At first blush, I thought that John Ford moment in Roland Emmerich’s Midway was surely over-the-top, a parody, like the semi-silly Bruce Lee bit in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But why interrupt a deadly serious war film with what seemed to be a comic walk-on by a famous movie director, shouting orders and eager for action (or “Action!”)
So I trekked (again) to the Film Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, to learn where Ford actually fit in the Midway battle.
Apologies to Emmerich. I stand corrected. His brief portrayal of Ford at Midway in June 1942 was, if anything, understated.
Film scholars will know, but I only discovered, that John Ford—whose filmmaking career is among the most heavily chronicled in Hollywood history, with over two dozen biographies currently on the shelf—really was directing the action at Midway. A Navy commander on assignment to the Office of Strategic Services, in charge of the brand-new Field Photo unit, he arrived on May 28, apparently steered by a vague instruction that action was pending. Once there, he was told that a full-blown attack was expected. On June 3, on patrol with a group of scout planes, Ford was among those who first spotted Japanese fighters in the vicinity, and tracked them to a cruiser—confirmation that the Japanese Navy had arrived. When the attack began a day later, he scrambled up a 50-foot tower atop a power house—an obvious target—where he shot 16 millimeter film of an air assault, while shouting reports and instructions to officers below and to an assistant, Jack McKenzie. Ford was wounded by shrapnel. According to an account repeated in Tag Gallagher’s John Ford: The Man And His Films, among others, the tough-talking, pipe-smoking, officer-director was yelling at Japanese Zeroes ‘to swing left or right and cursing them when they disobeyed directions.’
Hollywood legends don’t get much bigger than that. But the minute or two of bombast in Emmerich’s Midway—less loved by critics than the audience—offer a keyhole view of an even larger moment in film history.
As it turns out, the documentary Oscars, as we know them today, were being born amid the bravado, false and otherwise (Ford later insisted that internally he was a coward!), that accompanied the filming at Midway. The documentary awards category had been introduced only the year before, and most of the 11 nominees were government-made war films. (Churchill’s Island, from the National Film Board of Canada, was the 1941 winner.)
Ford, who informally began assembling his Field Photographic Branch in 1939, reported for duty in September of 1941, three months before the Pearl Harbor attack. The group cut its teeth that year on an instructional film called Sex Hygiene. But within six days of the Pearl assault, one of its units was at work on a controversial, up-close look at American military failures that had contributed to the disaster. The footage was confiscated by the government as a threat to morale. Eventually, it was cut into a much softer documentary that won an Oscar for 1943.
But Ford, in the interim, laid track that would be followed by disruptive, independent-minded documentarians for the next 75 years. Though he was an officer in the Navy, he despised both bureaucracy and the very notion of propaganda. At Midway, according to Dan Ford’s “Pappy: The Life of John Ford,” he told McKenzie: “Photograph faces. We can always fake combat footage later.” His idea was to portray the full horror of war, even while showing what he called “the mothers of America” that we were fighting back.
“This really happened,” Ford kept saying as watched a cut patched together by editor Robert Parrish, who described the episode in a 1976 memoir, “Growing Up in Hollywood.” Mindful of how superiors had seized the Pearl Harbor project, Ford had Parrish hide the film until it could be shown, above the heads of Navy brass, to President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor.
The resulting short, The Battle Of Midway, won one of four documentary Oscars for 1942. Ford’s film unit grew to 15 crews with over 200 officers and enlisted personnel, and operations around the world.
Many of the resulting movies, intended to convey lessons about delicate matters like guerrilla operations or prisoner interrogation, were seen only by high-ranking military officers, then locked away.
But Ford was seldom locked away. In fact, shortly before Midway, he had monitored the launch of the Doolittle raid on Tokyo from the cruiser U. S. S. Salt Lake City. While at sea, on April 14, 1942, the ship received word that Ford had won an Academy Award for directing How Green Was My Valley. Fellow officers created an Oscar flag, and flew it throughout the operation.