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Multi-billionaire playboy and impulsive eccentric Howard Hughes was the deep-pocketed producer behind the Nicholas Ray buzz-boy film, Flying Leathernecks in 1951. Hughes' decision to produce the film made sense, given his own interest in aviation and the fact that one of his first film efforts was the aerial drama, Hell's Angels (1930).
During production of Flying Leathernecks, it did not take much time at all for Hughes to become fast friends with star John Wayne, united as they were by their vehement anti-Communist philosophies and love for Mexican vacations. As famous as Hughes was, Wayne himself was one of the biggest box office draws in Hollywood at this point in his career. The momentum of his steady rise in popularity started subtly in 1939, with the release of Stagecoach. Wayne had struggled for over ten years in B-movie Westerns and "Poverty Row" pictures, so when he began receiving some long sought-after recognition, he was reluctant to do anything that would jeopardize his momentum towards stardom. This included serving in World War II. While stars like Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Robert Montgomery, and Jimmy Stewart all joined up in the fight, Wayne stayed out of the worldwide fray. For this refusal to enlist, Wayne received severe verbal and emotional abuse from his friend and frequent collaborator John Ford, who also reported for active duty. But Wayne's own contributions to American morale in USO shows and the honorable portrayal of the servicemen through his postwar movies, such as Flying Leathernecks, made him a powerful figure in American movies in the late 1940's and 50's.
Edmund Grainger, the producer of Flying Leathernecks, was a war-movie specialist, and it was his idea to shoot the film on the El Toro air base at Camp Joseph H. Pendleton in Oceanside, California, which was the site of his previous success, Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). His boss, Howard Hughes, wanted to get away from the black-and-white, documentary look of previous war films like Twelve O'Clock High (1949) so it was decided the film would be shot in Technicolor and include some remarkable aerial combat footage for authenticity, including a parachute escape from an exploding plane and a crash-landing.
Nicholas Ray was assigned to direct the film even though he admitted he hated war movies. He was also a known liberal, as was Robert Ryan, and there was some speculation on whether they would clash with Wayne and Hughes over political views during the filming. Despite their opposing ideologies, the two camps worked well together, even under the strain of numerous, last-minute script changes. Wayne and Ryan, in fact, would go on to star together in another war film, The Longest Day, in 1962.
Director: Nicholas Ray
Producer: Edmund Grainger
Screenplay: Kenneth Gamet (story), James Edward Grant
Cinematography: William E. Snyder
Editor: Sherman Todd
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, James W. Sullivan
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Robert Ryan (Capt. Carl 'Griff' Griffin), Janis Carter (Joan Kirby), Don Taylor (Lt. 'Cowboy' Blithe), John Wayne (Major Dan Kirby), James Bell (Colonel).
C-103m. Close captioning. Descriptive video.
by Scott McGee