Dauntless: The Battle of Midway is a “mockbuster” – a low budget film that’s intended to capitalize on the publicity surrounding a blockbuster movie by a large studio. Even the trailer indicated that the special effects were not quite ready for the big screen, but since I’d go to Des Moines to see a community theater production about the drama involved in loading torpedoes, of course I was going to get the Blu-ray, which is the only release this howler will ever have.
The set consisted of three rooms, two aircraft fuselages, a pool and the ocean, and the speaking cast was 13 people. (I counted both). Astonishingly, most – maybe all – of the movie was filmed in the director’s back yard using green screen, and the extras show the director and three buddies building the SBD fuselage. I thought it looked pretty good until Parker noticed something that was pretty obviously a 2 x 4 cross-section. Everything else – and I mean everything – was special effects. Picture Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It’s like that.
I’m not exaggerating, nor am I condemning. When the live action is combined with the special effects, the result is pretty good. The lighting is way off, which has a tendency to spoil the effect, but the detail in the CGI is remarkable. The Enterprise, in particular is – until next month – by far the best screen representation of the ship, and it is quite accurate – although it mixes the ship’s appearance during different periods. The Hornet is often seen sailing less than a thousand yards beside it, and although the camouflage scheme has the usual error – which I have yet to avoid – of not using Haze Gray above the flight deck, it’s still pretty good. Until you see that the two carriers sport giant flight deck numbers – a black 6 on Enterprise and a white 8 on Hornet.
That’s one of the disappointing things about the movie. Low budget notwithstanding, it gets so much right, both in story and detail, then misses equally accessible details. The SBDs have the correct markings, but the wrong propellor tips. The captions accurately identify all the squadrons and events – then a pilot will refer to meeting up with “VB-6”, when I’m pretty sure they always referred to the squadrons as “Bombing 6”. (At least that’s the caption Dick Best put on my Midway print in 1992 – he signed it “CO Bombing 6 USS Enterprise 4 June 1942” so I assume that’s what it was referred to at the time). And the aircraft are scattered on the deck, rather than in a tight deck pack prior to launch, which I found grating – and inexplicable. How could so much attention to detail go into the effects and then have easy errors like Mk 37 gun directors and a giant flight deck numeral 6 on an Enterprise that is otherwise almost exactly accurate for June 1942. Literally the only other error I saw was a missing catwalk on the starboard side of the stack – which was a post-Midway change.
It’s also jarring when the dramatic launch of the SBDs from the Enterprise is accompanied by Jupiter from Holst’s The Planets. The attack on an under detailed but accurate Kaga is accompanied by Mars before the music segues into something broadly similar, but which I didn’t recognize. Not bad, but … jarring. But it is really fun to watch things happen during the flight that match up with the historical record, even when it doesn’t contribute anything to the movie.
But if you watch it on a small enough screen that the effects don’t distract, it does tell a couple of good stories. Judd Nelson as Admiral Raymond Spruance spars with C. Thomas Howell as Captain Miles Browning and they replay various generally accurate confrontations, mostly after the 4 June attack. For example, the “turn the lights on” scene (Spruance did it at Midway two years before Mitscher at Philippine Sea) and the “I’ll do what you pilots want” scenes are accurate as long as you’re not checking precise dialogue. Nelson handles Spruance well, and he provides the narrative for the movie, explaining in a couple of sentences of dialogue what the tiny movie could never have shot (if only because the director’s back yard wasn’t big enough). At this level, the story is spot-on.
The heart of the movie – which to its credit it makes hard to watch – is the ordeal faced by downed pilots who drifted in the ocean for days, and in some cases weeks waiting for rescue. The movie tells the story of two specific pilots from the Enterprise who ditched after bombing the Kaga, and long after I’ve forgotten the inaccurate effects or bad writing I’ll remember the insight it gives watchers into the special hell that must have been.
In the end, if you dream of seeing an almost perfectly accurate June 1942 Enterprise filmed cinematographically launching its strike on the morning of June 4 – this movie is for you. But I’ll understand if you want to wait till next month. I just couldn’t.