Technicolor photography adds some distinction to this okay but nothing-special aviation epic, tackling the issues of combat as a clear morale boost to troops and fliers fighting in Korea. John Wayne actually comes off better than Robert Ryan in the acting department, because the script is keyed to his kind of thesping - Wayne is great with the terse tough talk, while poor Ryan is made to play the sensitive guy with speeches that quote classic literature! Ultimately, what makes the difference in the show is the wide assortment of color WW2 combat footage that puts a mark of authenticity on the battle scenes.
At least the pilots don't compete for the same girl back home as in so many other combat fantasies. But Flying Leathernecks is pretty standard stuff. A squadron of marine pilots splits its time between dogfights with zeroes, knocking out kamikazes and trying out new methods of providing ground support for the "mud marines" doing the fighting on the ground. Tough new C.O. Wayne has leadership problems with his exec. Ryan, who was passed over, yadda yadda. The pilots are a bunch of whining doubters who need to be whipped into shape, including one from Texas (Don Taylor) who insists on wearing cowboy boots. As this is Technicolor, they're very colorful cowboy boots.
Howard Hughes put all of his favorite film content into the show: cocky fliers, airplanes in action (I'm sure the Marine Corps helped out with some new footage strafing practice ranges) and women with exaggerated bustlines. There's an early roundup of women left back home. Wayne's wife Janis Carter gets some respect but somebody's girlfriend (Elaine Roberts?) is lined up for the camera like she's posing for a brassiere ad.
There's a robber sergeant (Jay C. Flippen) who steals needed goods like tents and freshly-baked cakes for our boys. They're hot-shots who break formation and need to be taught how to be team players, etc.
Guadalcanal was one serious campaign (my namesake Uncle was a Marine there) and Flying Leathernecks can't really be realistic about it; the obvious mission for this film was to entertain small fry and teens considering the service. The top-notch stock footage is better than average. A big chunk of it is from The Fighting Lady and was shot in 16mm Kodachrome by the pilots themselves to record aerial kills. It has always looked pretty blurry on TV prints but this DVD presents it to its best advantage. Just about the only way it could be improved is with digitally processing to remove dirt and scratches, which can be plentiful. 1
Flying Leathernecks has a different agenda than a WW2 flight saga. Instead of glorious victories over the enemy it stresses the teamwork of the Corps. The airmen's families seem eager for them to be re-deployed in combat areas. We see Japanese fliers in their cockpits, but nobody launches into any tirades against them - the dialogue refers not to a hoped-for victory, but good luck in the continuing war against the "enemies of freedom" - that's Cold War talk, Pilgrim.
Snooty film critics usually round-file Flying Leathernecks as some kind of punishment handed out to their fave director Nicholas Ray by oddball producer Hughes. In 1951, directors suspected of having leftist attitudes were an endangered species, and people like Jules Dassin and Joseph Losey were frozen out of their Hollywood careers. Ray may have been a sensitive artist with leftist thoughts of his own, but he was no martyr. Even though he denied making a deal with Hughes, Ray played the producer-mogul's game and directed whatever was asked of him, even retakes for Joseph Von Sternberg. Like everyone else, Ray was given the litmus test of being asked to direct a virulent HUAC valentine movie (I Married a Communist, I think it was), and Ray was too smart to turn the job down. Someone else eventually shot the film. Having Hughes on one's side was a guaranteed way not to be bothered by the committees, and Ray had good survival skills.
This particular movie is so generic could have been directed by the focus-puller. There's nothing for Ray to sink his teeth into here - it's not exactly personal auteur material. Even the domestic scenes back home (where wifey Carter wears crimson dresses to bring some color to the screen) are by-the-numbers. In one faintly disturbing scene, Wayne gives his son a captured Samurai sword, which the kid then waves through the air like a plastic toy! Those things are dangerous, buddy!
That said, Flying Leathernecks is a downright sane Howard Hughes film compared to some of his other productions. He filmed Jet Pilot in 1952 but kept toying with it until its 1957 release, when it was pathetically out of date. And everyone knows that he holed up in a Las Vegas hotel suite through most of the 1960s, screening and re-screening prints of his favorite production The Conqueror ad infinitum.
Warners' DVD of Flying Leathernecks is a beauty, making it a pleasure to watch - I never saw the whole movie on television because of the crummy print quality. This particular print curiously starts with a B&W RKO logo. The only flaw is a detail I've noted in other Technicolor films remastered for DVD: when Janis carter smiles at Wayne in closeup, digital peaks in her bright teeth register as dark areas - either that or digital edge enhancement is responsible - resulting in shots that make the actress seem to have rows of shark teeth or broken glass in her mouth. A minor thing, but you'd think they'd catch it. It's odd to see famous actresses looking as if they're missing teeth!
The packaging is the same old snapper case and the dramatic cover illustration (which looks like nothing in the movie) is a keeper. Now that Warners is finally doing some serious digging into its library, we're can be assured of years of exciting releases of Warners, RKO and Allied Artists films.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Flying Leathernecks rates:
1. An older lady negative
cutter in the 1980s told me that during the war she was a young lab worker at Technicolor.
She handled military film like this, which came in to be blown up to 35mm and put through the
Technicolor process. She had sync blocks with covers that allowed the workers to read key
numbers on the edge of the film, without seeing the images themselves. My dad verified this when a
few years later he personally had to escort the film shot of the Kwajelein Atoll Atom testing
through Technicolor. The lab staff under a certain clearance level had no idea what was on
the film they were processing.