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Soaring high with John Wayne and remastered “Flying Leathernecks”

Updated: May 12, 2023


John Wayne stars as Major Dan Kirby, a commander of a U.S. Marine Corps squadron in the South Pacific. Wayne was paid just over $300,000 for his performance.

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Blu-ray, 1951, Not Rated

Extras: Just the one, a trailer

THE BEST part of Nicholas Ray’s World War II film about the siege of Guadalcanal is the color combat footage used from newsreels of the Korean War, 1950-1953, blended into the film story.

Ray also directed “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), “In A Lonely Place” (1950), “The American Friend” (1977) and “Hair” (1979). His films often pitted a character against the establishment, and “Flying Leathernecks” is no exception. Here Captain Carl Griffin (Robert Ryan) resists the new flight commander, Major Daniel Kirby (John Wayne), a hard-nosed guy who demands strict adherence to the rules. Griffin wants him to cut his men some slack; he knows each man individually and feels for them. Kirby will not let personal relationships get in the way of a mission.

The script was written by James Edward Grant, a former journalist who also wrote “The Alamo” (1960) and “The Comanchero’s” (1961), all starring tough guy John Wayne.

(1) Producer Edmund Grainger decided to film “Flying Leathernecks” at the U.S. Marine's El Toro Air Station in Orange County, California, and Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif. The film was released on August 28, 1951. (2&3) The pilots of squadron VMF-247 (“Wildcats”) are ready to celebrate the appointment of Captain Carl “Grif” Griffin (Robert Ryan) as their new commander, but they quickly discover Major Dan Kirby has taken over.


Film historian, author and critic Emanuel Levy says “Flying Leathernecks” was “a deliberate attempt to repeat the success of “Sands of Iwo Jima,” John Wayne’s popular picture of two years earlier.” It was a critical and commercial success earning Wayne his first Best Oscar nomination. Levy also penned the book “John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life.”

The flaw in “Leathernecks” is its lack of emotional impact. True, the combat footage is spectacular … even if gruesome to know the explosions and crashes are real. But the emotional impact is off center. There’s none of the comradery – chemistry – building between the two leads. IMDb reports some controversy over casting Wayne and Ryan, since they were much older than actual WWII pilots. Ryan was cast by Ray because he was a boxer in college, and believed he was the only actor who could “kick Wayne’s ass.” Wayne and Ryan were polar opposites on the political field, with Wayne embracing the McCarthy blacklists, extending the Korean War by launching nuclear attacks on China, and using military force against the Soviet Union.

So although the finale gives us a dynamic air battle and transfer of power, it all lands somewhere off-field. Eccentric producer Howard Hughes had a hand in that himself. Levy explains that Hughes didn’t want “a personal film, and thus the narrative abounds with generic clichés, such as the allocation of deaths among members of the team.” As a result, “Flying Leathernecks” is “one of the least distinctive films of Nicholas Ray, who functioned as a gun for hire” in the films he made for Hughes.

Regardless, Wayne brings good, subtle feeling to his role – the reason for his well-earned Oscar nod. We see that he is well aware of his men’s personal lives, but in true “Duke” form, he’s not going to show it. This makes the interaction between Kirby and Line Chief Master Sergeant Clancy, played by Jay C. Flippen, to shine. Flippen’s is a familiar face from movies and TV series from the 1930s to ‘60s, where he mostly played criminals, police officers or soldiers.

(1) Major Kirby and his pilots provide air cover during the U.S. military campaign on Guadalcanal Island. The Allied air power was named the Cactus Air Force. (2) Color 16mm Koren War footage was used in place of historical black & white footage from Guadalcanal. (3) Kirby during an aerial dogfight with Japanese aircraft. (4) A California mountain range subs for the South Pacific island.


(1) The El Toro Air Station in Southern California subs for Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. (2) Maj. Kirby is greeted by Marine veteran and friend Line Chief Master Sergeant Clancy, played by character actor Jay C. Flippen, who starred in a number of John Wayne films. (3&4) Everyone tries to find cover during a Japanese air attack, which destroys a number of the squadron's aircraft. (5&6) Maj. Kirby assesses the damage and the injured are sent to the base hospital.



Cinematography by William E. Snyder of the 1954 “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and “Bonanza” and “The Magical World of Walt Disney” on TV, looks great on the Blu-ray, sourced from a new 4K scan of the original three-strip Technicolor negative (aspect ratio is 1.37:1). The negatives were digitally realigned by Warner and the color looks brilliant, especially those Pacific blues, and tropical beaches of gold and green. It was shot at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, and the decommissioned El Toro Marine Base, both in California. Complexions are natural, and blacks are solid; detail in close- and long-shots is also good.

Like the video, “Leatherneck’s” DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is clean and crisp. Dialogue comes through clearly, without pop or hiss. Good SDF subtitles are available for those who use them.

Roy Webb composed the energetic score. He also wrote for “Notorious”(1946), “Out of the Past” (1947), and “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) in a film score career that spanned 1929-1960.

Many WWII aficionados consider “Flying Leathernecks” one of the top 10 war movies showing F6F Hellcat fighters and F4U Corsair fighters, along with its specific focus on military leadership during wartime.

— Kay Reynolds

(1&2) Maj. Kirby is sent stateside and he and his wife Joan (Janis Carter) check on their son Tommy (Gordon Gebert). (3) Capt. Griffin eventually becomes the commander and his squadron of F4U Corsair fighters fly over the Okinawa Islands base. The battle for the Japanese Okinawa Islands was the last major battle of World War II.


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