The hero of Midway was not like Achilles.

Roland Emmerich’s Midway is on Amazon Prime, so I watched it.  As you would expect from the director of Independence Day, it’s a watchable, technically adept war movie at a Boys’ Own Paper level of subtlety and depth. If you are looking for an exploration of the stresses of command – Nimitz’ acceptance of a critical battle with no advantage of forces, only the edge of surprise – or of front-line combat, you will be disappointed. This is not an RBC recommendation.

Richard Halsey Best

But it does appear to be historically accurate. The events of Midway are sufficiently dramatic not to need embroidery. They even supplied an unambiguous real hero, Lt. Cdr. Richard Halsey Best, the dive-bomber pilot who scored hits on two Japanese carriers in the same day, the one in the Akagi’s hangar dooming the ship.

In the film, Best is played by English actor Ed Skrein as the archetypal talented bad boy who makes good on the day, a clone of the Tom Cruise character in Top Gun and similar action heroes. This characterisation by Emmerich reinforces a narrow stereotype. Hollywood does not always follow this – from Marshal Will Kane in High Noon to the portrayal of pacifist Marine paramedic Desmond Doss in Mel Gibson’s surprising Hacksaw Ridge - but it does so often enough for the stereotyping charge to carry weight.

It’s worth asking whether the portrayal of Best is true to life. It’s not inherently implausible; military pilots, like other combatants, can be nerveless daredevils. But it’s not the only possibility. Homer presents us in the Iliad with three different styles of warrior-hero: Achilles, the Top Chariot Fighter in the Hollywood mold, brave for glory and because he enjoys fighting; Hector, courageous out of honour and duty; and the calculating Odysseus, who is brave because he wants to win, to survive, and to go home to his wife and son. With striking realism, Homer has only the last survive.

So which of these three was closest to the real Richard Best? Surprisingly for such a pivotal and iconic figure, I could find no assessment of his character on the Internet. However, there are enough recorded facts to build a pretty good Identikit portrait.

1. Best married at age 22, and stayed married. I could find no reference to a divorce or remarriage.

2. As a young Navy pilot, he was picked in 1938 for a post as instructor at Pensacola. You do not choose reckless individualists for instructors, but men who can balance aggression and prudence, and can focus on the mission.

3. From Pensacola, he asked for a transfer to an operational dive-bomber squadron – not a fighter one. Fighter pilots win dogfights and glory; bomber pilots can sink ships and win battles. Why not torpedo bombers? Perhaps there was enough scuttlebutt about the obsolescence of the Douglas Devastator plane and its unreliable Mark 13 torpedo.

4. He was regularly promoted, and at Midway was a squadron commander under Air Group Commander Wade McCluskey. Emmerich’s film has them both given field promotions by Halsey in extremis, which is not plausible.

5. In the first attack on the Japanese fleet at Midway, most of the 31 American dive-bombers attacked the Kaga. McCluskey’s claimed orders to split forces were not received. Best noticed the mistake and, without orders, took his two wingmen, Lt. Kroeger and Ensign Weber, to attack the Akagi. Amazingly this tiny force not only survived but destroyed the carrier. Weber was killed in the successful afternoon attack on the Hiryu, but Kroeger survived the war and lived to 89.

6. Best suffered serious damage to his lungs during the day from a faulty ventilator and was hospitalised. He developed full TB, and was invalided out. He never flew for the Navy again – or, as far as I can find out, at all. You would think that if his passion was flying as such, a war hero and master pilot like Best could have found a way to stay in the air, at least for recreation.

7. After leaving the Navy in 1944, Best held two responsible desk jobs: “After discharge from the hospital, Best worked in a small research division of the Douglas Aircraft Corporation. This division became part of the Rand Corporation in December 1948, where Best headed the security department until his retirement in March 1975” (Wikipedia). These do not look like sinecures. Both companies were important and unsentimental military contractors and prime targets for Soviet espionage. Running security for Rand may not have been physically demanding, but it demanded sharp wits and an eye for detail.

I don’t want to understate the sheer nerve required to put a warplane into a near-vertical dive over an enemy warship firing at you with every gun it has, not to release your bomb until you are certain, and to pull out of the dive at the last second before crashing. Still, Best’s CV reads like Odysseus not Achilles to me. I think he risked his life twice on the same day not to show how brave he was, or even out of a high sense of duty, but because he was determined for the United States to win the war.

Corrections and additions welcome.

PS: There is of course a wider debate about heroism, as the coronavirus crisis reminds us daily. The classical Greek authors expanded the canon of heroism to women like Andromache, Cassandra and Antigone, and men like Orestes who struggle with a profound ethical dilemma. Hollywood should follow their example.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

7 thoughts on “Heroes”

  1. The Japanese on Akagi and Kaga didn’t fire on any of the dive bombers as they dove. They had just finished dispatching a group of torpedo planes and all their attention and fighter planes were directed at sea level. I have read that Lt. Kroeger delivered the one bomb that ultimately doomed Akagi. It had just switched between armaments for an attack on Midway and an attack on a recently discovered American carrier, and so the one bomb blew up hundreds of other bombs and fuel oil not yet properly stowed. What I read was that the air group commander, Wade McClusky told the commander of VS-6, Earl Gallaher, to “take the carrier on the left” (Kaga), and Dick Best to “take the carrier on the right” (Akagi). The four other planes of his section followed Best to attack Akagi (more than just LCDR Best’s wingmen), but the other ten planes in the two other sections missed the order and attacked Kaga,, which was attacked by 25 planes. My sources are “The Big E: The Story of the USS Enterprise”, by Edward Stafford, and “Titans of the Seas”, by James H. Belote.

  2. I was following Wikipedia and its sources, as presumably did Emmerich. Post-battle debriefings of exhausted and adrenaline-filled pilots are quite prone to error. The kill claims of RAF pilots during the Battle of Britain in 1940 were far higher than actual Luftwaffe losses. This is why air forces rely more on photographic evidence if they can get it. Gun cameras existed in WWII, but I don’t think they were in general use in the US Navy at the time of Midway.

  3. I respectfully suggest that the Rear Echelon Military Fellows won Midway, not “heroism” from any individual pilot or small group of pilots. Even focusing on those pilots is such a distortion that the detail-level issues in this film are almost meaningless.

    But for the codebreaking groups, both in DC and at Pearl, there wouldn’t have BEEN a Midway. Even more to the point, there wouldn’t have been enough knowledge of the ACTUAL approach plan to place the carriers on the flank, enabling them to attack at all; they would have been pulled out of position toward Alaska if they were available at all…

    …because if there were real individual heroes, it was the shipyard workers at Pearl who did enough of the repair work estimated to take 90 days after the Battle of the Coral Sea to enable the carriers (the Yorktown in particular) to even show up. In three days. Without that maintenance work (and there were somewhere upward of fifty serious-to-disabling injuries during the rush, which don’t get Purple Hearts because a shipyard isn’t a combat zone), at most there would have been two carriers to oppose the IJN… and the reduced number of aircraft available would have enabled the Japanese to actually hold a reserve to take on the dive bombers.

    Midway was a close thing. One of the best nonclassified descriptions is the opening chapter of David Kahn’s The Codebreakers. That the Battle of Midway happened at all is the real story, and is the story of REMFs; but it’s not an easily filmable story, and certainly not by this director.

    1. Your reminder of the team effort that made the battle, let alone the victory, possible is salutary. I tried a modest effort myself on these lines here. Aeschylus - who fought in the ranks at both Marathon and Salamis - puts the grunt’s perspective in the mouth of the Herald (Agamemnon, trans. Ian Johnston):

      If I told what we went through—
      the hardships, wretched quarters, narrow berths,
      the harsh conditions—was there anything
      we did not complain about? We had our share
      of trouble every day. And then on shore
      things were even worse. We had to camp
      right by the enemy wall. It was wet—
      dew from the sky and marshes soaked us.
      Our clothes rotted. Our hair grew full of lice.
      And it was freezing. The winters there,
      beyond endurance, when snows from Ida
      froze birds to death. And then the heat,
      so hot at noon, the sea, without a ripple,
      sank to sleep. . . . But why complain about it?
      Our work is done. It’s over for the dead,
      who aren’t about to spring to life again.

      Nevertheless Aeschylus knew that humans need individual stories to bring big events to life, and heroes of different sorts to focus our reflective attention. Richard Best undoubtedly was a hero whose actions made a difference. It’s therefore important to represent such men and women rightly, and respect them for what they were not what we dress them up to be in our imaginations.

      1. But there were some individual heroes, particularly on the codebreaking end; there almost certainly probably were in the logistics chain, too, but the records I’ve ever been able to access (I was, at one time, a major-command Historian, so my access was just a little bit greater than civilian enthusiasts let alone screenwriters) don’t name them, and we all know what H’wood’s success rate with creating “composite heroes” is: Slightly lower than the truth quotient at a press briefing on a science-related subject from the current White House.

        It’s just that their heroism isn’t easily filmable, especially not for a two-hours-or-so film that necessarily presumes its audience knows almost nothing. The prices paid by some of these individuals were not low; but they weren’t easily visible and in combat and quick.

        So I would argue that the real problem is the vision for this film in the first place. It should take place over approximately six years, and the “action” would be mostly watching pencil-pushers, accelerating to a frenzy of repair work and a compressed after-action-report on the battle. But that wouldn’t make for a very entertaining film… or a product within the comprehension of the filmmakers at all levels.

        1. I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying, but I want to note that your list of elements for such a film in the last paragraph is in fact a good description of the kind of thing that can be, and sometimes is, done effectively in genres other than the standard “action movie”: the police procedural is one. There was a very successful television program, “Numb3rs,” that dealt primarily with the use of mathematical concepts in solving crimes. True, in a movie there will necessarily be adjustments made for the requirements of human cognition and the compression of time (action covering six years, with the necessary change in actors’ appearances, is a problem; and there needs to be a narrative arc, which will necessarily skew the representation of events). But I have often thought that a very good movie could be made about the pencil-pushers who worked in photographic interpretation in the period leading up to the Normandy invasion in World War II.

  4. The 2001 British film Enigma and the 2014 The Imitation Game are reasonable shots at dramatising the codebreakers of Bletchley Park led by the genius Alan Turing. What they don’t even try to do is to show you the mathematical reasoning of cryptanalysis. In contrast, the essntially linguistic breaking of a codebook, as by Rochefort’s team, is easy to understand in principle.

    There are plenty of great war stories still to be filmed. How about Samuel Beckett’s work for MI9? Or the ironies of Bretton Woods, in which Keynes and the KGB agent Harry Dexter White together built the economic architecture that won the Cold War? Perhaps White’s KGB handlers simply did not understand what the pair were talking about.

Comments are closed.