A gas reaction fuel cell incorporates a thin catalyst layer between a solid polymer electrolyte (SPE) membrane and a porous electrode backing. The catalyst layer is preferably less than about 10 .mu.m in thickness with a carbon supported platinum catalyst loading less than about 0.35 mgPt/cm.sup.2. The film is formed as an ink that is spread and cured on a film release blank. The cured film is then transferred to the SPE membrane and hot pressed into the surface to form a catalyst layer having a controlled thickness and catalyst distribution. Alternatively, the catalyst layer is formed by applying a Na.sup.+ form of a perfluorosulfonate ionomer directly to the membrane, drying the film at a high temperature, and then converting the film back to the protonated form of the ionomer. The layer has adequate gas permeability so that cell performance is not affected and has a density and particle distribution effective to optimize proton access to the catalyst and electronic continuity for electron flow from the half-cell reaction occurring at the catalyst.