A somewhat different view of World War II through air support during the siege of Guadalcanal in the Pacific, Nicholas Ray’s Flying Leathernecks mixes actual fight footage with staged battle scenes to often exhilarating effect.
The Production: 3.5/5
A somewhat different view of World War II through air support during the siege of Guadalcanal in the Pacific, Nicholas Ray’s Flying Leathernecks mixes actual fight footage with staged battle scenes to often exhilarating effect. While the screenplay doesn’t quite give the grunts their due, the film is bolstered by its unique perspective of the war and some able performances from stars Robert Ryan and John Wayne along with solid work from a cadre of reliable supporting players.
When the marine flying unit VMF-247 gets a new squadron leader in Major Daniel Kirby (John Wayne), they’re somewhat disappointed that the brass hadn’t promoted from within and given the command to their favorite Captain Carl ‘Griff’ Griffin (Robert Ryan). Nevertheless, Kirby and Griffin make a concerted effort to work together smoothly for the good of the outfit even though their leadership techniques differ wildly: Kirby being the stern taskmaster and Griffin being the gentler and more understanding officer. Command has decided to experiment with letting the flying squadron provide close air support to ground troops at Guadalcanal though the squad is hampered by a lack of parts, gasoline, and backup pilots to spell men who are completely exhausted and not at their sharpest in the air. With heavy Japanese barrages from their own planes, their ground soldiers, and in the ocean, there are plenty of casualties, but the men buck up to Kirby’s strict rules and perform admirably.
James Edward Grant has scripted the Kenneth Gamet story that is pretty bankrupt in character exploration for the many lower ranked soldiers and pilots that people the story: when some of them meet their maker, the emotional impact is dissipated because we hadn’t been given enough time to get to know them (a series of brief vignettes as the men cable their loved ones back home doesn’t quite suffice for background on the men). Ryan’s and Wayne’s characters are shown in more depth definitely contrasting their individual approaches to command (a hoped-for brawl between the two big men gets sidetracked midway through the movie, disappointingly). The actual World War II aerial footage used throughout stitches together into intriguing dogfights (abetted, of course, with inserted footage of the stars in their soundstage flying machines) though the Japanese kamikaze flyers seem to be the more accurate shooters through much of the movie sending our boys to their doom. Director Nicholas Ray does a most professional job directing the narrative, but it’s lacking the in-depth exploration of character and gut-wrenching drama that distinguished such films of his as In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause. A stateside visit with Kirby’s wife and child comes out of nowhere and stalls the movie’s forward momentum, but we are given one lengthy, impressive seaside strike on the Japanese navy and a climactic all-out attack on land that brings the movie to a notable end.
Ordinarily, it would have been Robert Ryan acting the tough, steely commander with a heart of brass, but with that larger role going to John Wayne, we get to see a tenderer side of Ryan in the movie, and it’s appealing. His is the most interesting performance in the movie coming to understand the benefits of occasionally turning off one’s emotions for the greater good of the squad. Of the supporting players, two stand out. Don Taylor plays Lieutenant Vern “Cowboy” Blithe, Griff’s brother-in-law with an ease and affability that he wasn’t always known for. Jay C. Flippen as Master Sergeant Clancy, the line chief who can come up with just about anything anyone needs given time and opportunity, is a tried-and-true wartime character no less effective here despite its familiarity. Janis Carter has the throwaway role of Kirby’s loyal wife, very pretty and very tidy in her playing even in such a thankless role. William Harrigan plays the base doctor while Maurice Jara, Adam Williams, James Dobson, Steve Flagg, and Brett King make up brave members of the squadron, some of whom don’t make it to the end of the movie.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Gorgeous Technicolor has been reproduced beautifully in this transfer with realistic skin tones, impressively deep black levels, and perfectly applied contrast. The vintage World War II flying footage, of course, is grainier and less superbly focused, but that’s no fault of the transfer. There might be the slightest variance in color saturation levels in a scene or two near the film’s end, but it’s pretty incidental.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix offers solid fidelity for this era in sound reproduction. All of the dialogue has been recorded excellently, and it has been mixed professionally with Roy Webb’s background music and the numerous sound effects necessary for a realistic depiction of World War II combat in the air and on the ground. There are no instances of age-related hiss, crackle, flutter, or pops.
Special Features: 1/5
Reissue Trailer (1:50, HD)
Nicholas Ray’s Flying Leathernecks is an enjoyable and engrossing war film featuring some engaging color footage of aerial combat of that era and two superb leading men at the apex of their careers. The Warner Archive Blu-ray release provides astounding color reproduction and solid mono sound for fans of the stars or the film.