- Directed by John Ford
- February 22, 1957
- Based on Frank “Spig” Wead’s “We Plaster the Japs” published in The American Magazine (1944)
The story of naval aviator-turned-screenwriter Frank “Spig” Wead who suffered a debilitating injury and came back to build himself a new life.
The Wings of Eagles is a biographical film starring John Wayne as naval aviator-turned-screenwriter Frank “Spig” Wead. Wead wrote the story or screenplay for films like Hell Divers, Ceiling Zero (which was based on a play Wead wrote), and the Oscar-nominated World War II drama They Were Expendable which Wayne co-starred in with Robert Montgomery.
I found it unusual for John Wayne to take this part as he tended to play fatherly if not strongly moral characters. Wead is perhaps one of his more imperfect parts. He’s a father who seems more passionate about his career or work in general than he does his family or even his wife. That feels a bit against the Wayne image.
Wayne does not proceed through this film the whole time cocky or self-assured as he usually does. Often there is pain and regret in his Wead. He showed a great deal of emotion in this and greater range than he often did in his films. Ford, being one of those directors who could get a good performance out of Wayne, got a good performance here.
Maureen O’Hara plays Wead’s wife Min. O’Hara was a fine actress and despite Min being based on a real person, her character is almost superfluous to the entire narrative. Almost because somebody has to play mom to those girls, but she doesn’t seem to have too much impact on Spig in the story. She pulls him back to one spot, but he repeatedly leaves her orbit to chase his career or his personal dreams.
And what’s a John Wayne movie without a few of his regular costars. The most interesting one to me in this instance is Ward Bond as Hollywood individual John Dodge. A character in a biographical film directed by John Ford named John Dodge. A biographical film directed by John Ford about someone he knew.
Dodge was a bit over the top and I am curious in Ford was allowing Bond to goof on him. Ford had a temper and could be a real jerk based on multiple stories but what we got on screen says a lot about his friendship with Bond as well as him perhaps willing to engage in some self-deprecating humor.
The Wings of Eagles is a bit more of a melodrama than it is an actual biography. I’m left with the impression that more than usual was dramatized or fictionalized in this film. I’m not sure what those elements are exactly but something just says to me there was a lot more made up about this man than usual.
Wead was a well-regarded military official who had an unexpected tragedy but what probably prompted this movie being made was that he was friends with a number of people involved in this very movie. To one extent or another he knew them and there’s something nice about caring about your friend so much that you wanted to honor him in this way.
This is the story of a man who after a simple accident in his own home must come back and find purpose and put his life right in some way. He hit rock bottom and sees in part where he has come up lacking. Being seriously paralyzed he had to find a new purpose in life and that became writing though until John Ford apparently showed up he didn’t do much of that successfully. Ford was known to take credit when it was not necessarily deserved and methinks this might be one of those times as John Dodge comes across as the key to Wead’s success.
Ford and company go through the highs and lows of Wead’s life and the assorted pains and tragedies that occurred. The story itself is not played as seriously as perhaps it should have been. There are points where it’s fun and bouncy and almost too comedic for the subject matter. The guy got paralyzed and his friends John Dale Price (Ken Curtis) and “Jughead” Carson (Dan Dailey) are more comic relief than serious friend. I know this was common in the day, but I never really got why.
For those who are into melodrama The Wings of Eagles will be well worth a watch. Your average moviegoer of today might not like it but someone into more classic cinema will find plenty to enjoy here. In the end I’m going to say check it out!