Marine Major Dan Kirby is tough on his group of World War II aviators, tougher than his subordinate Captain Carl Griffin thinks is necessary. But Kirby proves that his method is more suited to the demands of war.
John Wayne ... Maj. Daniel Xavier Kirby
Robert Ryan ... Capt. Carl \'Griff\' Griffin
Don Taylor ... Lt. Vern \'Cowboy\' Blithe
Janis Carter ... Joan Kirby
Jay C. Flippen ... MSgt. Clancy, Line Chief
William Harrigan ... Dr. Lt.Cdr. Joe Curran
James Bell ... Colonel
Barry Kelley ... Brigadier General
Maurice Jara ... Shorty Vegay
Adam Williams ... Lt. Bert Malotke
James Dobson ... Lt. Pudge McCabe
Carleton Young ... Col. Riley
Michael St. Angel ... Capt. Harold Jorgensen, Ops. Officer (as Steve Flagg)
Brett King ... 1st Lt. Ernie Stark
Gordon Gebert ... Tommy Kirby
I saw this overlooked Nicolas Ray film for the first time this week and was surprised by the director\'s ability to make a silk purse out of a sow\'s ear within the tight limitations of the post WWII propaganda war genre. Of course, the jingoism, the low budget fx and the formula finishing lines are dated and tedious, but the core of the film is the fascinating relationship between Wayne, as the tough Major with a good heart, and Robert Ryan as his compassionate second-in-command with a tough mind. If you zapped past the battle and home front scenes, you would have a highly charged exploration of male-bonding issues. As well, the film seems to be covertly raising questions which go as far back in our literature as ancient Greece when officers initiated their men into rites of passage. The intensely rich Technicolor and the interior tent sets evoke a crucible environment which powerfully thrusts along the character development. Ray draws from Ryan a brilliant portrayal and from Wayne a solid effort that seems to prepare him for his splendid characterization in a similar conflicted relationship with Maureen O\'Hara for his very next film, John Ford\'s \"The Quiet Man\", for which Wayne got an Oscar nomination in 1952.
\"Flying Leathernecks\" has the virtue of a director taking on a run of the mill commercial film project, infusing it with his idiosyncratic style and providing the audience with some thematic depth and many fine moments. The most interesting example for me is a scene two-thirds into the film when John Wayne receives orders to depart immediately for another assignment and seeks to explain to Robert Ryan why the command of the squadron will be passed to another officer and Ryan not promoted into the job. Instead of an explosive argument, the conflict is conveyed mainly through non-verbal signals that each man is unable or unwilling to read from the other. A frustrated Wayne finally shrugs his shoulders and strides out of the tent while a tight-jawed Ryan keeps his backed turned away from him. Fortunately, there are enough of such involving scenes to make this a worthwhile film, even though this is not in the same league as Ray\'s great ones like \"Rebel Without a Cause\".
Flying Leathernecks finds John Wayne in the Marines again, but this time as a commissioned officer/pilot. He has an idea about better coordination with ground troops on that lovely tropic isle of Guadalcanal and he inherits a squadron that essentially become guinea pigs to test his theory out.
He also inherits a resentful Executive Officer in Robert Ryan who keeps getting passed over for command. Ryan\'s a favorite with the men and he bleeds over the prospect of any of them being killed. Fine traits for a human being, but not something that works in a war situation.
As so many others have said, Flying Leathernecks has a whole lot of the elements that made Sands of Iwo Jima a critical and popular success. Wayne and Ryan work well together, possibly the political differences with both in real life lent itself to the performances of both men.
In the supporting cast you will like Jay C. Flippen as the larcenous sergeant in charge of the ground crews. Flippen provides a lot of what comic relief we have in Flying Leathernecks. Years later Flippen and Wayne worked together again after Flippen lost a leg to diabetes. Wayne gave him a small part in The Hellfighters to help him with medical expenses. Wayne did that on numerous occasions when he later produced films himself or had a say in casting. He wasn\'t about hand outs, but he always was ready to help an ill colleague with a pay day that did not rob folks of dignity. He didn\'t give jobs, he hired men as he said in a later film
Not the best stuff technically speaking for the air sequences. That Howard Hughes put in Jet Pilot with unfortunately a ridiculous story to go with it, not anything like the Flying Leathernecks story which admittedly is average at best.
Still it\'s far from the worst or best work John Wayne ever did.
Nicholas Ray, an excellent director, did some of this best work in the 50s. \"Flying Leathernecks\", his 1951 war movie came out six years after the end of WWII. The film looks at the men who were involved in the Pacific theater, and more specifically, on Guadacanal, where the Japanese held most of the territory and had caused a lot of damage to the US forces that were trying to chase them out of the island.
The film juxtaposes two men, Major Dan Kirby and Col. Carl Griffin. Where Griffin is seen as one of the guys, Kirby, who is perceived as a distant disciplinarian; both men come to battle their own war. This aspect didn\'t play too often in movies of this genre, as everyone was presented as men who followed their leaders without any doubts. The film relies on a lot of the combats against the Japanese in the air, where the Americans seemed to be matched by their counterparts. The air fighting could have used a more realistic approach, or at least another man\'s vision other than Mr. Ray\'s, who doesn\'t give it the realism to pull the viewer into the action.
John Wayne makes a good appearance as Dan Kirby, the hard man who wanted his men to do better. The wonderful Robert Ryan plays Col Griffin, a man that has the admiration and respect of the pilots under his command and who sees himself being passed for the promotion he deserved.
The film shows glimpses of Nicholas Ray\'s genius, but ultimately the film doesn\'t live up to its promise.
# This movie is often considered merely another assignment of Nicholas Ray\'s at RKO for Howard Hughes to prove his political and professional alliance during the Red Scare. A blatant pro-war movie that Hughes cared about and Ray did not, Ray disagreed with the film\'s politics and is said to have, along with Robert Ryan, intentionally over-act. Ryan and Ray, who were leftist liberals, constantly fought against John Wayne and Jay C. Flippen, who were conservatives and supported the Blacklist.
# There was some controversy over the casting, since both John Wayne and Robert Ryan were clearly much older than real pilots were during World War II.