Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 3, 2020)
If I possessed more gumption, I’d calculate how many World War II-based John Wayne made. My rough calculation? A lot.
Add 1951’s Flying Leathernecks to the list. Set in 1942, Wayne plays Major Daniel Kirby, the new leader of a Marine air squadron based in Hawaii.
When Kirby takes control of this group, he feels they show too little discipline, so he gets tough on them. This leads him to butt heads with second-in-command Captain Carl Griffin (Robert Ryan), a talented flyer who Kirby thinks lacks leadership qualities.
All of these issues get put to the test when they head into combat. Kirby’s squad heads to the Pacific, where they become part of the battle at Guadalcanal.
Of course, Wayne remains the most famous participant here, though Ryan enjoyed a good career as well. Probably the second best-known person involved with Leathernecks would be director Nicholas Ray.
Ray’s career as a director started only three years earlier with 1948’s They Live By Night. Across the short span between films, Ray cranked out a lot of work, so Leathernecks stood as his sixth directorial feature.
Ray would find his career peak in 1955 with the legendary Rebel Without a Cause. Though he made good films before and after that, Rebels remains his primary claim to fame.
After a screening of Leathernecks, I can’t state that it deserves a higher reputation. While a decent war movie, it never rises above a level of general competence.
Much of Leathernecks proceeds on an easily foreseeable path. It mixes combat with scenes among the Marines, usually with an emphasis on the ways Kirby and Griffin butt heads.
These tend to settle into a “lather, rinse, repeat” scenario, as we don’t get a lot of variation. The Marines fight, Kirby/Griffin bicker, and again.
This seems all the more predictable given the movie’s ending. From the start, we know Leathernecks will lead toward a finale in which Griffin and Kirby warm up to each other, so when that happens, it feels inevitable.
Oddly, Leathernecks predicates their connection on a decision Griffin makes that seems questionable. Throughout the film, we get the impression Griffin can’t make tough choices that might lead to the death of his Marines, and in the climax, he finally buckles down.
However, the film leaves open the question of whether Griffin chose wisely. In a more standard story, he’d Do the Right Thing without a doubt, but here we feel uncertain.
In theory, this adds complexity to the story, but in reality, it just seems weird. The flick’s last scene shows Kirby and Griffin all buddy-buddy, without a hint of remorse, and that comes across as an odd contrast to the predicament involved.
Another unusual choice relates to the movie’s combat scenes. These mix shots created explicitly for Leathernecks with actual WWII footage.
On the surface, that integration should give the film a sense of verisimilitude, as the real material would depict battles more accurately than effects could. That seems especially true given the cinematic limitations of the era.
However, the WWII footage fails to integrate cleanly with the Leathernecks shots. The 1940s material looks much softer and doesn’t match the 1951 film, so we never buy that the two come from the same events.
Ironically, though the WWII clips intend to add realism to Leathernecks, they wind up with the opposite effect. Because the different shots blend so poorly, they consistently take us out of the film and make the 1951 material seem all the more phony.
Did this create concerns for audiences of the time? Probably not, as I suspect moviegoers in 1951 accepted a level of artifice that wouldn’t work for later viewers.
This can be seen in an unintentionally funny scene when Kirby briefly returns home to his wife Joan (Janis Carter) and young son Tommy (Gordon Gebert). Kirby arrives late at night, with Joan about to hit the sack.
However, even though clad in a bedtime robe, Joan sports immaculate hair and makeup. Oh, and Kirby gives Tommy a full-sized Japanese sword as a gift, which the youngster swings wildly while he plays alone.
Did any of those seem ridiculous to crowds in 1951? Maybe, but I suspect they went with the flow. I won’t pick on these scenes too much, as they seem inconsequential overall.
Where Leathernecks falters relates to its less than engaging characters. We never really invest in Kirby, Griffin or the rest – well, with one exception.
As crafty line chief MSgt. Clancy, Jay C. Flippen creates easily the most interesting role. The movie brightens during his occasional appearances.
As for the rest of Leathernecks, it seems moderately entertaining and not much more. A meat and potatoes war movie, it brings a watchable affair but not one that stands out among its crowded genre.