Saturday, August 27, 2011

Flying Leathernecks (Nicholas Ray, 1951)

[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]

Though Flying Leathernecks is a solid war movie in terms of its construction, the drama that must have happened behind the camera is infinitely more appealing than the one that unfolded before it. Nicholas Ray and Robert Ryan, both committed liberals (Ray a former Communist and Ryan a pacifist) clashed with John Wayne, an actor whose personal beliefs and professional style could not have put him more at odds with Ray if he'd actively been trying to mess with the emerging director. The film itself is purported to exist primarily as one of RKO head Howard Hughes' patriot cred pictures to defend himself from accusations of Commie ties. Watching the various dealings, spats and good old-fashioned passive-aggression at work on this movie would make for one hell of an experience.

Nevertheless, the film is not quite so stupid as its shallow jingoism. Granted, its use of newsreel combat footage, incessant validation of Wayne's reluctant but dedicated warrior act and push for strict discipline make it a traditional war movie through and through. But Ray, who may not have cared as much as he did for films that more adequately reflected his beliefs, nevertheless finds a few moments of intelligence and character in the conflict between experienced professional Maj. Daniel Kirby (Wayne) and Capt. Carl Griffin (Ryan), the too-chummy officer who values the casual approval of his hotshot pilots over proper military decorum.

Although Hughes clearly wanted the film to support the military, Ray also suggests that Ryan's character, who would be closer to his own, is unfit for command, unable to make the sacrifices necessary to lead successful missions. Where Ray obviously differs from the film's validation of Wayne's character is that he and Ryan would doubtlessly be more than happy not to fit into a war zone. But Wayne's Kirby is not as cold as he seems: he does not send men to their deaths casually and takes every loss personally, writing letters of condolence to the families instead of letting the chaplain handle such matters. The lack of mail Kirby himself receives on a consistent basis may also be a motivating factor in this commitment, one of the few aspects of the film to feel like it belongs in a Nick Ray movie.

Earlier I used the word "solid" to describe the film, and that is chiefly its problem: Ray is not a solid director. He is a filmmaker of passions and politics and romances and dances and existential fights to inevitable deaths. The constant use of newsreel footage denies him full aesthetic control leading to sizable portions of the film in which his mastery of form is not on display, and the irritation he must have felt carries over into the shots that actually are his, few of which even remotely suggest Ray's hand. Compare this, his first film in color, to his next one, Johnny Guitar, and the difference is too vast to be the result of a learning curve. What's more, stack up the glorified battle footage here with the taut, grisly, repellent action shots in Bitter Victory to get an idea of where Ray's true and deeply held opinions on war lied. I'm not saying the director was forcibly stifled, but he clearly felt boxed in by the project.

Wayne and Ray are not an actor-director pair that was ever meant to be, Wayne's style of playing icons wholly at odds with Ray's ability to make icons of humans. Still, the shotgun marriage of their collaboration works a lot better than I would expected, especially as Ryan makes Wayne look even better by venting his frustrations through overacting. In comparison, Wayne is reserved, always resigned and only just capable of holding back his regrets for putting these men in harm's way even as he also conveys steely conviction to doing his duty. Even when he gets sent back home briefly after his tactics prove instrumental to taking Guadalcanal, Kirby never gives into the rousing celebration the film around him perpetually sells with its boisterous music, instead cherishing the moments with his family before his inevitable reassignment.

Ray even builds his most characteristic scene around Wayne when Kirby speaks to a pilot who lost his leg in a crash. Mostly holding on a close-up of the man's sweat-drenched face as he instructs the major on what to write back to his folks about the wound, mixing brave selflessness with bitter irony, is a touching scene, and one that brings out a great deal of humanity and empathy in Wayne. Other shots, such as those of men in foxholes being unheroically blown to bits by artillery fire or a prolonged bit of stock footage that lingers on a plane crash as a fireball silently blossoms into the sky, also feel like Ray moments in a movie that otherwise feels uncomfortably workmanlike.

There is something fascinating in all of Ray's films, but Flying Leathernecks is the first time that most of the intrigue exists outside of the film and in its production, and this is well before Ray fell into deep, deep alcoholism. Buoyed by an unexpectedly affecting performance from John Wayne and an amusingly edgy Ryan, Flying Leathernecks proves that even at his most disinterested and artistically absent, Ray could never be outright terrible. Having said that, this is the first of his films that I've seen where I would freely consider stopping and doing anything else while watching it.

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