Program Notes: The Wings of Eagles (1957)
Frank “Spig” Wead was one of those bigger-than-life, quintessentially American characters.
Born in 1895, he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1916 and immediately fell under flying’s spell.
Wead became a test pilot and engaged in many well-publicized air races (often against Army flyboys) to build public and congressional support for military air programs.
In 1926 Wead was paralyzed by a fall in his home. His military career over, he endured grueling rehabilitation to recover some use of his body, then launched a career as a short story and screenplay writer. In 1938 he received two Oscar nominations for his screenplays for Test Pilot and The Citadel.
Though he had spent more than a decade in a wheelchair, Wead returned to active duty in World War II so that he could implement his latest ideas about naval air power.
As early as 1953 a screenplay about Wead’s life was circulating in Hollywood. Ford said he didn’t want to make a movie about a close friend, but he didn’t want anyone else to make it, either.
The result is one of Ford’s oddest movies, one featuring a near-great performance from John Wayne but jam-packed with ambivalence.
It starts out as a roughhouse military comedy (at one point test pilot Wead crashes his plane into a swimming pool around which an admiral is holding a swank party) and study of an irrepressible daredevil.
Then it becomes an intense personal/domestic drama as Wead battles paralysis and pushes away his wife, Minnie (Maureen O’Hara), presumably so she won’t have to spend the rest of her life with a sexless “cripple.”
The film by turns finds Wead an amusing character, a physical hero, a proponent of never-say-die individualism and, most troubling, a fatally flawed individual so wrapped up in the military mindset that he cannot tolerate domestic life.
His children don’t know him, he cannot share with the woman who loves him. He only seems at ease in the company of other fighting men.
“In Ford’s hands, Wead’s trajectory from daredevil Navy flier to paraplegic to successful writer is more than the simplistic ‘triumph over handicap’ fable others would have made of it,” observes Ford biographer Joseph McBride.
“With its deglamorized, often magnificently understated performance by John Wayne, The Wings of Eagles pays tribute to Wead’s courage in overcoming a catastrophe that would have destroyed a lesser man ... but Wings of Eagles is essentially the tragedy of a man who failed to appreciate those who loved him most, his family.”
Ford walked a tightrope here, trying to make his old friend likeable but knowing full well that Wead’s emotional limitations made him a hard man to identify with.
He had a harder time still with O’Hara’s portrayal of Minnie Wead, who after splitting with her husband became an alcoholic. Ford shot scenes of Minnie’s decline, but at the request of the couple’s children never used them.
Stylistically The Wings of Eagles is pretty pedestrian – with one notable exception. After Wead is paralyzed he is hospitalized in a face-down position. For nearly 20 minutes of screen time Ford doesn’t show us Wayne’s face – just the back of his head.
It has been suggested that in Wings Ford is giving us an autobiography.
Indeed, the parallels between Ford and Wead are striking.
Both men had a case of wanderlust that kept them moving and away from home.
Both had health problems (Wead was paralyzed, while Ford lost the sight in one eye as a result of cataract surgery) that prevented them from living the lives of physical adventure they dreamed of.
Both substituted filmmaking for military careers and had to experience World War II as observers rather than combatants (Ford made documentaries for the Navy).
And both men neglected their families for their careers and preferred a life of masculine companionship and hard drinking.
In Wings Wead has a scene with a cantankerous Hollywood director played by Ford veteran Ward Bond. It’s obvious that Bond is doing an impersonation of Ford, right down to the hat, dark glasses, handkerchief he chews on, and the décor of his office, which is filled with items (including several Oscars) taken from Ford’s own desk.
But for all its ambivalence, Wings of Eagles manages somehow to be a moving portrait of a flawed man. Just another example of the John Ford magic.
Other films in the series “John Ford: Not a Cowboy In Sight”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- March 5: Wee Willie Winkie (1937) Not rated
- March 12: Mogambo (1953) Not rated
- March 19: The Wings of Eagles (1957) Not rated
- March 26: Donovan’s Reef (1963) Not rated
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- March 3: The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Not rated
- March 10: How Green Was My Valley (1941) Not rated
- March 17: They Were Expendable (1945) Not rated
- March 24: The Quiet Man (1952) Not rated
- March 31: Mister Roberts (1955) Not rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.