- Directed by Nicholas Ray
- August 28, 1951 (US) / October 22, 1951 (UK)
A Marine major leads his squadron into the World War II battle of Guadalcanal.
Flying Leathernecks is a Howard Hughes produced film about US Marine pilots starring John Wayne. Wayne was all about making family pictures. More so if they were patriotic. He wanted something that the adults and kids could enjoy and he was proudly American. What I find most shocking then about this movie though are the number of deaths. They are not graphic by today’s standards but are strong stuff by the standards of the day.
John Wayne is hardnosed commanding officer Maj. Kirby. He is assigned the command of VMF-247 (“Wildcats”) much to the surprise of the staff. They were expecting Captain Carl “Grif” Griffin (Robert Ryan), the previous commanders second, to take over. Kirby’s goal during the course of the story is to mold these undisciplined soldiers in general and Griffin in particular into a tough commander who can make the tough decisions when necessary.
The character of Kirby was inspired by real life WWII pilot Maj. John L. Smith who was known for his missions over the Guadalcanal in 1942. He was a bit of a legend by the time of this film and had received the Medal of Honor in 1943 and like Kirby in the film made it to Lt. Colonel.
The character of Griff is a little too soft on his men during a time of war and while a good man, lacks what it takes to be a good commanding officer. He is unable to distance himself when needed and goes to bat for them when he probably should not.
I am really impressed with the lack of John Wayne regulars in this movie. Normally he has a couple of buddies that perform with him in every movie. It may not be the same ones from film to film but there is at least one face you know from several other John Wayne films.
Jay C. Flippen is the closest we get. He plays the comically larcenous Clancy who gets whatever the unit needs however he can. Flippen showed up with Wayne in How the West Was Won and Hellfighters but I believe that is it. No Bruce Cabot or Ward Bond to be found.
It is a clash of personalities between Griff and Kirby from the start. Griff chafes under Kirby’s strict nature and Kirby becomes increasingly upset with the casual environment that Griff has allowed to grow in the unit. Griff wants to be a protective parent while Kirby is looking to be a father dishing out tough love in order for his boys to become men.
Flying Leathernecks works really well in the military moments. The dialogue and the acting really mesh. Where it is weak are the few scenes set stateside. They feel a little shoehorned in to humanize our characters and a bit unnecessary. The lines handed to the actresses they have make them all sound like bad June Cleaver impersonators.
My other issue with the film is the story should have ended with Kirby departing with the squadron in the hands of Griff when he was done with his assignment. Having them come together again at another assignment and then they depart pals felt like padding. Some minimal rewriting would have easily eliminated that midstory break.
There are no intriguing twists and turns. There is nothing edgy here. It is a by the book story with John Wayne at first seen as mean and tyrannical until Robert Ryan and the rest of the squadron understand that he is not willing to coddle them because he is trying to get them ready to survive battle. He expects them to be soldiers and to take the risks that soldiers must in order to defeat the enemy and survive.
While not presented as war as adventure, this is still an old-style war film that comes very close to that. The Americans are shown as fine upstanding young man. The Japanese are shown as clearly the enemy. It is designed to make you feel good about this country and its fighting forces and it works very well in that respect.
And then there are the action scenes. With the portions of the action scenes they needed to create themselves they did a great job. There is original footage is interspersed with real life war footage that gives a sense of realism to the battles. For modern audiences that might not work but if you can put yourself into the mind of a viewer of the time or were exposed to much older films in your youth you can enjoy. If you’re a young buck who has been weaned on a steady diet of modern CGI fests that can create anything then you might not be so entertained.
Flying Leathernecks is an entertaining old-school military yarn. There is nothing too deep here other than doing your duty and making the tough decisions. It’s worth checking out but I cannot strongly recommend this unless you are a Wayne fan.