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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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John Ford Feature #8 – The Quiet Man (1952)

Poster_-_Quiet_Man,_The_01The Quiet Man (1952)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Frank S. Nugent (based on The Quiet Man by Maurice Walsh)
Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond

As you may have read in my brief summary post about why I chose to cover the films of John Ford for an entire month, the man still holds the record for most Academy Awards won for Best Director.  He won the award The Informer in 1935, The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, How Green Was My Valley in 1941, and finally for 1952’s romantic drama The Quiet Man.  The John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara starring film would be released to tremendous critical acclaim and box office success, and is still widely recognized as one of Ford’s greatest films.  It’s perhaps most notable for being such a departure compared to the violent westerns that filled most of his career, and might just shock you by how light and playful it initially comes off.  Instead of focusing on common Ford settings like the desolate western plains or the Pacific, the film takes place entirely in a small Irish community and features a cast full of Irish descendants.  It brings with it John Ford’s subtle sense of humour (perhaps more overt here), impeccable eye for photography, and a cast full of lovable and recognizable faces.  The Quiet Man once against featured the incredible cinematography of the great Winton Hoch, who would once again bring home the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1952.  On top of bringing home awards for Directing and Cinematography, Ford’s drama was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  The inspiration for the film – much like those in the cavalry trilogy – once again came from a story in The Saturday Evening Post, this time written by Maurice Walsh.  On top of starring the team of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, The Quiet Man also features John Ford company regulars Victor McLaglen (The Informer), Barry Fitzgerald (The Long Voyage Home), Ward Bond (They Were Expendable), and Francis Ford (The Informer).  Unfortunately for Ford, the film would prove to be his final movie to be nominated for Academy Awards, despite his career continuing on for nearly fifteen years.

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Sean Thornton (John Wayne) is an Irish-American former boxer who has just moved back to his native land in order to reclaim his family’s farm in this tiny community of Inisfree.  Upon his arrival he is met with warm greetings from a townful of odd and interesting characters.  He meets and very quickly falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), who has a reputation around town as a fiery young independent woman.  Mary Kate also happens to be the unfortunate sister of the loudmouth bully Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), who had his sights set on Thornton’s family farm.  After the Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick) sells the farm to Thornton, an angered and jealous Will Danaher refuses to allow him to marry his younger sister.  After some trickery by the townspeople, Will is led to believe that the Widow Tillane wants to marry Will, but only on the grounds that Mary Kate be out of the house.  After a whirlwind romance, Sean and Mary Kate are quickly married and Will finds out the truth about the Widow.  Enraged, he refuses to allow Mary Kate to take her dowry, which has been passed on to her by her late mother.  Sean, being American and not understanding Irish traditions, refuses to speak with Will on the matter and is branded a coward by his new wife.  The marriage quickly falls apart, and the locals conspire to have Will return Mary Kate’s rightful inheritance to her.  With a coward husband and no dowry, Mary Kate boards a train to leave for greener pastures, but is quite literally dragged away by her husband.  Will the foreign Thornton confront the traditional Will Danaher and get his wife what rightfully belongs to her, or will he stand by and watch his marriage crumble before it could ever even gain steam?  Find out in John Ford’s Academy Award-winning The Quiet Man.

The Quiet Man was a very difficult film for me to review coming off the heels of the thrilling cavalry trilogy that preceded it.  Luckily, what I found was incredibly charming (if old-fashioned), funny, and beautiful film with a great deal to love about it.  Maureen O’Hara once again steals the show, this time as the incredibly strong and independent Mary Kate Danaher, who is an incredibly progressive character for the era the film was made in.  John Wayne’s performance as Sean Thornton is equally impressive, showing off more of his newly recognized acting abilities and proving that he has more range than just playing cranky, cynical men of the old west.  Thornton isn’t exactly a romantic or strong-willed character, but he’s always interesting to watch on screen because the character is quite a mystery for most of The Quiet Man’s runtime.  The former boxer turned Irish immigrant character works well for Wayne, and his brooding, yet charismatic screen presence never fails to compel.  The true standouts of the film are the once again incredible technicolour cinematography from Winton Hoch, coupled with some very restrained direction from John Ford.  His tried and true method of not distracting the audience with overly-complicated camera maneuvers works wonders, and instead the film focuses purely on storytelling and getting the best performances possible out of its cast.  Hoch’s bright and colorful cinematography is perfectly suited to the Irish countryside, and there’s something to marvel at in nearly every frame of the movie.  The film is also very well-written, especially comedically.  It opens with a hilarious example of slapstick humour that still works today, and continues by giving its entire cast of oddball characters their own unique personalities and eccentricities.  I can honestly say that I laughed out loud more than once during my two viewings of The Quiet Man, something that has rarely happened during my Ford marathon.  It’s clear throughout that John Ford is proud of his heritage and very passionate about Ireland, and that passion and interest in the setting and traditions add a great deal of genuine atmosphere to the film.  Unfortunately, there are a few moments that just didn’t work for me throughout.  One scene in particular involves Wayne’s Thornton giving off some awfully rape-y and abusive vibes towards O’Hara’s Mary Kate.  Not only does Sean Thornton corner his new wife in her dark room, but he throws her onto her bed hard enough to break it, staring a hole through her the entire time.  Maybe I’m crazy, but the entire sequence added nothing to the supposed romance between the two leads, and instead felt out of place and old-fashioned in the worst way possible.  Luckily, these moments are few and far between and aren’t enough to derail what is largely a terrific and charming film.  

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The Quiet Man is a restrained deviation from John Ford’s usual work, and is surprising in how successful it is.  The comedy, terrific lead performances, beautiful Irish setting, and subtle direction make for a truly remarkable and memorable film, and one that has absolutely earned its reputation as being one of Ford’s best.  The Quiet Man was a tremendous surprise, and a film I can easily say comes highly recommended.

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John Ford Feature #7 – Rio Grande (1950)

Rio GranRio_Grande_posterde (1950)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: James Kevin McGuinness (based on Mission With No Record by James Warner Bellah)
Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Claude Jarman Jr.

Finally, the final film in John Ford’s epic cavalry trilogy is upon us. After returning to the western genre after a brief wartime hiatus, Ford would deliver a great many more terrific western films, all of which brought something new to the table.  Rio Grande is the final film in his trilogy, but far from the last good western that Ford would direct.  The film comes after both Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and features the only bit of continuity found in the entire thematic trilogy: John Wayne returns as Captain Kirby York, the progressive and forward-thinking main character in Fort Apache. The film was based on a short story found in the Saturday Evening Post entitled Mission With No Record, and written by James Warner Bellah.  Bellah’s short stories inspired the entirety of the cavalry trilogy, and he would even go on to co-write Ford’s terrific revisionist western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Rio Grande would be released the same year as Ford’s now celebrated Wagon Master, and would be his final western until the release of the highly acclaimed The Searchers in 1956.  The final film in the cavalry trilogy stars the aforementioned John Wayne as the grizzled Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (spelled differently in this film), and Maureen O’Hara as Kathleen Yorke, the estranged wife of the veteran.  O’Hara was often called “the finest actress in Hollywood” by Ford, but after a number of films together the working relationship between the two fell apart, and Ford came to resent O’Hara for reasons pretty much unknown. On top of the pairing of Wayne and O’Hara, the film stars Ford company regulars like Ben Johnson as Trooper Tyree, Harry Carey, Jr. as Trooper Daniel Boone, and Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Maj. Quincannon.  Rio Grande was a tremendous success financially, but as with many of Ford’s mid-career westerns, would be largely ignored by the awards circuit of the time.

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Rio Grande sees Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) now on the Texas frontier, and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.  Yorke and his cavalry have been posted in Texas to defend against the threat of Apaches, but has recently seen Apaches taking sanctuary in Mexico, away from the threat of the U.S. cavalry. Yorke’s diminishing forces are threatened further by the lack of troops sent by his superiors.  Kirby’s son, Trooper Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.), whom he hasn’t seen for years, has recently been added to the troop.  The addition of his son puts further stress on Yorke, as does the arrival of his estranged wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), who has come to pull her underage son out of the cavalry.  The Lt. Col. Yorke, not wanting to seem to favour his son, ends up treating the young man more harshly than the other troopers.  Jeff is taken in by two older cavalry members, Troopers Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) and Daniel Boone (Harry Carey Jr.), who help him acclimate to the harsh conditions of the forces.  As both of young Jeff’s parents want something different for his future, they slowly begin to settle their differences and rekindle the love they once held for each other.  After a visit by the general of his department, Yorke and his motley crew are ordered to pursue the Apaches into Mexico and stop them from fleeing.  By crossing the United States border and chasing after the Apaches, Col. Yorke risks the careers and lives of himself and his young troopers.  The proud Kirby Yorke of course chooses to accept his new mission, despite the enormous odds working against his cavalry.  Will Yorke be successful by risking it all in order to save his marriage, get closer to his son, and protect his fellow countrymen?  Find out in John Ford’s installment in the cavalry trilogy, Rio Grande.

Trilogies are a funny thing, with even the best of them having a weak or flawed chapter or installment.  Unfortunately, Ford’s cavalry trilogy is no different, and Rio Grande ends up being closer in comparison to Return of the Jedi than Fort Apache’s Empire Strikes Back.  That’s not to say it’s a bad film by any means, just a disappointment after the tremendous highs of the previous two films.  Where Fort Apache felt progressive and modern and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon featured stunning cinematography and an amazing performance by John Wayne, Rio Grande features very few standout elements.  John Wayne’s performance is solid as usual by this point in his career, but absolutely nothing to write home about.  Everything I came to love about Kirby York(e) in Fort Apache seemed to disappear almost entirely in this film.  York(e) feels like a completely separate, and far more bitter and cynical man than he did just two years prior.  Luckily, we have a very good performance by Maureen O’Hara to give us what Wayne’s York(e) fails to do.  There’s clearly a reason Ford was so fond of O’Hara for so many years; her screen presence and natural charm are undeniable.  The chemistry between O’Hara and Wayne is obvious, and it’s no wonder the two were featured in so many films together after this effort.  Unlike the previous year’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande is once again shot in black and white, which I found to be an odd touch.  The cinematography features Ford’s trademark use of shadows against the bleakness of the western plains, but lacks the flourishes that Yellow Ribbon featured prominently (and picked up an Oscar for, too).  The soundtrack isn’t nearly as memorable as those found in previous films either, and I sorely missed whistling sixty year old tunes in the days following my viewing of the film.  On the very good side, the set-piece at the film’s climax is remarkable and intense, and I longed for more of the siege-style warfare featured here.  When it suddenly ended on a high note, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that it hadn’t gone further.  All of these jumbled thoughts sums up exactly how I feel about Rio Grande: It’s a frustrating and largely mediocre experience in a package that has so much potential for greatness.

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Rio Grande isn’t a bad film by any means, it’s just not particularly memorable when compared directly to its predecessors.  It features good performances by John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, as well as a tremendous action set piece to close out the film, but lacks the punch of the previous two films.  The story is unique when compared to the others in the cavalry trilogy, but it just doesn’t go far enough with the story for the audience to care much.  John Ford’s mostly great cavalry trilogy doesn’t end with a whimper, but more of a tremendous sigh.  If you’re interested, view Rio Grande at your own discretion.

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December Theme – John Ford (An Introduction)

John_Ford,_1946
If you aren’t somebody who is interested in film history and the significant players in its development, you may be wondering who exactly John Ford is, and what makes him so worthy of an entire month-long feature.  You may often hear him described as being a difficult, if unpretentious, and old-fashioned director.  Ford was an incredibly intense and idiosyncratic man who even managed to occasionally alienate even those closest to him.  John Ford smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish when he was permitted to, but was an extremely humble and sensitive man.  John Ford was and remains to this very day a mystery to many people, but the one thing that critics and historians alike are sure of it’s that he’s a legendary figure in the business, and one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live.  

Ford most famously made his name known through the direction of dozens of western and dramatic films, spanning from the early silent era to the mid-1960’s.  The great director is the only filmmaker in history to win four Academy Awards for Best Director (The Informer in 1935, The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, How Green Was My Valley in 1941, and The Quiet Man in 1952).  His frequent collaborators included famous western stars John Wayne and both Harry Carey Sr. and Harry Carey Jr., Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Maureen O’Hara.

The films of John Ford often had themes that romanticized the old west, and were incredibly patriotic and passionate about America.  As far as direction, he greatly preferred the use of long, static shots as opposed to complex camera movements, which he felt were too laborious and time consuming.  Ford was never afraid to sacrifice parts of his work for the greater good, and was known to make last-minute changes to many of his scripts, proving he was never “married” to any one idea.  He preferred his actors known the ins and outs of their characters, and was not particularly fond of rehearsals.  Though Ford favoured a more deliberate pacing and classic approach to direction, his films are far from boring or standard in any way.  The man absolutely knew his way around a camera, and had both the critical praise and financial success to prove it.

John Ford’s most famous films include the incredible and highly influential Stagecoach, the Oscar-winning adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the beautiful and controversial The Searchers, and my personal favorite film of his, the “film that beat Citizen Kane” How Green Was My Valley.  His influence has been felt for years, and his films continue to amaze and inspire generations.  Some of the directors who admired the man and were influenced by his films and style include my favorite director Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Steven Spielberg, and Orson Welles.

The schedule for my John Ford retrospective month looks as follows:

#1 – The Informer (1935) – December 1

#2 – The Long Voyage Home (1940) – December 4

#3 – They Were Expendable (1945) – December 7

#4 – My Darling Clementine (1946) – December 10

#5 – Fort Apache (1948) – December 13

#6 – She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) – December 16

#7 – Rio Grande (1950) – December 19

#8 – The Quiet Man (1952) – December 22

#9 – The Searchers (1956) – December 25

#10 – The Wings of Eagles (1957) – December 28

*The schedule is subject to change, with Christmas break looming.  If I have to eliminate any films from the marathon, I’ll be sure to post about it.  

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