‘Wings of Eagles’ redux

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.”

The Wings of Eagles

Friday night at 10:30 Eastern / 9:30 Central, AMC is showing a John Wayne / John Ford curiosity about which I’ve blogged here before, in fact more than once. You could argue that it’s a deeply flawed movie and I would be unable to refute you, but I find it fascinating and fun anyway — and if you’re a fan of legendary director John Ford, it’s a must if only for the chance to see Ford stock company regular Ward Bond portraying a cantankerous character based on Ford himself, called “John Dodge.” (Ford … Dodge. Subtle, huh?)

“The Wings of Eagles” is the true story of one of Ford’s good friends, heroic Naval aviator turned scriptwriter Frank “Spig” Wead. It’s an atypical John Wayne role because a good part of the movie has Wead in a hospital bed, trying to regain the use of his legs, and the rest of the movie after that has him on crutches and braces.

It’s also unique because it doesn’t sugar-coat the rollercoaster relationship between Wead and his wife Min, played brilliantly by Wayne’s most compatible female co-star, Maureen O’Hara.

Speaking of rollercoasters, the movie’s great flaw is its rollercoaster tone — silly comedy one moment, tragedy and pathos the next. But I think that’s the way John Ford saw his friend — a larger-than-life character who experienced both hijinks and heartbreak.

I would, of course, prefer for you to watch the movie on TCM, without commercials and without being edited to fit a time slot. But it’s not on TCM this weekend, it’s on AMC, and so if you’ve never seen it that will have to do.