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"I didn't want to do that picture because Spig was a great pal of mine. But I didn't want anybody else to make it." So said director John Ford of The Wings of Eagles (1957), one of his most personal and least-appreciated movies.
The Wings of Eagles is a biography of - and personal tribute to - Ford's longtime friend Frank "Spig" Wead. An ace flier in WWI and a pioneer of naval aviation between the wars, Wead was also a hard drinker and something of a rabble-rouser. His obsession with the military severely strained his home life to the point of causing a long separation with his wife (played by Maureen O'Hara) and their two baby girls. Eventually, they attempted to reconcile, but when an accident left Wead paralyzed from the neck down, he ordered his wife (at least in the film) to go live her life and not be held back by caring for him. Wead did, however, accept the help of longtime Navy buddy "Jughead" Carson (Dan Dailey), who forced him to rehabilitate - a highly dramatic sequence in the film that includes the memorable line, "I'm gonna move that toe!"
Wead regained the use of his limbs slowly - over three years. It was during this recovery time that he met John Ford, who was awed by his courage, principles and tenacity. (According to John Ford's biographer, Wead was one of the few men to whom Ford deferred.) Ford visited him in the hospital and encouraged him to put his military experiences down on paper. In time, Wead's fiction stories started getting published. Then came screenplays: he wrote several fine movies about the military starting in the early 1930s, including Dirigible (1931), The Citadel (1938), Dive Bomber (1941), Ceiling Zero (1936, based on his hit play) and Hell Divers (1931), a clip of which is shown in The Wings of Eagles. More notably, he wrote Airmail, directed by John Ford in 1932, and a decade later, Ford's They Were Expendable (1945) - one of the finest WWII films ever made. After Pearl Harbor, Wead convinced the Navy to call him back into active duty, and he devised the successful "baby carrier," a small aircraft carrier whose sole purpose was to re-equip larger carriers with planes as they were lost in combat. But his domestic life never recovered and he died a few years after the war. In fact, said Ford, "he died in my arms."
So when MGM approached Ford about a movie based on Wead's life, he was understandably reluctant. But once he did commit to direct it, he went about telling the story "as truthfully as possible." The script was based on Wead's own writings, and Ford said, "Everything in the picture was true. The fight in the club - throwing the cake - actually happened. I can verify that as an eyewitness. I ducked it. And the plane landing in the swimming pool right in the middle of the Admiral's tea - that really happened."
John Ford even appeared as a character in the movie, though in a slightly fictionalized form. Ward Bond plays a film director named John Dodge, modeled after Ford, who gives Wead his big Hollywood break. For film buffs, it's a total delight; Bond often mimicked Ford through their years of working together, and Ford allowed him to memorialize those antics here, in a performance that captures the gestures and arrogance of the legendary director, but in a loving way. It's an uncanny imitation. Bond even stole Ford's hat, pipe, Oscars and hollow cane for boozing, and put them all on the set of his character's office. He spoke Ford's own words on screenwriting to Wead: "I don't want a story just about ships and planes. I want it about the men who run them. How they live and think and talk. I want it from a pen dipped in salt water, not dry martinis." For the record, Ward Bond's character screens a clip of Hell Divers in this film even though Hell Divers was really directed by George Hill, not John Ford.
In many ways you can see why Ford was drawn to Wead. Ford also was obsessed by his work and had difficulty connecting to his family; perhaps that's a reason he was often attracted to characters whose obsessions made them unable to join normal society in some way. (The character of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers  is another great example.)
As Wead, John Wayne is excellent. He's a difficult fellow to like, especially because he turns away from his wife and family so often, but the Duke's full, 3-dimensional performance movingly captures the frustrations and dreams of this tragic character. In a sign of his commitment to the role, Wayne even went without his toupee for sequences as the older Wead. He's still John Wayne, though... Look for him doing the dishes in one scene; no one ever made it look more manly.
Producer: James E. Newcom, Charles Schnee
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Frank Fenton, William Wister Haines, Frank Wead
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Film Editing: Gene Ruggiero
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown, William A. Horning
Music: Jeff Alexander, L. Wolfe Gilbert, Eliseo Grenet, Charles E. King
Cast: John Wayne (Frank 'Spig' Wead), Dan Dailey ('Jughead' Carson), Maureen O'Hara (Min Wead), Ward Bond (John Dodge), Ken Curtis (John Dale Price), Edmund Lowe (Adm. Moffett).
C-111m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Jeremy Arnold