Sunday, September 27, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Flying Leathernecks (1951) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

FLYING LEATHERNECKS (1951), a World War II film about Marines serving in the Pacific, has just been released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.

The movie is a reflection on the challenges of military leadership starring John Wayne and Robert Ryan, directed by Nicholas Ray. This was my first time seeing the film so I don't know how good the prior DVD looked by comparison, but I can report that the Technicolor cinematography by William E. Snyder looks fantastic on the Blu-ray.

Ryan plays Captain Carl Griffin, who loses an expected Marine aviation squadron command post to Major Dan Kirby (Wayne); Griffin instead serves as Kirby's executive officer.

The squadron are a group of good men, including Griffin's brother-in-law Lt. Vern "Cowboy" Blithe (Don Taylor), but they're fairly undisciplined. Griffin leans toward relating with those under his command and sometimes excusing behavior that's not "by the book," but being close to the men also makes it more difficult to make tough decisions in life-and-death situations.

Kirby privately struggles with the pressures of leadership but continues to make the hard calls, including not granting sick leave, as every body and every plane counts during a mission.

Tension between the two men escalates as they serve on Guadalcanal. There's a brief respite when Kirby goes stateside to train pilots on "close air" support tactics, but soon the two men are reunited for another round of combat service.

FLYING LEATHERNECKS is a solid film, though the story is nothing unique; I'd class it as a mid-range WWII film, not a top classic but certainly a well-done and worthwhile film.

The movie's strong point is the pairing of Wayne and Ryan, a pair of top actors who create characters who are a study in contrasts. Wayne's Kirby suffers inwardly but, other than occasionally exhibiting some crankiness to the men under his command, he's a mature man who has his head on straight, calmly and coolly assessing the people around him. He's tough, but he also recognizes when a scared young pilot needs some encouragement rather than being chewed out. He spends his days trying to keep his men alive to fight another day and his evenings writing condolence letters to the families of the men who don't make it.

(Incidentally, this was one of three films Wayne appeared in from 1948 to 1951 where his character's first or last name was Kirby, the others being John Ford's FORT APACHE and RIO GRANDE.)

Ryan, who served in the Marines in real life, plays a more outwardly sensitive man whose philosophy is that no man is an island; at the same time, there are moments where he seems like a powder keg ready to explode, and he does so verbally in a big scene with Wayne late in the film. The movie's main question is whether or not he will learn the lessons necessary to command a group of men under constant threat of death, balancing compassion with the distance needed to give orders that will inevitably result in men dying in the line of duty.

Because of the construction of James Edward Grant's screenplay, the death of a major character is very clearly telegraphed from the film's opening minutes and seems inevitable as part of Griffin's journey toward being a true leader. Knowing that it was coming dimmed my enjoyment slightly, though at least I wasn't shocked when it finally happened. I think any alert viewer will be anticipating it.

Otherwise, Wayne, Ryan, and the supporting cast make the film a worthwhile 102 minutes. Jay C. Flippen is the line sergeant with an amazing ability to scrounge up and improvise parts. Janis Carter and Gordon Gebert are Wayne's wife and son; having seen Gebert interviewed at the 2015 Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival, I especially enjoyed watching him interact with Wayne.

The cast also includes James Bell, William Harrigan, Barry Kelley, Brett King, John Mitchum, Maurice Jara, Gail Davis, and Carleton Young.

The Blu-ray quality provides an extra level of enjoyment, starting with the gorgeous sunset footage behind the opening credits. Somehow I hadn't realized in advance that the movie was in color and when it started I gasped "Oh, wow," it looked so good. The final patriotic shots gave me goosebumps.

The lone extra is the reissue trailer.

Fans of the two lead actors and/or World War II movies will find this Blu-ray a worthwhile pickup.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailer where Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger john k said...

A lovely review Laura,and my Blu Ray is in the mail. I must say that the restorations of these old RKO films that Warner Archive are producing are outstanding.FLYING LEATHERNECKS sounds,from your review as if it is as good as GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING and UNDERWATER both not outstanding films but fine to have restored so well.The UK TV transmissions of FLYING LEATHERNECKS are washed out and unwatchable so I'm in for a real treat. I look forward to other restorations of old RKO films from Warners,in particular DEVIL'S CANYON,TENSION AT TABLE ROCK and TREASURE OF PANCHO VILLA and of course my favorite DANGEROUS MISSION. It's a shame that Warners do not own the rights to SILVER LODE which in my opinion is worthy of the Criterion treatment.

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