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FLYING LEATHERNECKS, THE(director: Nicholas Ray; screenwriters: story by Kenneth Gamet/James Edward Grant; cinematographer: William E. Snyder; editor: Sherman Todd; music: Roy Webb; cast: John Wayne (Maj. Daniel Xavier ‘Dan’ Kirby), Robert Ryan (Capt. Carl ‘Griff’ Griffin), Don Taylor (Lt. Vern ‘Cowboy’ Blithe), Janis Carter (Joan Kirby), Jay C. Flippen (MSgt. Clancy, Line Chief), William Harrigan (Dr. Lt.Cdr. Joe Curran), Adam Williams (Lt. Bert Malotke), Barry Kelley (Brigadier General), Carleton Young (Col. Riley), Brett King (1st Lt. Ernie Stark); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Edmund Grainger; RKO; 1951)
“This is the most ordinary film Nicholas Ray ever made.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is the most ordinary film Nicholas Ray ever made. It’s a typical rah-rah war film of the 1950s that is about a WWII marine flying squadron in Guadalcanal fighting the Japs. The theme boils down to showing how tough it is to be a squadron commander, you have to make unpopular and tough decisions. It’s based on a story by Kenneth Gamet and scripted by James Edward Grant. Howard Hughes’ RKO studio made the film and it was the first one Hughes received screen credit for. Hughes insisted the film be shot in Tecnicolor, which was rare back then for a war film.

Major Dan Kirby (John Wayne) is the new no-nonsense squadron commander assigned to the VMF 247, a.k.a. the Wildcats, who gets the assignment when the laid-back, compassionate, popular, soft-hearted executive officer Captain Carl Griffin (Robert Ryan) is passed over because his former commander didn’t think he was ready to make the tough decisions that can send men to their deaths. Kirby is gruff with his flyers, as he finds the discipline lax. There are many aerial battle scenes (the worth of the film), and the formulaic plot line between the two wary top officers who confront each other gets played out to the hilt. Griffin will learn the hard way that making tough decisions and having a disciplined unit is essential for winning the war, while Kirby will learn he can ease up and become more human. There are lots of letters sent home to wives and family, strong bonds develop among the men in a showing of their esprit de corps, a couple of flyers confess to being scared, all the flyers are wholesome all-American boys with strong family support, death is not an easy thing for anyone to face especially for the young pilots, and all the officers really care about the men no matter how distant they seem. Line Chief Clancy (Jay C. Flippen) is around for comic relief, he’s resourceful in getting supplies to his men that wasn’t requisitioned to his unit. Lt. Vern ‘Cowboy’ Blithe (Don Taylor ) is used as a plot device, as he plays Grif’s brother-in-law who develops engine trouble on a close-knit bombing mission and Grif has to make a tough decision over his predicament.

It’s what you would expect from such a conventional war film, something empty, filled with baloney daredevil heroics and an open endorsement for flag-waving sentimentalities. It gets over only because the acting is solid, the directing is professional, and the action aerial photography is appealing.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”