Wayne & Ryan at War
Watching "Flying Leathernecks" I felt a little under whelmed because on first look it comes across as a typical flag waver, a patriotic war movie. Even when you take into account that the storyline is about a battle between two senior officers who disagree when it comes to the treatment of men it still has that over feel of being just another patriotic war movie. But then you need to look closer and read between the lines because not only do we witness injured men being forced to fly we also see men dying and you get a sense that whilst Nicholas Ray was employed to direct a patriotic war movie he managed to put some of his own feelings in there.
Maj. Daniel Xavier Kirby (John Wayne - Operation Pacific) is assigned to take over a squadron of marine pilots and immediately finds their behaviour not up to his high standards. He puts the blame for this on second in command, Capt. Carl 'Griff' Griffin (Robert Ryan - Return of the Badmen) because whilst a great flier is too friendly with the men and allows them to get away with stuff he disagrees with. It leads to tension between Kirby and Griff especially as Kirby seems cold and ruthless in the way he treats the men, even those who are unfit to fly. When Kirby gets called back State side to train a new squadron he refuses to put Griff forwards to take over command believing his friendliness makes him a poor choice as a leader.
"Flying Leathernecks" is a movie of three things but only 2 of them are initially apparent. The first of these is the focus of the movie which is the battle between Kirby being cold and tough whilst Griff is more easy going leading to various confrontations between them over the treatment of the men. To be honest there is nothing special about this, yes when Griff finally snaps and tells Kirby what he thinks of him is powerful as is the way this all ends but it isn't a very strong or original storyline.
And with this the 2nd thing becomes apparent because "Flying Leathernecks" ends up feeling like a typical patriotic war movie as we watch brave men fight the enemy in the sky and risk their lives doing so. As such there are various typical elements, from a fun turn by Jay C. Flippen as Clancy who lays his hands on certain much needed equipment and whilst Kirby may seem tough there is a softer side to him. Throw in plenty of in air footage which I swear I have seen used in other movies and it makes "Flying Leathernecks" feel like just another war movie
But then you need to read between the lines for the third thing because director Nicholas Ray disagreed with the movies politics and when you look closely you can see that. Scenes where we see men injured, needlessly sent up to fight when they were not fit enough and in some cases killed actually makes a subtle politically comment about the futility of war. It is also said that actor Robert Ryan disagreed with the politics as well which lead too confrontations with John Wayne and Jay C. Flippen which in a way helped because it made the animosity between the characters feel real.
But the sad thing is that whilst if you look carefully you can see this deeper context overall "Flying Leathernecks" just ends up feeling like another typical John Wayne war movie. Wayne is his usual reliable self as Kirby but that also means it is a character which is so typical there is little to differentiate him from other military characters which Wayne played and whilst Robert Ryan is his equal his character is actually quite forgettable. It is the same with the various actors who play the marine pilots because none of them get to establish a character and so are easily forgotten.
What this all boils down to is that whilst "Flying Leathernecks" has a subtle side it is a side which is overshadowed by the patriotic side which in the end makes it just a typical flag waving war movie. If you are fan of John Wayne it is entertaining enough but it is a movie with little to make it memorable with maybe the exception of a fun turn by Jay C. Flippen.