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The Flying Leathernecks (Nicholas Ray, 1951)
In some ways, it's hard to believe that the same Nicholas Ray that made the grim anti-war statement Bitter Victory a few years later first made The Flying Leathernecks, which follows a squadron of Marine bombers during the Guadalcanal assault. Though there's obviously some reticence in the characters to engage in combat, when it's time for action, there's a shift toward the gung-ho as the men invariably step up to the challenge that The Great War presents. That's not to say that the characters act inconsistently. Quite the opposite, since there are surprisingly nuanced and psychologically sound roles for both Robert Ryan and John Wayne here. What is most surprising is that Ray, who usually offers up a strong liberal sensibility, doesnít spend energy here decrying the war so much as he examines the value of the individual soldierís life in the grand scheme of things and the difficulty in issuing a command that might cost some of those lives. Wayneís hardened Major Kirby understands that itís necessary to incur some casualties during an operation. Tensions arise when it becomes apparent that this unfortunate fact of life is something that Ryanís Captain Griff canít quite wrap his inexperienced mind around. That the realities of the world donít live up to the idealized wishes of those in it is one of Rayís key themes, and itís by illustrating this gap that the film feels most like the work of its director.
The requirements of military rank demand that a commanding officer not reveal too many of his emotional concerns to his subordinates, so one of the most interesting things about Leathernecks is the way that Ray manages to show Kirbyís efforts to let his troops know that heís human too. Saddled with both the unfortunate task of sending his men to their possible demise and the unenviable position of authority over his stressed men, he still manages to exhibit compassion, thanks in no small part to one of John Wayneís better performances. As unintentionally corny as some of the scenes that show Kirby at home might be, they undeniably show a different side of the man than the one that dominates the rest of the film. The strain of assuming a leadership position in a situation where losses are guaranteed allows the director a chance to once again examine a form of male estrangement that canít quite be articulated. The uneasy alliance between the Major and the Captain doesnít contain the broad ideological gulf that exists between most of Rayís conflict, but because of the common ground between their points of view, it feels more realistic and ambivalent in its allegiances toward either side. If it canít be said that Ray is accepting the evils of the system here, for once it seems that heís begrudgingly attempting to reconcile himself with them. Because of that sensibility, The Flying Leathernecks packs a surprising amount of intelligent insight in with its nationalistic rally cry.
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