Today (21 October 2019) is the release date for ‘Dauntless: The Battle of Midway’ on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download/streaming, and as a rare example of a feature film about naval aviation, it warrants a review from Naval Air History. My thanks to The Warrior Agency for the review copy. Whether by coincidence or not, the release date is Trafalgar Day, which somewhat emphasises the link between the two battles (Midway is widely considered the ‘USN’s Trafalgar’, and Midway Day is celebrated in the US much as Trafalgar Day is in the UK).
The Battle of Midway has not appeared in film as often as it might, given the engagement’s significance to the US Navy and the entire American narrative of the Second World War. The only English Language feature film previously to cover the events of June 1942 was the 1976 all-star-cast affair which was something of a mixed success (and which will be the subject of a future article). Surprising, then, that two films set during the battle should arrive in the same year, especially when that year is not a major anniversary (77 years). Though the second of those, Roland Emmerich’s ‘Midway’, has not yet been released, it is probably fair to say that both the 2019 Midway films could not be more different.
While Emmerich’s film boasts a fair smattering of recognisable faces (and the 1976 film an ‘all star cast’), ‘Dauntless’ is a lower-budget affair with no big-name actors; the only two cast members with names prominent enough to put on the poster are former ‘Brat Pack’ members C Thomas Howell and Judd Nelson, in relatively minor parts as senior officers. Moreover, it seems that ‘Midway’ aims to follow its 1970s namesake by portraying the broad sweep of the action, while ‘Dauntless’ has a much narrower focus. The majority of the film is given over to SBD pilot Ensign Norman Vandivier (Jade Willey) and his inexperienced gunner Lee Keaney (John Enick). This crew is one of those from USS Enterprise involved in one of the first, devastating strikes on the main Japanese carrier group, forced to ditch and drift in the water, hoping desperately for rescue. Providing a counterpoint to this very static part of the story is the crew of a PBY Catalina, ostensibly scouting for the fleet, but hoping to pick up ditched aviators if the opportunity allows. The captain of the flying boat, Lieutenant Bennett (Adam Peltier), an old friend of Vandivier is particularly motivated in this regard. Mercifully, the filmmakers avoided the silly and ahistorical ‘Strawberry’ callsign which the 1976 film applied to the PBY patrol boats and which many people now seem to think is fact…
Although the eponymous battle largely forms a backdrop to the plight of Vandivier and Keaney, the first quarter of the film in particular is heavy on air-sea combat. It is here that the limitations in budget are most obvious, with visual effects overwhelmingly in the realm of CGI, green screen and digital matte painting. This is obvious from the outset but once the viewer has adjusted, the visuals are solid – the scenes of SBDs launching from the ‘Big E’ to the strains of Gustav Holst’s ‘Jupiter’ are enjoyable, even impressive at times (there’s a particularly nice shot, presumably all digital FX, showing the mainwheels of Vandivier’s SBD leaving the deck and retracting), and the subsequent battle is well done within the constraints of the production. The animation looks like animation, but the behaviour of the aircraft in flight is realistic enough, and there’s a satisfying attention to the minutiae of flying such as navigation and fuel economy. Frankly, the VFX look no worse than many higher-value productions, and if the trailers for ‘Midway’ are representative, it looks as though ‘Dauntless’ might have the edge on accuracy and avoidance of sheer silliness. There are, mercifully, no Playstation-esque dogfights with dynamics closer to X-wings than Dauntlesses…
But the main focus is the aviators left in the water for days while the battle either raged around them or drifted over the horizon, leaving them alone in the immensity of the ocean. This is a factor of Midway that has not received much attention from dramatic tellings of the story. Indeed, the 1976 ‘Midway’ gives the impression that only Ensign George Gay spent any time in the water at all. In reality a large proportion of the crews from Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown were forced to ditch, most of them without ever seeing the enemy, due to navigation errors, bad communication or poor decisionmaking at a senior level. Hornet’s first strike completely missed the enemy and most of the fighters ran out of fuel, while Enterprise’s strikes were made at extreme range and nearly half of its aircraft had to ditch on the way back. John Ford’s wartime propaganda short about the battle briefly deals with the numerous airmen picked up after the battle – according to the narration, at least one aircrew officer spent thirteen days adrift with no food or water. ‘Dauntless’ makes a worthwhile attempt to write these forgotten men back into the Midway story.
The filmmakers’ commitment to authenticity is praiseworthy – indeed, the credits list several after action reports from the time as source material – as is their attention to lesser known aspects of the Midway story. The narrative eschews triumphalism, pulling no punches over the management of the battle which led to a shocking number of aircrews ending up lost, ditched or running out of fuel. The confusion and muddle of the early strikes is accurately portrayed with poor communication and co-ordination leading the SBDs to go into the strike without fighter or torpedo-bomber support, and in the case of the Enterprise bombing squadrons, engaging in a last-minute tangle over which carrier they were aiming at. It is refreshing to see these aspects from the real battle included, and frankly it makes for a better story.
The battle, brief though its onscreen time is, is frenetic and exciting, followed by a suitably nailbiting ditching. What follows is the dual story of Vandivier and Keaney, surviving day after day in the ocean and Bennett’s PBY crew scouring the ocean both for the Japanese fleet and US airmen in the water while contending with a dash of bureaucracy and the occasional Zero for their trouble. There are moments of excitement that keep the film’s pace up, and again highlight some little-covered elements of the Midway action, in that several of the patrol aircraft did run into Japanese fighters.
The tension is skillfully ramped up as the days pass, Vandivier and Keaney struggling to maintain hope, while in the distance the battlefleets continue to grapple. Meanwhile, the senior officers in the fleet, notably Spruance and Browning, clash over the safety of the crews set against the importance of taking out the Japanese carriers, and the PBY’s search is compromised by weather and questionable decisions from above.
Where ‘Dauntless’ is most successful is in maintaining its tight focus on the handful of main characters and their individual dramas while still evoking the shape of the action. The exchanges between Spruance and Browning back on Enterprise are particularly effective in providing context context to the plight of the ditched aviators, while filling in the broad brush strokes of the battle and its aftermath. We are left in no doubt as to who the writers believe was responsible for the loss of so many crews, while perhaps leaving it open to question how much the uncompromising attitude of certain officers ensured the scale of the US triumph.
The tension is maintained to the end, and the outcome is never assured. There are some beautifully eerie moments as the aviators struggle through the nights – a distant thunderstorm, a siren seeming to shriek from nowhere, a submarine appearing and disappearing suddenly all add to the increasing unreality. The Holst-inspired score suits the action, with the standout moment being that wonderfully choreographed launch scene near the beginning though there’s nothing to match John Williams’ memorable score from 1976. The visual effects mostly fall short of ‘photo real’ but do the job, and they are used to good effect.
The scenario asks a lot of both script and actors, and if they sometimes struggle under the weight of what is required of them, the sense of waste and perhaps unnecessary sacrifice is well portrayed. It should serve as a counterpoint to what is likely to be a much grander and more bombastic affair with the Emmerich film. ‘Dauntless’ is a worthy effort to bring under-appreciated aspects of Midway to the fore. Arguably it does better than the 1976 film at communicating the nuances and strategic moves of the battle too. The writers have clearly done their homework and are to be applauded for their diligence. As a human-scale story within a vast battle, ‘Dauntless’ is poignant and effective.
The DVD/Blu-Ray of ‘Dauntless: The Battle of Midway’ is available from Amazon and from digital download services