I thought about just putting up a Facebook link to one of my earlier blog posts about “The Wings of Eagles,” and then noting in the comment that the movie will air tonight on TCM. But after looking at the old posts, I decided I wanted to start fresh.
“The Wings of Eagles” is a must-see for fans of legendary director John Ford and/or John Wayne. It’s not without its flaws, and while I’m fully aware of those flaws I’m somehow fascinated by the movie despite them.
The movie is John Ford’s lovingly-crafted tribute to one of his good friends, Naval aviator turned screenwriter Frank “Spig” Wead, played by John Wayne. The movie begins with an account of Wead’s adventures in the Navy. Then, at the height of his success, he is felled by a physical tragedy, with a prognosis that he will never use his legs again. Over impossible odds, he partially overcomes this tragedy and learns to walk on crutches. But now he is a man without a mission. He becomes a writer, using his experience to tell realistic stories about military aviators.
When World War II breaks out, he battles the odds again, finding a way to help the war effort in spite of his disability.
The movie also tells the story of Wead’s equally roller-coaster relationship with his wife and daughters. His wife Min is played by Maureen O’Hara, who is always welcome playing against Wayne. She’s especially good here. During Production Code Hollywood, female characters were often painted in broad strokes, either as long-suffering saints or evil temptresses. Min is neither. She’s a real, vivid character, good at heart and strong, but with some character flaws. Her relationship with Wead (who had flaws of his own) is not sugarcoated, and it does not end the way one expects a classic-movie romance to end.
The complaint against the movie, and it’s a legitimate one, is that it veers wildly back and forth between hijinks and pathos. In the early part of the movie, the hijinks include Wayne landing a plane in the middle of an admiral’s garden party. During the second half of the movie, scenes of Wayne struggling to regain the use of his legs are interspersed with laughs about various well-wishers trying to sneak him alcohol through his friend and amateur therapist “Jughead” Carson (a scenery-chewing but not unwelcome Dan Dailey). The rollercoaster tone doesn’t always work, although Ford was deliberate in using it, saying the silly stories were just as true and typical of Wead as the tragic underlying narrative.
But the real reason for any John Ford fan to see the movie is Ward Bond, a member of Ford’s standard stock company, playing movie director “John Dodge,” as he is known in the movie. (Ford … Dodge … get it?) You can see how much fun Bond is having playing a broad caricature of his long-time boss. “Dodge” befriends Wead and hires him to write screenplays.
The movie airs at 9 p.m. Central on TCM. If you haven’t seen it, you ought to. It’s being preceded, right now, by one of Ford’s all-time classics, “Stagecoach.”