I had previously watched this one on TV, but I recall being underwhelmed by it: I liked the film better a second time around, but it’s clearly no classic (despite director Ray and co-star Robert Ryan’s involvement); contrary to Ray’s best work, which is marked by his personal touch, he’s strictly a director-for-hire on this particular title.The film is one of several war-themed Wayne vehicles from this era, a good number of which I’ve yet to catch up with – FLYING TIGERS (1942), THE FIGHTING SEABEES (1944), BACK TO BATAAN (1945) and OPERATION PACIFIC (1951). It’s similar to Wayne’s FORT APACHE (1948), where he’s now portraying the martinet role played in that John Ford cavalry picture by Henry Fonda – though he’s well-matched with the long-suffering Ryan (cast against type as an overly sensitive executive officer dedicated to his squad). The latter element, then, links the film with such archetypal flying pictures as ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939) and TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (1949) – where the group leader is constantly forced to make tough decisions in which the life of his men has to be put in jeopardy. For this reason, too, Wayne’s a generally glum presence here – apart from his interaction with Jay C. Flippen as an amiably roguish old-timer; from the remaining supporting cast, Don Taylor is equally notable as the wise-guy crew member who happens to be a relative of Ryan’s.The action sequences are exciting (domestic asides are unsurprisingly dull but thankfully brief).even if utilizing an astonishing amount of grainy WWII stock footage which, while giving it a sense of raw authenticity, also tends to stick out rather too obviously alongside the soft yet agreeable Technicolor adopted for the rest of the film! In the end, FLYING LEATHERNECKS may be corny but it’s reasonably enjoyable – and occasionally stirring – for all that.
Any tension FLYING LEATHERNECKS has as a war film from the '40s about the fight against the Japanese on Guadalcanal is bolstered considerably by the decent acting jobs done by JOHN WAYNE and ROBERT RYAN as men who are soon in conflict with each other over training methods. Wayne has his usual tough guy role, hard on the surface but soft inside, and Ryan is the man who stands up to him but soon appreciates him when the going gets rough.Whatever inaccuracies there are in historical details (as pointed out by other reviewers) don't really harm the story which is well photographed in Technicolor and includes a number of hard-hitting action scenes that are the best moments in the film. The domestic moments are the weakest elements of the story.Wayne and Ryan are well supported by JANIS CARTER (as Wayne's worried wife) and DON TAYLOR as a carefree soldier. Well directed by Nicholas Ray, it's not as tense and exciting as it could have been but it passes the time efficiently in its own way with lots of actual war footage appearing in the action scenes.
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".
Watching the interaction between Wayne and Ryan took me back to my days in submarines. A captain who remained distant yet caring and an exec who seemed more crew friendly and down to earth. I thought this was played out very well. Ryan only had to look at his own actions to realize why he had been passed over for command. I believe every command had a scrounger and this was a good addition for realism. I overlooked some location errors and airplane types and focused on what was the real story. Young men were trained quickly and sent into combat and as all young people do even now, feel invincible. This movie portrays war as a reality, men die. As long as the earth is inhabited there will be wars. One reviewer termed this movie as a snuff movie. This was war. Men fought and men died. Guadelcanal was not a pristine resort. We were attacked by an enemy who showed no mercy and as sad as it is, men die in war to protect our freedom. This movie shows how new pilots are forced to face the reality that they may be killed and that they must kill. They were led by a squadron commander (Wayne) who was a veteran and knew what it would take to give his men the highest odds of living. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and would recommend it to anyone who has a moral problem with war. The bottom line for the anti-war crowd is, "reality sucks."
"Flying Leathernecks" takes an old theme, namely, a struggle between commanders and their subordinates about how to conduct a mission, but treats it rather lamely compared with other films. "Leathernecks" tries to cover too much territory in advancing the cause of air combat Marines as a documentary and establishing a personal story line within a Marine unit.A subplot concerning one commander's over-identification with his men has resonances with "Twelve O'Clock High," but is not explored to the extent of the latter picture. Again, the result of trying to cover too much ground in one film.Two Clark Gable pictures, "Command Decision" and "Run Silent, Run Deep," are much stronger in their depiction of such conflict. Even better still are films like "The Caine Mutiny" and "Crimson Tide."