Another aviation picture from billionaire Howard Hughes, Flying Leathernecks is also one of the stranger offerings directed by Nicholas Ray. Set during World War II's Battle of Guadalcanal, it essentially boils down to a two-hander pitting the stalwart John Wayne against the pugnacious Robert Ryan. Given its use of an incredible amount of actual war footage, I'm assuming the story was built around the footage used (especially with such unique images as a pilot bailing out of a downed aircraft). So it's funny to think of a maverick like Ray having to conform to all of these elements—a notoriously demanding eccentric as his producer, an equally iconic star who no doubt had demands of his own, and the limitations demanded by such specific footage—in order to complete the war movie.
As Ray's first color film, Flying Leathernecks' integration of existing dogfight footage is quite impressive, especially given the rarity of color battle footage at that point (which has led to uncomfirmed speculation that this was actually film of the Korean War). In a mission briefing scene early in the film, one can see a glimmer of the director whose use of color would become so intrinsic to his later films. Ray's use of vivid oranges and magenta breaks the visual monotony of the Pacific theater color palette which would become traditional in films of this ilk. In most other respects, it is formulaic.
Flying Leathernecks is loosely based on the exploits of Captain John Lucien Smith and his Marine Fighting Squadron 223. Difficult to parse for any of Ray's usual genre subversions, some have speculated the leftist director may have been minding his p's and q's while working alongside arch-conservatives Hughes and Wayne. So it's interesting to see Ryan—an outspoken liberal—cast as Griff, executive officer and compassionate opposite number to Wayne's Major Kirby. Though on its face a patriotic depiction of the flying Marines, Flying Leathernecks still allows Ray to voice his opinions, through Ryan, on the dispiriting effect of war on young soldiers. Here's the film's best exchange, between Kirby and Griff:
Kirby: ...You just can't bring yourself to point your finger at a guy and say, Go get killed. You gotta tear your guts out worrying about his flight record, or because some dame back in the States is giving him the brush-off... or whether he knows whether his baby's born yet or not. You got enough troubles of your own for one man. Stop trying to pack everybody else's around. Schedule that mission.This scene crystallizes everything good and bad about the film: the cliche tough guy patter; the rote macho posturing; the volatile tension between its two leading men; and Ray's own attempts to slip in some of his own commentary.
(he turns to leave the tent, then swiftly brings down the canvas flap)
I've got a belly full of you, and I'm not buying the bill of goods you're selling. In my book, it's easy to be a turtle. Put a shell between yourself and the rest of humanity.
Maybe I'm not making my point clear. 400 years ago, a poet said it better than I ever could. "No man is an island." When the funeral bell rings it isn't just for the dead guy. It's a little bit for all of us. Each man's suffering belongs to everyone, or else why are we shooting off these guns...
Otherwise, Flying Leathernecks pays little attention to its supporting characters. The rest of the squadron's pilots live in anonymity, with only a few breaking through to the forefront with some character details and usually right before he is killed. The most notable is played by future director Don Taylor (Stalag 17), a Texan nicknamed "Cowboy" of course, who modifies his uniform with the addition of cowboy boots and happens to be Griff's brother-in-law. All of these character details pile up slower with regard to him than they do with other walk-ons, signalling his eventual sacrifice—as a result of a rare executive decision by Griff—as the most significant in the film. Ryan's Griff gets promoted as a result of this decisive moment.
A reading in which the "bleeding heart" Griff stands in for Nicholas Ray yields an interpretation of Flying Leathernecks as a bit of right-wing propaganda in which Ray sadly acknowledges surrendering his political ideals to the requirements of the genre he was working in. Future films wouldn't see the director give in to his superiors as easily.