John Ford Feature #10 – The Wings of Eagles (1957)

Wings_of_Eagles_1957The Wings of Eagles (1957)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank Fenton, William Wister Haines (based on the life & writings of Frank W. Wead)
Starring: John Wayne, Dan Dailey, Maureen O’Hara, Ward Bond, Ken Curtis, Edmund Lowe

It’s hard to believe that the same man who directed a tried and true masterpiece just one year earlier had anything to do with a picture like The Wings of Eagles.  Ford’s 1957 follow-up to The Searchers is unlike anything the great director ever put to film.  Instead of being reminiscent of his romanticized westerns, wartime films, or his period dramas, The Wings of Eagles more closely mirrors the so-called “Oscar-baity” biopics of today.  The film features many members of the John Ford Stock Company, and yet manages to feel nothing like any of his films I’ve seen to date.  It bears no resemblance in its style, music, cinematography, or even performances to the previous decade or so of his output, and just feels like an oddity in a career of never pandering to the masses.  The Wings of Eagles barely managed to make its budget back at the box office, and from everything I can tell received a very mixed reaction from critics and audiences alike.  Released the same year as massive hits (and later historically appreciated films) like Oscar-winning The Bridge on the River Kwai, Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Frank Sinatra vehicle Pal Joey and more, The Wings of Eagle was completely ignored by the awards circuit and has been more or less lost to time.  Ford’s film stars John Wayne as Frank Wead, known better as “Spig” to those close to him.  Sharing the screen with Wayne are Maureen O’Hara as his wife Min, Dan Dailey as Jughead Carson, Ward Bond as John Dodge, and Ken Curtis as John Dale Price.

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The Wings of Eagles takes place in the aftermath of the first Great War.  We meet Frank “Spig” Wead (John Wayne), who seems to be a relatively carefree Navy man.  After a reckless stunt to prove the worth of aviation combat to Navy officials, his opinions on the matter are heard.  He urges the Navy to hone their skills through the use of races and endurance competitions, which will help develop pilots and create an aerial force to be reckoned with.  After spending the majority of his time and energy on the Navy’s aerial program and on general mischief, Spig and his wife Min (Maureen O’Hara) find tensions growing between them. Eventually Spig is promoted to the position of Commander for his contributions to the effort.  While attempting to celebrate with his wife and two daughters, Spig falls down a flight of stairs in his home and breaks his neck.  The accident has left Commander Wead’s lower body completely paralyzed, leaving him in long-term hospital care.  After rejecting his wife’s affections in the hospital, the only person Spig will see are his colleagues, “Jughead” Carson (Dan Dailey) and John Dale Price (Ken Curtis).  Jughead is more dedicated than most anybody and visits the hospital on an almost daily basis in order to help with Spig’s morale.  Carson tries to get Frank to regain the use of his legs through repeated use of the motivational sentence “I’m gonna move that toe!”.  Carson also helps Spig battle his depression and recommends the use of writing in order to cope.  After finally finding success in all three areas, Spig goes on to accomplish great things in the rising empire of Hollywood.  With new found success, he returns to the Navy during World War II in order to help develop escort and transportation vessels and vehicles.  After an ill-timed heart attack, Spig is sent back home before he can see out the end of the war.  Will Frank Wead be able to mend relations with his family during the last years of wartime, or will he die without them knowing just how much they meant to him?  Find out in John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles.

I can’t help but feel that I made a poor decision when scheduling The Wings of Eagles to be the final film of my John Ford marathon.  Not only does it feel incredibly anti-climatic, but also feels like I robbed myself of seeing a truly great Ford film.  I hope to continue the marathon next year and cover all the underrated movies I chose not to cover this time around (and maybe some of the ones I feel might require a rewatch), so I won’t beat myself up too much.  The Wings of Eagles isn’t the worst film I’ve any seen by any means, but it’s so incredibly mediocre in every way that it just isn’t memorable.  The moment the end credits started rolling on screen, I could feel the film already fading from my memory.  Ford’s 1957 film is so tonally confused that I was never quite sure whether to laugh or feel bad for the characters, especially Spig.  At times dramatic, and at other times almost veering into slapstick comedy, I was never quite able to understand how Ford felt about his subject.  There’s no doubt in my mind that he certainly admired Spig as a character and as a man, but it’s hard to tell his motivations for making an entire feature about it at any given moment.  His direction throughout just feels so uninspired, which is kind of heartbreaking coming off making literally one of the greatest American films ever made.  John Wayne’s performance as Spig isn’t exactly on the level of previous performances seen during the marathon, but the role isn’t exactly demanding either.  His performance is completely one-note, and especially doesn’t work during the hospital scenes where Spig is supposed to be depressed and at his absolute lowest point.  Maureen O’Hara’s performances as Mrs. Wead is an even bigger shame, as her single point in being in the film is essentially to serve as Spig’s estranged wife.  I never felt the on-screen chemistry between the two that I did in something like The Quiet Man, and instead just felt bad for the two legendary actors.  The cinematography is another aspect of the film that just couldn’t possibly live up to previous ones, this time featuring that ugly and washed out early colour look.  The film would probably be better suited to a black and white film, which probably would’ve detracted nearly as much as the harsh colouring did.  The one positive about the film is that the hospital scenes with Spig and Jughead are quite fun, and the “I’m gonna move that toe!” sequence is actually quite inspiring despite everything I’ve said about the film.  Some of the comedic moments work well towards the film, while some of the more elaborate gags just make The Wings of Eagles feel like a joke.  On a film note, Ford casting Ward Bond as “John Dodge” is tremendous, and I’m glad that even the curmudgeonly old director could poke fun at himself at times.   

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I’m not upet that I saw The Wings of Eagles, but I can’t help but feel that John Ford was capable of so much more.  It would be another five years until he would direct The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another tremendous effort by the legendary director.  I wish that Ford had at least made the story of Frank “Spig” Wead compelling to see on screen, because I kind of feel that the way it was depicted was a pretty big missed opportunity for all parties.  While not all bad, it’s certainly tough to pick out the very good moments of the film, which come all too sparingly.  John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles is not recommended.

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