircraft into nosedive attacks. In a matter of minutes, a series of bombs strikes the Japanese fleet. The explosions and smoke remind us of the first few moments of the movie, when the Americans are left bruised, but not broken. As the lights come on, it's obvious that Emmerich has indeed created a film that honors the U.S. Navy's greatest comeback.
However, as we discuss the challenges of making a movie of such epic portions and detail, Emmirch recounts how the production was a series of endless problems. "None of the carriers from that time still exist, and it's hard to even find aircraft… I knew we would need the Navy's help," Emmerich explains. But the Navy had to make sure Emmerich was the right man for the job.
The Battle of Midway is such a pivotal moment in U.S. Navy history that it had to be told right. When Emmerich met with the U.S. Navy Admiral he'd have to convince, he explained that this is "a movie about Dick Best and the other unknown heroes of the Enterprise and Hornet."
That's what the Admiral needed to hear, and the Navy agreed to support the production and even provided current Naval Aviators to ensure every scene was as accurate as possible. In some cases, Emmerich had to start from scratch to rebuild 1942-era planes and carrier decks.
From first look, “Midway” is poised to not only to be an iconic depiction of the Navy's greatest comeback but also a film that depicts the human variables that are so crucial in determining the fate of battles. Roland Emmerich's film “Midway” releases on November 8th, 2020, and will be an amazing way to honor the sacrifices of all service members this Veteran's Day.
“On the second firing pass by the attacking Zeros, our turret gunner, Manning, was hit and his turret put out of action,” recounted Ferrier. “The sight of his slumped and lifeless body startled me. Quite suddenly, I was a scared, mature old man at 17. I had never seen death before, and here in one awesome moment my friends and I were face-to-face with it. I lost all sense of time and direction but huddled by my gun hoping for a chance to shoot back.”
“The situation was a carrier pilot's dream. No anti-aircraft, all three (Japanese)carriers heading straight into the wind,” recounted Kleiss. “Earl Gallaher's 500 pound bomb hit squarely on a plane starting its take-off…Immediately the whole pack of planes at the stern were in flames 50 feet high…My bombs landed exactly on the big red circle forward of the bridge. Seconds later the flames were 100 feet high.” Kleiss continued, “Ten minutes after the attack I saw a large explosion amidships on the Kaga. Rockets of flame, pieces of steel bolted upward to about three or four thousand feet high.“
“The Hammann was moored portside to the Yorktown. At this time four torpedoes were reported on our starboard beam,” recounted Hartigan. “Immediately following the first torpedo the second torpedo hit. … regaining my senses … I saw that the forecastle deck was awash.” He continued, “When I got down to the bridge, the executive officer was going down the vertical ladder … the Captain was the only man on the bridge. We inspected the pilot house, chart house, and radar room and found no one.” Hartigan said,“… the captain, executive officer, engineer officer and myself all jumped into the water and swam clear of the ship. The captain pointed at a mess attendant, Raby, … holding onto the forecastle life line. I swam back to get him … just before I got there the ship went under. Raby…floated free. At about this time a terrific underwater explosion went off which all but knocked me out.”