Flying Leathernecks (1951): Nicholas Ray Directs John Wayne

Using a similar plot, “Flying Leathernecks” made a deliberate attempt to repeat the success of “Sands of Iwo Jima,” John Wayne’s popular picture made two years earlier.

The scenario was co-scripted by James Edward Grant, one of the two scribes of the 1949 film, who understood well what makes the Duke click with the mass public.

John Wayne plays Major Dan Kirby, a commander of the Marine fighting squadron in the South Pacific in 1942, is resented by his men because they wanted executive officer, Captain Carl Griffin (Robert Ryan), a more popular and amiable man, to get the command. They also dislike Kirby for imposing his rugged ways and strict discipline.

The film, however, makes it very clear that it is Kirby who is more suited for command, particularly under pressure. Griffin defends Kirby’s tactics in front of the men, but in privacy he’s critical, telling him, “No man is an island.” When Griffin takes over the command, however, he models his leadership after Kirby. As in other war pictures, in due time, the soldiers learn to respect and even like Kirby for the kind of leader he is.

Wayne’s toughness turns out to be an exterior façade, and in a sensitive scene, he is seen writing letters of condolence to the families of the casualties.

In another scene, meant to show his softer side, he goes home to visit his wife and gives his son a sword as a souvenir.  But he still needs to be asked before telling his wife that he loves her.

The tale touches briefly on the stresses and anxieties of being in command, an issue that dealt with in Wayne’s “Flying Tigers,” and in the Gregory Peck superb 1949 war drama, Twelve O’Çlock High.

“Flying Leathernecks” is helmed by the cult director Nicholas Ray, though producer Howard Hughes did not allow for a personal film, and thus the narrative abounds with generic cliches, such as the allocation of deaths among members of the team, or a pilot, a bronc-buster in cvilian life, who loses a leg in action. As a result, it is one of the least distinctive films of Nicholas Ray, who functioned as a gun for hire.

In most of his war movies, Wayne’s roughness is more of a facade. In this picture, Kirby is frustrated when he does not get mail from his family, but he is the one to write letters of condolences to the families of the soldiers who die in combat.

Wayne’s screen leaders are by no means insensitive, especially when it comes to respect for soldiers who have died on duty.  In “They Were Expendable,” he states firmly, “a service man is supposed the have a funeral–that’s a tribute to the way he’s spent his life. Escort, firing squad, wrapped in the flag he served under and died for.” Wayne even recites poetry–awkwardly–in honor of one of the casualties who “was always quotin’ verse.”

Howard Hughes, head of RKO, paid Wayne $301,000, his best pay fee, to make this picture, which was a moderate success at the box-office, a reflection of the movie’s mediocre quality as well as the changing mores in American culture post WWII.

Share this:
Share this page via Email Share this page via Stumble Upon Share this page via Digg this Share this page via Facebook Share this page via Twitter