An intensely personal and little-seen Ford film that serves as a biography of his close personal friend Frank W. "Spig" Wead, a career Navy man and writer who was one of the pioneers of naval aviation. Wead had written the screenplays for such aviation classics as Frank Capra's
DIRIGIBLE, Howard Hawks's CEILING ZERO, Victor Fleming's TEST PILOT, King Vidor's THE CITADEL, and two Ford pictures, AIR MAIL and THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. Wayne turns in one of his best performances as the naval man whose obsession with military life destroys his marriage, family, and health. The
film begins just after WW I as Wayne and his men try to prove to the Navy the value of seaplanes in warfare. To gain attention for his ideas, Wayne and his team win several prestigious air races and endurance records. Unfortunately, Wayne's all-consuming efforts to impress the Navy begin to erode
his home life with O'Hara. When their infant son dies, he finds himself unable to comfort his wife. He is a stranger to his two young daughters. O'Hara secretly hopes that Wayne's increasingly insane antics (including landing a plane in an admiral's swimming pool during a tea party) will get him
canned, but in the long run they pay off and he is assigned to command a fighter squadron. The night he receives the news, he accidentally falls down the steps in his home and is paralyzed. Consumed with self-pity, he rejects O'Hara's efforts to comfort him and tells her to leave him and start her
life over. After dispatching his family, Wayne does accept the help of Navy buddies Dailey and Curtis, who force him to rehabilitate. Urged by his friends, Wayne begins to write thrilling tales of aviation and eventually pens successful stage plays and scripts for hit movies. His close
collaboration with director Bond (who does an amazing imitation of director Ford) on two films earns the pair critical kudos. (A clip from the 1932 HELL DIVERS, directed by George Hill and starring Clark Gable and Wallace Beery, is seen in a screening-room scene.) By 1941 Wayne and O'Hara (who has
now become a successful, independent businesswoman) are on the verge of patching up their marriage when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Realizing that Wayne will once again heed the call of the Navy, O'Hara finally gives up on him. Wayne manages to convince the Navy to put him back on active duty,
and he hits on the idea of supplying small "jeep" carriers that will take new planes into battle to replace the ones lost by the combat aircraft carriers. His idea works beautifully at the battle for Kwajalein, but Dailey is severely wounded during the skirmish when he saves the crippled Wayne
from enemy strafing. Though Wayne survives the battle, the strain proves to be too much, and he suffers a heart attack. This latest brush with death brings home the painful loneliness of his life, and Wayne knows full well that it is now too late to make amends. Practically destroyed physically
and emotionally, Wayne is slowly transferred from one ship to another via a cage attached to a cable hanging precariously over the ocean--very alone.
As in Ford's western THE SEARCHERS, Wayne's character is a man so driven by his personal obsessions that he is unable to participate in normal society. In THE WINGS OF EAGLES Wayne cannot accept the love and help of those not in the military. (He even insists on being taken to a Navy hospital
after his crippling fall.) Instead, he hides out in the company of men similar to himself and will only accept help from his peers (Dailey and Curtis) and not his family. Wayne's character seems almost adolescent in his pursuits--as demonstrated by a scene that ends in a sprawling, rowdy cake
fight and one where he becomes absorbed with a toy airplane while his son lies ill--and he is unwilling or unable to accept adult emotional responsibility. It is not that he chooses the Navy over his family; it is simply that Wayne finds the Navy--even with all its danger and violence--easier to
handle than the love of his wife and children. By Ford's own admission THE WINGS OF EAGLES was a difficult, very personal film for him to make. In his interview with Peter Bogdanovich he said, "I didn't want to do the picture because Spig was a great pal of mine. But I didn't want anyone else to
make it either." The director also denied any involvement in the delightful depiction of himself by Ward Bond as the character named "John Dodge." Sporting Ford's trademark hat, sunglasses, and pipe, Bond does an uncanny impersonation of the director right down to his walk and speech patterns.
Considering that several of Ford's personal effects (including his Oscars) are scattered around the set, it is hard to believe Ford's contention that the whole thing was actor Bond's idea. Bond's portrayal of Ford notwithstanding, the film really belongs to Wayne. Once again under Ford's
direction, Wayne turns in a superior, multifaceted performance that explores the emotional depths of his character. In a story spanning nearly 30 years, Wayne gives the film his all and even sheds his toupee in the scenes when Wead is middle-aged. THE WINGS OF EAGLES is a powerful, deeply
emotional film in which Ford again shows us that the strength of the human spirit and the tragedy of loneliness sometimes go hand in hand.
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- Review: An intensely personal and little-seen Ford film that serves as a biography of his close personal friend Frank W. "Spig" Wead, a career Navy man and writer who was one of the pioneers of naval aviation. Wead had written the screenplays for such aviation cla… (more)