The Wings of Eagles Review

The Wings of Eagles is John Ford’s heartfelt tribute to a friend and a way of letting his hair down after the serious business of The Searchers. As such, it’s a relatively minor entry in his filmography but a very interesting one for the things which it reveals about Ford himself. Not only do we get Ford’s own self-parody in the shape of Ward Bond’s portrayal of film director ‘John Dodge’, we also see a disguised self-portrait which combines elements of Frank “Spig” Wead’s life with some uncomfortable home truths about Ford’s.

Frank “Spig” Wead was a Naval hero who was a notable Navy pilot during the First World War but became a paraplegic after an accident and was forced to abandon his active career. Despite plunging into depression, Wead pulled himself together and became a successful screenwriter who worked for directors such as King Vidor, Michael Curtiz, Frank Capra and, in 1945, John Ford on They Were Expendable. He returned to a command position in the Navy during World War Two and died in 1947.

The film, based on Wead’s autobiography, is curiously structured in a manner which seems remarkably jarring and ill-considered – one might say that at least a third of it seems tossed off as if Ford wasn’t bothered. Some of the opening half is pitched as very broad comedy indeed with lots of Army vs. Navy hi-jinks that require a good deal of patience in the viewer. Wayne is at his most stereotypically rambunctious but still manages to be out-hammed by Kenneth Tobey as his opposite number in the Army whose hair and temperament are both reminiscent of Maureen O’Hara.

There are two brawls, both sloppily choreographed, and some silly slapstick – though it’s nice to see the great Sig Ruman as a very worried hotel manager. Ford fans will, of course, find all this very familiar pointing back to the fight scenes which he loved to stage in his earlier classics such as The Quiet Man and forward to the rather darker comedy of Donovan’s Reef and the Dodge City interlude in Cheyenne Autumn. Ford can’t simply stage a punch-up; it always turns into something epic and, in this case, a contest of machismo between the two forces. But what’s charming is that the brawls seldom end up in anything except comradeship – here, Wayne and Tobey, bruised and battered, go to meet their superiors and discuss the excuse they’re going to use when questioned about their condition. Ford loved manly men doing manly things, as his own life upon the Araner indicates, and he does, at his most simplistic, tend to equate masculinity with fighting, drinking and screwing.

Yet in the midst of this, we have a very perceptive and slightly uncomfortable portrayal of a marriage in crisis due to the thoughtlessness of an inadequate husband and father. There’s no suggestion that Spig is having an affair with anyone else but it doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see the hard-drinking, wandering Ford in Wead’s place –yearning for his beloved Mary McBride but never staying with her too long before he was back on his travels and back to the bottle. There’s a particularly potent scene where Wead’s two daughters watch him in a newsreel and we recognise that this is the closest they have come to seeing him for some time. It’s this kind of subtext which marks out Ford from many of his contemporaries. Someone like Raoul Walsh could easily have made this film but it would have been a far more straightforward affair and Wead would never have been less than a hero – he would not have been questioned and undermined in quite the same way. It’s as if Ford’s sense of guilt over his own inadequacies is finding expression on film.

It’s this darker side of the film that prepares us when, halfway through, things take an abrupt turn into sombre territory after Spig has an accident, falling downstairs at home when running to see what his daughter is crying about. He is paralysed without much hope of recovery but through determination and the support of “Jughead” Carson – engagingly played by Dan Dailey – he finally regains a certain degree of mobility. These scenes are surprisingly powerful and gripping, particularly when he is desperately trying to move his big toe. John Wayne is tremendously engaging in this film and he holds much of it together through sheer force of personality. It’s notable for being one of the few occasions on which he went without his toupee and the immediate impression is a little jarring. But going ‘natural’ suits him and gives him a dignity which isn’t always apparent in his later roles. He makes the most of the ‘recovery’ sequences and his absolute refusal to indulge in sentimentality helps to make this a film which is remarkably lacking in saccharine. This restraint enables one to forgive the romantic sappiness of the ending – where Wead retires from the Navy and is transported from ship-to-ship in a breeches buoy.

In support, Dailey is on tip-top form and Ward Bond is a hoot as John Dodge, wearing dark glasses and chewing at a handkerchief in order to make the Ford parody unmistakeable. The disappointment is Maureen O’Hara who is fine and feisty in her early scenes but is later forced to play bland domestic scenes which make no use of her talents whatsoever. She plays beautifully with Wayne of course but it’s a missed opportunity, partly because the heavy drinking which her character allegedly indulged in was cut from the film after objections from the Wead family.

The Wings of Eagles isn’t essential Ford and, compared to The Searchers, it seems like something of a footnote. But Ford was a true artist and thus, even in his less important films, he is self-revealing. This wasn’t his final filmic farewell to the military – he was subsequently involved in several documentaries – but in its combination of affection and realistic recognition of the limitations of military life, it serves as a fine summation of a subject which was at least as close to his heart as his more familiar preoccupation of the American West.

The Disc

This is a very nice transfer from Warners as part of their John Ford/John Wayne box set. It’s presented in 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. Everything is more than satisfactory. There’s plenty of detail, the image is pleasingly sharp and the colours are rich and natural. It’s one of the best transfers in a box which has caused a considerable amount of debate. The mono soundtrack is equally good – clear and crisp.

The only extra is a rather self-important theatrical trailer.

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