Dennis Quaid plays Admiral Bull Halsey in Midway, about the attack on Pearl Harbour and the Battle of Midway in the Second World War.
What excited you about the story and made you want to take on this role?
The first thing that excited me about this story was Roland Emmerich, because I worked with him on The Day After Tomorrow. And the movies that he makes; he shows audiences what they want to see but they have never seen before. And he does it in a way that makes you believe. We shot The Day After Tomorrow here at this same studio. And it was all shot indoors, except for one shot, and it was in the middle of winter here in Montreal. We used one wall of snow outside for one shot. The rest of it was shot indoors.
I didn’t see the movie until it came out. And then I saw myself in the middle of these great expanses of an ice age. So I was just like an audience member, my mouth open, in awe of what he had created. So I knew he would bring the same filmmaking and his particular style and, and mastery to Midway, which is an amazing story.
Midway was one of the largest battles, one of the most key battles of World War II. The story has never been told right. There was a movie that was made, I think it was in 1962, with Henry Fonda. Robert Mitchum played my part, which is Admiral Bull Halsey. And they had Glenn Ford and guys that actually went through war. But they didn’t make movies back then that really showed what the boys really went through.
I still wondered what courage was because I never saw what they were actually up against. Roland is going to be able to show people that because he can get in the air, he can get in the cockpit as they dive upon the Japanese carriers. We have several Japanese actors, telling the story from the Japanese point of view as well, showing war and this battle and the honour and the bravery, and just plain guts, and what happened to win this war.
When you first read the script for this film, what were your initial thoughts? What really moved you?
I knew the Battle of Midway. I’m a history buff. I’ve read a lot of books, and I mostly like to watch TV documentaries. And my dad was in World War II. He was in the Merchant Marines in the Atlantic. And also a good friend of mine, T Bone Burnett, his father Henry Burnett was on the Enterprise with Admiral Halsey. He was with him from Pearl Harbour all the way through the war. So there’s a personal connection there.
There’s also the USS Enterprise as an aircraft carrier. This was the beginning of the aircraft carrier as an assault weapon. They had thought of them as defensive weapons before.
But mainly what drew me to the story is that it’s an incredible story. It really is. There’s so much drama and suspense. And the smaller tales, the human stories behind this movie, are incredible.
What elements in the story were used to examine things like the kamikaze elements? Was there anything that you read and were shocked by?
I guess the first kamikazes attack on the Enterprise was by a Japanese pilot who was already shot, and his plane was flaming. He was going to go in the drink, at best. And who knows what was going on in the cockpit, whether he was so shot up or whatever? But he managed to stay alive, and he attempted to ram his plane into the Enterprise.
There was this kid out on the deck who ran out there. His name was Gaido. That was his last name. And he got in one of the planes on the deck. Got in the rear gunner seat and started shooting at the guy, and prevented the guy from, from hitting our plane. It took a lot of guts.
Let’s talk a little bit more about Bull Halsey. What kind of person was he? Who was he? Who is he in this film?
Admiral Bull Halsey was born in 1880. So we’re going back to a 19th century era, when there were wooden ships. He joined the Naval Academy, I think, around 1902. He couldn’t get in the first year, so he waited. He went to medical school for the first year. Then he worked his way up through the Navy.
World War I happened. Then along comes World War II, and, by this time, Halsey is quite a veteran. The aircraft carrier is introduced. The Enterprise came along in 1936, and he was offered it as his ship. And he was required to take an observation course in the back of an airplane so he’d be familiar with aeronautics.
He didn’t. He didn’t think that was enough. So he said, I’ll just became an aviator. He went through that, and became a pilot. But in the Navy, you call them aviators. He was and still is the oldest man or woman to receive his wings in the Navy. This is probably a record that will never be broken because it takes too much money to train those pilots, and I think he was around 59 years old when he got it.
His men loved him. He rubbed up against the Army brass. He was known for taking matters into his own hands. I guess the nearest person I could relate to him in the Army would be General George Patton. He had his own style, he was brash, and he was always picking a fight.
Why was Midway such an important event?
Midway is such an important event in World War II because it was six months earlier that Pearl Harbor had happened. That was a surprise attack. The Japanese came in, and they’d been practicing for a year, even before Yamamoto had, had cooked up that plan, in secret. They practiced in their own mock-up of a Pearl Harbor. They came in, came over the top of the mountain, came down into the harbour, and they destroyed every battleship that we had. Decimated our Navy. And the only saving grace for us was that we had our aircraft carriers were out to sea that particular day.
The Enterprise was due in the next day. In fact, it was actually due that day but it got held up by a storm. So it was delayed. Three thousand men and women, servicemen and women and civilians were killed. Our nation was stunned by a surprise attack. The Japanese at that time really did have the best navy in the world. And someone like Yamamoto was really going to take the fight all the way to the west coast of the United States.
That was going to happen. And there was this island called Midway, which is north of Hawaii and to the west, an outpost. Fighting there would certainly impede the Japanese from making their way up into Alaska and down the west coast. We broke their code. That was one thing we had going for us. We deciphered what they were going to do and when they were going to do it and where they were going to be off the coast of Midway.
Nimitz and the planners, they positioned themselves, got themselves into position, and this is the first time that they had ever met the Japanese in a fair – let’s call it a fair fight, even though they were outnumbered two to one. And by great planning, and a lot of luck too, we sunk, we sunk three of their carriers, and pretty much destroyed the fourth.
That gave us time to rebuild our own Navy or – actually I won’t say rebuild – build the Navy because we didn’t have much going for us at that time. We didn’t have enough men. We didn’t have enough ships. And the Japanese continued after that year to still be the most formidable force in the Pacific.
Before the Battle of Midway, between Midway and Pearl Harbor, there were some raids.
The Enterprise was on its way back to Pearl Harbor when it happened, and they came in the next day, and they saw the Arizona still ablaze and the oil in the water, was four inches thick. And there were 3,000 men in the Arizona by that time. It was like being in an oven, trapped in the dark. They outfitted the Enterprise in seven hours and went right back out to sea, looking to see what they could find.
They went after the Japanese right then and there, and they found some. They found some over in the Marshall Islands, and started their raid. And they were the first to sink Japanese ships during the war. The aviators off the Enterprise were the first to shoot down Japanese Zeroes. And they were buying time and then – what a story!
Then, in secret, they steamed north and met up with the Hornet. And on the Hornet were Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle’s B25s, which were on their way to bomb Tokyo. We wanted to; we wanted to send a, a big message to the Japanese that after Pearl Harbor.
Going back to Halsey, where is he when we first meet him in this film?
We’re on our way back and, and it’s December 7th, and I’m in the, I’m in the bridge with a big board. And it’s five minutes before we were at war. And now we are at war, and no one had been tested. No one knew what they were, how they were going to be able to stand up to this, or what they would do in a fight.
Halsey came out on the bridge outside, assembled his boys, and he said, “What lies ahead will require brave souls and stout hearts.” Something classic like that. But it really hit his boys, you know. The average age of the men on those ships was 19 years old. The average age of the officers was 24. So it was young kids that were fighting this war.
They all looked at Admiral Bull Halsey as a father figure who was going to get them through.
Is there anything else you want to talk about as far as Halsey’s actions in the film and in the war?
Halsey was a controversial figure in the war. There are a lot who questioned his actions. At the same time, he was a man of action. He did something when others stood around wondering what to do. He was a born leader. He was an inspiration to the men on the Enterprise. And they would do anything for him. And it soon turned out that the USS Enterprise was the most decorated ship of World War II of all time.
They called it the Lucky E. But it was lucky because the men aboard it were so well trained, and had been in so many battles that they found their groove, really. They knew what they were doing. They held off the Japanese from getting to the west coast of the United States until our manufacturing and our ship-building could get up to speed in 1943.