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If you’re going to make a movie about marines, you need tough actors.
In 1951, John Wayne was the Go-To actor for Hollywood’s ideal Army Boss: He was 6’4″ and brooked no nonsense.
After Wayne was cast for the 1951 drama, Flying Leathernecks – a film about aviator marines during WWII – director Nicholas Ray needed another tough actor. The role was for Wayne’s second-in-command, a man who becomes the C.O.’s most severe critic.
Ray chose Robert Ryan. According to IMDb, Ray liked that Ryan “had been a boxer in college and [Ray] believed that he was the only actor that could play opposite John Wayne and ‘kick Wayne’s [derrière].'”¹
Flying Leathernecks takes place during the Battle of Guadalcanal, in the summer of 1942. Marine corps aviators are asked to perform an experiment of sorts, by providing low-level air attacks to support ground troops. The marines feel this is too dangerous because (A) planes fly just above treetops, and (B) it could result in too much friendly fire.
Enter Wayne as the new commander of the VMF-247 Wildcats. Wayne’s assignment is to train pilots while proving to Military Brass that low-altitude flying is Useful. It’s a costly way to make a point, but this is War, so there you go.
The squadron is not pleased to see Wayne as the new C.O., because they wanted Ryan to be promoted to the position. Ryan is easygoing and popular with the men; Wayne alienates them by doing everything By The Book.
These two leadership styles are on a collision course, naturally, especially when Ryan’s Career Disappointment sours and becomes bitter.
Turns out there was a lot of off-camera arm-twisting during production, but we think it served to make the film better than it would be otherwise.
For example, although Wayne and Ryan held opposing political views and put aside their differences, their scenes have an undercurrent of palpable tension.
Ryan never yields to Wayne, nor does he let Wayne dominate, which is no small accomplishment. Wayne had charisma and talent, but so did Ryan, and it’s fascinating to watch these two actors simultaneously work with, and against, each other.
Director Ray was on assignment at RKO Pictures when Flying Leathernecks surfaced. He reportedly disliked war films and disagreed with the slant of the script. But, in our opinion, Ray’s reticence saves this movie from becoming a cringing, overzealous propaganda flick.
It’s worth noting Flying Leathernecks is Ray’s first colour feature, and he integrates actual battle footage to give it a documentary feel. Aviation experts say the planes used in the film are not the ones used by the real leathernecks at Guadalcanal, and the battle footage is likely from the Korean War. Even so, these clips are effective; surprisingly, Ray includes shots that are somewhat graphic for 1951 Hollywood.
IMDb has an interesting footnote, if true: RKO studio boss Howard Hughes – a noted aviator enthusiast – supposedly funded this project to “prove his political and professional alliance during the Red Scare.”²
The word leatherneck is a moniker for a U.S. Marine, due to the leather collar that was once part of the marine uniform to protect the soldier’s neck. The leather collar disappeared in the 1870s, but the name stuck.
About the risks of low-level flying: According to Stack Exchange, some of the dangers include increased turbulence, reduced time to perform an emergency landing, and greater risk of colliding with obstacles, such as radio towers or a sudden rise in terrain.
Characters in the film express anxiety about flying close to the ground. One character jokes that Wayne’s former squadron flew so close to the beach the planes scooped up seashells.
Flying Leathernecks is a grade above a standard-issue war movie. Even if you don’t care for American propaganda films, we think you might enjoy this one.
Flying Leathernecks: starring John Wayne, Robert Ryan, Don Taylor. Directed by Nicholas Ray. Written by James Edward Grant. RKO Radio Pictures, 1951, Technicolor, 102 mins.