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The Wings of Eagles

The Wings of Eagles(1957)

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The working title for this film was The Eagle Has Wings. In the opening credits, M-G-M acknowledged the support of the United States Department of Defense and Navy. This was followed by a written prologue: "This motion picture is dedicated to the men who brought Air Power to the United States Navy. One such man was Commander Frank "Spig" Wead. The flying records he smashed helped win him the lasting respect of his fellow Navy men. The screenplays he wrote helped win him the lasting respect of his fellow writers in Hollywood." Actor Ken Curtis, who portrayed "John Price," provided voice-over narration throughout the film.
       Cmdr. Frank "Spig" Wead was one of the Navy's first pilots and a pioneer in air defense. When his military career abruptly ended as a result of being paralyzed in an accident, Wead turned to writing and completed several screenplays for M-G-M and other studios. John Ford directed several films that were based on Wead's writings, including Air Mail in 1932 and They Were Expendable in 1945 (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40 and 1941-50). A strong friendship developed during their collaborations. Wead wrote many other screenplays and/or stories that were adapted for the screen, including Dirigible directed by Frank Capra in 1931 and Ceiling Zero directed by Howard Hawks in 1936 (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50). In 1943, Wead returned to the Navy to serve in the South Pacific, where his battle plan won the Navy a victory in the Battle of the Marianas. According to modern sources, Wead returned from his duty in the Pacific to find that his wife had left him. A September 9, 1956 New York Times article states that Wead died in 1946 in Ford's arms, although he actually died in 1947.
       The Wings of Eagles was based on a number of Wead's writings, including the short story "We Plaster the Japs." According to information found in M-G-M Collection at the USC Cinema-Television Library, the short story outlined Wead's return to military duty during World War II and was the basis for the film's portrayal of that period.
       According to a August 16, 1955 Daily Variety article, Robert Taylor was originally considered for the lead, while Richard Thorpe was to direct. By October 1955 Hollywood Reporter reported that Dwight Brooks was being tested for a lead role; however, John Wayne was finally chosen to portray Wead under Ford's direction. According to Dan Ford, John Ford's grandson and biographer, M-G-M, wishing to fulfill an obligation to the Navy, agreed to make a dramatic film that would promote naval aviation. After M-G-M commissioned Frank Fenton and William Wister Haines to write the screenplay based on Wead's writings, they approached Ford to direct it. Ford was reluctant to make a film portraying a close friend; however, according to his grandson, he could not bear having anyone else directing it and finally accepted the job.
       The Wings of Eagles marked the tenth time Ford and Wayne worked together. Ford, who rose to the rank of rear admiral in the Navy, was the basis for the character "John Dodge." According to the pressbook found in the production file on the film at the AMPAS library, Dr. John Keye, portrayed by Louis Jean Heydt, was a technical advisor on the film, as was John Dale Price. Both Keye and Price had served with Wead in the Navy and were among Wead's close friends. The film was shot on location at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, FL and aboard the U.S.S. Philippine Sea off the coast of southern CA. The film was previewed aboard the U.S.S. Lexington on January 24, 1957. As noted in the Daily Variety review, scenes from the 1931 M-G-M film Hell Divers (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40), which was written by Wead, were used in the viewing of dailies scene in The Wings of Eagles. Modern sources note that actor Ward Bond, as the character "John Dodge," used Ford's own pipe, hat, cane and Academy Awards during the Hollywood scenes. Bond was another close friend and frequent actor in Ford's films.
       According to a May 6, 1957 Los Angeles Times article, producer Charles Schnee received a special citation from the Southern California Motion Picture Council for his production of the film. Several modern sources claim that the film celebrates alcohol consumption and failed marital relationships; however, Dan Ford suggests in his biography of Ford that The Wings of Eagles was the most autobiographical of his grandfather's films, stating, "a compulsive worker, a man of great obsessions, fanatically devoted to naval aviation at the expense of everything else . . .Wead was incapable of any real home life."