In discussing this "John Wayne meets Top Gun" war film, Judge Mark Van Hook overlooks the most important aspect: were the cheesecake airbrushings on the planes hot, or not?
"Listen, some guys take a look at the world when they're young and they don't like what they see. And they realize that some of us are gonna have to fight for the rest of us from here on in. I'm a professional soldier, and I don't mind saying I'm kinda proud of it."—Capt. Carl Griffin
John Wayne (The Searchers) and Robert Ryan (The Set-Up) headline this very watchable WWII actioner from director Nicholas Ray, a story of honor and discipline among fighter pilots. Presented in typically fine fashion by Warner Brothers, the film trots out old war movie clichés by the truckload, but does so respectably. Even though it doesn't transcend the genre, its old-fashioned sense of heroism makes for a solidly entertaining ride.
Facts of the Case
Major Dan Kirby (John Wayne) is the new squadron leader assigned to VMF 247, a.k.a. the Wildcats, a squadron recently relieved of their commanding officer. Capt. Carl Griffin, a.k.a. "Griff" (Robert Ryan) expected to be next in line for the job, but the former commander refused to recommend him because of his lack of leadership skills and his soft heart, which compromise his ability to send men to die when it's necessary.
When Kirby arrives, he finds the squadron lacking in discipline, a problem he quickly seeks to remedy. His no-nonsense attitude immediately makes him unpopular with the group, most of whom wish Griff had taken command. But as they'll soon find out, it takes more than just a good nature to be a good leader, and wars are won not by likeable guys but by those willing to sacrifice for the greater good.
One of the great things about exploring older genre films is that it shows where some of the clichés used in recent films have come from. When watching Flying Leathernecks, for example, we discover the blueprint for Top Gun (which, although by no means "recent," remains a constant favorite of college students everywhere) and other films of its type. Oh sure, they'll slap a fresh coat of paint on it with more technically-advanced flying sequences and the like, but the testosterone-fueled drama is the same as it ever was.
As old-fashioned war flicks go, Flying Leathernecks is standard stuff, with most of the drama derived from the philosophical differences between a commander and his subordinates. It's decidedly generic material for great auteur Nicholas Ray, director of masterpieces Rebel Without a Cause and In a Lonely Place, and cult oddities like Johnny Guitar. Perhaps its relatively high pedigree and star power is why the whole thing plays so well—with one major exception.
The exception is the combat sequences, which are edited using a mix of staged battle scenes and actual World War II footage. Inserting this real footage is an interesting idea in theory, as it should make for a more realistic portrayal of combat. But the real footage is of inferior technical quality, so the transitions between the two are awkward and take the viewer right out of the film. For example, in one shot you'll see John Wayne sitting in a cockpit and hear gunshot sounds, followed by a cut to actual footage of a plane being hit by gunfire. Because the quality of the real footage is so plainly below that of the Wayne footage, the effect comes off as obvious and cheesy. This must have caused a real quandary for Warner Brothers in mastering the DVD, because the better you make the staged footage look (it's impossible to clean up the stock footage, as it's already been transferred once), the bigger the disparity, and the cheaper the effect looks.
Thankfully, the ground scenes play significantly better, despite the clichéd feeling of the script. Wayne fares especially well in his scenes as the tough-as-nails Major, a man who has seen too much of war and hates having to send men to die, but knows that it has to be done in order to win the war. Wayne also gets to show his tender side in the stateside scenes with his wife (Janis Carter) and son, and shows that despite his typecasting in typical genre fare, he actually had quite a bit of range as an actor. Ryan doesn't make quite as strong an impression, but the scenes in which his ideology clashes with Wayne's have real bite. The rest of the squadron is filled out by recognizable character actors, who all lend credible (if not exemplary) support to the stars, but the show belongs to Wayne and Ryan.
Flying Leathernecks was the seventh film directed by Nicholas Ray, the director known best for bringing young James Dean to the screen in Rebel Without A Cause four years later. He had already directed one masterpiece by this point (In a Lonely Place was made just a year earlier); he obviously knew his way around a camera, which is why the overall ordinariness of Leathernecks is disappointing. It's purely standard war filmmaking that entertains without captivating, and when the director is such an extraordinary talent, even a moderately successful genre entry seems beneath his capabilities.
Warner's DVD of Flying Leathernecks is a featureless affair, presented in a solid full-frame transfer. As stated previously, the major problem with the transfer is that it looks too good, highlighting an obvious disparity between the staged and authentic scenes. Colors in the former are bright and vibrant with little bleeding, while the authentic WWII footage looks washed-out and beaten up. It is a lose-lose situation, because the demand for first-rate transfers of classic films is so high that Warner had no choice but to make the staged footage look as good as possible.
The disc's audio is the usual mono track and, as has become standard for Warner releases, sounds crisp and free of background noise. Subtitles are offered in English, French and Spanish.
Fans of old-school war flicks should find much to enjoy here. It's the kind of picture John Wayne and Nicholas Ray could probably do in their sleep, but the chemistry between Wayne and Robert Ryan gives it the pedigree it needs to make it a worthy purchase for the war film completist.
The War Tribunal finds all participants to be Not Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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