Monday, August 4, 2014

FORGOTTEN GEM? Flying Leathernecks (1951)


                “Flying Leathernecks” is a John Wayne movie directed by Nicholas Ray (“Bitter Victory”).  The movie got a lot of cooperation from the Marine Corps, which was the branch that did the best job of cozying up to Hollywood after WWII.  Not only did it allow the movie to be filmed at Camp Pendleton, but it flew down fighters to provide aerial footage.   The Marines knew that in the post-WWII funding battles, public adulation would come in handy.  The movie opens with the credits backed by the “Marine Corps Hymn”.  The movie is dedicated to the USMC and Marine Corps aviation.

                Wayne plays Maj. Kirby who is the new commander of VMF 247.  He interrupts a party for the assumed promotion of the current exec Capt. Griffin (Robert Ryan).  Awkward!  (Same situation that Burt Lancaster was put in in “Run Silent, Run Deep”.)  You don’t have to be on a submarine to have command dysfunction.  Not only has Griffin reason to be pissed, but he disagrees with Kirby’s tough love philosophy with the boys.  (Similar situation to “Twelve O’Clock High”.) 

The squadron is posted to Guadalcanal during the darkest days of the campaign.  The “Cactus Air Force” is taking losses and morale is low.  Kirby has an idea of how to turn things around – close air support.  This new tactic is enacted without any training or even discussion.  The fighter pilots are not thrilled with strafing anddive bombing, but Kirby discourages them from engaging in dog fights.  When one disobeys orders and gets himself shot down, Kirby insists the ace-wannabes go look at the body.  Meanwhile the empathetic “’Griff” is seething over Kirby’s treatment of the boys.  This is brought to a head when a pilot incapacitated by malaria is forced to fly and is lost.  Kirby responds to Griffin’s criticism with an epic reaming for being too caring. 

"Extreme dysentery is no
excuse for not flying"
"Give the guy a break, we're out of
The new tactic is effective and Kirby is sent stateside to promote ground support.  Get ready to gag as he spends some time with his wife and child.  This registers higher on the vomit meter than the earlier record from home.  Kirby is assigned a new squadron to train in his tactic and guess who his exec is!  Griff has learned his lesson and is now just as much of an asshole as his mentor.  He proves this when they are sent to Okinawa and Griff declines to go to the aid of his brother-in-law who is having engine trouble.  He is finally ready to take command and carry on.

There is a little factual basis for the movie.  Kirby is based on Maj. John L. Smith who commanded VHF-223 on Guadalcanal.  He shot down 19 Japanese planes to become one of the leading aces in the Marine Corps in WWII.  You don’t shoot down that many while concentrating on ground support, so that part was apparently made up.  Possibly because when the movie was being made, Marine aviation was performing a mainly ground support role in Korea.  In actuality, Smith’s tactic was to pounce on Japanese bomber formations from high above, passing through the formation, then racing home if there were any Zero escorts.  That practical, yet unsporting, tactic probably did not go over well with the real flyboys either.

"I stole this from a future squadron.  It will convert
our Wildcats into Hellcats."
The movie is average Wayne.  He plays himself, of course.  Anyone expecting him to have a nervous breakdown like Gregory Peck in “Twelve O’clock High” does not know Wayne movies.  Ryan holds his own in a role different from his usual war movie characters.  He’s usually the Kirby.  The director wanted an actor that could take Wayne in a fight.  The supporting cast is familiar faces, but there is little character development.  This is not a small unit movie.  Comic relief is provided by the scrounging, crusty crew chief Sgt. Clancy (Jay Flippen).  There is no humor between Kirby and Griffin.

The plot is standard.  The maverick with new ideas comes in over the head of the traditional, more popular leader.  They butt heads until the traditionalist learns that the new ideas are war-winning and tough discipline is the key to success in battle.  The problem is the character arc of Griffin is shaky.  He starts off surprisingly accommodating even though humiliatingly jilted from his dream job.  When Kirby is transferred, their relationship has hit rock bottom, yet he is happy to become his exec again.  This makes no sense.  The lame romantic subplot of Kirby’s family was apparently geared toward getting a female onto the poster.  The dialogue is boring, but not laughable.  The music is typical for a movie of its ilk.

"Tell us the story of the time you made that guy with
bad malaria fly a mission that killed him"
The one big selling point for the movie is the aerial combat.  There is plenty of action.  This was the first movie to use color gun footage.  And they used a lot of it.  The footage fits the scenarios nicely, but if you have an eye for this sort of thing you’ll notice that there is too much variety in it.  At least they don’t shoot down any Stukas.  You also might notice that they are not flying F4F Wildcats over Guadalcanal, but the anachronistic F6F Hellcats amply available in 1951.  The movie more appropriately features the F4U Corsair for the Okinawa scenes.  There is thankfully little stupid cockpit banter.  However, we do get the common cinematographic trope of blending the actual footage with shots of the guns firing and the pilots grimacing in the cockpits.  Thankfully, the cockpit chatter is not lame.

Forgotten gem?  This is far down the list of Wayne war movies.  If you are not a Wayne fan, there is little reason to watch it and if you are a Wayne fan, you are probably going to be disappointed.

GRADE  =  C+
the trailer

1 comment:

  1. Totally agree, this is far down my list of Wayne movies. It had an interesting subject, aerial combat in the Pacific, but was not an interesting movie.


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