Directed by Nicholas Ray
Produced by Edmund Grainger
Screenplay by James Edward Grant
From a story by Kenneth Gamet
Director Of Photography: William E. Snyder
Film Editor: Sherman Todd
Music by Roy Webb
Cast: 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), William Harrigan (Dr. Lt.Cdr. Joe Curran), James Bell (Colonel), John Mitchum, Hugh Sanders, Gail Davis
Howard Hughes wanted an airplane picture in Technicolor, and he cast John Wayne in it. Nicholas Ray thought a patriotic picture might keep the HUAC off his back, even though he hated war movies (and the politics of this one), and he cast the likeminded Robert Ryan.
When you take all that into consideration, it’s amazing that Flying Leathernecks (1951) works as well as it does. (In the divided, contentious political environment of today, it’s doubtful something like this would get past the contract phase, much less result in a completed movie.) Flying Leathernecks has a lot of the things we count on (an ensemble cast, incredible battle sequences) and dread (back-home flashbacks of soldiers) about Hollywood war pictures of this period.
But it was put together by some of the absolute best Hollywood had around at the time — Wayne, Ryan, Ray — who somehow managed to keep the meddling Howard Hughes from screwing the whole thing up. And the end result is a well-acted, technically stunning story of Marine Corps pilots in the Pacific during World War II.
Robert Ryan is the Captain who wants to bond with his men. Wayne’s the Major whose strict methods are intended to bring as many planes back to base, and to get as many solders back home, as possible. The two officers battle each other as much as the Japanese.
Maj. Daniel Xavier Kirby (John Wayne): “You just can’t bring yourself to point your finger at the guy and say ‘go get killed!'”
These kinds of conflicts have fueled war pictures since the silent days. And they provide a bit of interest in watching them — how will this one approach the conventions, and how well will it all work? What will carry this one — the writing, direction, acting, stunts, effects or something else? With Flying Leathernecks, the answer might be all of the above.
Nick Ray was a great actors’ director — many performers were never as good as they were in his films. This was Wayne’s only Ray picture; Ryan and Ray would follow this with On Dangerous Ground (1952). At the same time, Ray had an eye for composition that remains unmatched. (He’d really hit his stride when ‘Scope came along.) Flying Leathernecks was the director’s first color movie, and it looks terrific. Director Of Photography William E. Snyder does a particularly good job of matching his footage to color combat footage. The aerial sequences are really something, especially with the added allure of Technicolor. I’m sure those scenes, and that gorgeous color, made Mr. Hughes very happy indeed.
Snyder’s color camerawork is the main reason for making the leap from Flying Leathernecks on the old Warners DVD to the new, stunning Blu-Ray from Warner Archive. The film’s been given a through cleaning, from dialing in the sharpness and color to dazzling effect to tidying up the 16mm Kodachrome battle footage. You don’t expect a war movie, dominated by greens and browns, to be so vibrant. This is the kind of restoration I’d like to see every Technicolor movie receive. It’s amazing.
Flying Leathernecks is not going to make the list of Nicholas Ray’s best films. It’s job was to please Howard Hughes and make sure Ray could still work in Hollywood, and it seems to have succeeded. It also succeeds as a war movie, a good one — with John Wayne and Robert Ryan doing the good work we expect from them. All that, given a stunning Blu-Ray release, is really easy to recommend.