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Wings of Eagles (1957)

Wayne and director John Ford teamed up again for The Wings of Eagles. The film is an affectionate biography of Frank "Spig" Wead, an outstanding navy flyer who was crippled in a domestic accident and turned to writing before making a contribution to the Second World War effort. Among Wead's screenplays was Ford's They Were Expendable (1945) in which Wayne had appeared. Wead died in 1947 and Wayne plays him from a youthful flyer to the end of his war service. Maureen O'Hara plays Wead's wife, Min.

As a Wayne-O'Hara relationship, it is a typically "difficult" one with O'Hara resenting the demands made on Wayne by his navy career and his willing acquiescence to them. We are introduced to Wayne as a member of the navy's first regular flying class in 1919, already married with one child and in debt. He's an impulsive figure responding to the gibes of army flyers about one of the navy planes - "This pile of junk, can anybody get it up in the air?" - by taking an army man up on a daredevil flight for his first time in solo command of an aircraft. He buzzes the spectators on the ground, flies through a hangar, and when he runs out of gas puts the plane down in a swimming pool at the admiral's lawn tea party. Min watches helplessly from the ground and hopes he'll be kicked out of the navy but to no avail. As the years pass, they have two more children and keep on the move until Min finally rebels at one more change of house and they separate.

For the first time Wayne actually has a part in the knockabout comedy routines that Ford so enjoys inserting in his films. Previously, such scenes in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Searchers (1956) served as light relief from the more serious story carried by Wayne. Here the low humor is based on army versus navy, the two sides competing in races to try and build up the country's air force. When the army is celebrating a victory in advance, Wayne and his team invade the dinner. We see Wayne delighting in excessively polite dialogue with the army leader (Kenneth Tobey) as a prelude to a cake-flinging punch-up that turns into a riot until the MPs make an appearance. Later when Wayne and his fellow flyers have taken the Schneider Cup in a seaplane race, it is the army's turn to invade the celebrations and set off a return fracas.

Meanwhile Wayne has become a stranger to his two daughters. When he turns up unexpectedly to see them and his wife, the pair fail to recognize him. Min weeps at seeing him again and willingly accepts his suggestion that they should grow up before their kids do and live together again. Here Ford draws on that strong sense of rapport between Wayne and O'Hara to make us believe in their frenzied embrace and feel the emotional warmth of them stretched out on a settee with one of the children innocently suggesting that they should go to bed. Ford then cuts discreetly to Wayne smoking contentedly in bed, establishing the success of their reconciliation. When one of his daughters cries out, he rushes to her and accidentally tumbles down the stairs, breaking his neck and losing all feeling in his back. As Min looks down anxiously, he tells her to call the hospital, then makes a small correction - call the naval hospital. That's the Ford hero, the Wayne figure, speaking most clearly.

There he willingly accepts a risky operation but is left stretched out on his stomach, largely paralyzed. Ford draws comedy from the selection of old-maid nurses in attendance, and from the supply of forbidden liquor all and sundry who smuggle it in. But, as the months go by, Wayne becomes increasingly irritated by his confinement, and it takes his old pal Carson (Dan Dailey), a mechanic, to instil some small hope of recovery. They start by trying to force life into Wayne's big toe by sheer brain power, the pair reciting "I'm gonna move that toe" to fever pitch. When the toe ultimately responds, Carson falls to the ground in a faint. Wayne is still bedridden and turns to writing, piling up rejection slips. Carson brings him a wheelchair and takes him out into the open to see the navy's first big carrier in the harbor. "Take me back," Wayne asks sharply. Carson keeps up the rehabilitation program and another pal (Ken Curtis) wangles an introduction to a film director seeking a writer for a picture about the navy's new carriers. The director is John Dodge (Ward Bond), made up to look and act as a mirror image of Ford himself, and installing Wayne in an office with the simple instructions, "Write about people - navy people. " By this point, Spig Wead is ageing and Wayne has shed for the first time, his toupee to become a balding figure. It's an unusual move for a star to make but it fits in with Wayne's often-expressed devotion to Ford's every command. While Wayne is unavoidably less than convincing as the young trainee earlier on, he makes up for it in the later stages of the picture, and is even jovially labelled "fat" and "bald headed" to rub in the point when he has a reunion with Carson.

Wayne writes the picture for Dodge and we see footage of Hell Divers (1932) to represent it, with Clark Gable and Wallace Berry starring (Wead did contribute that film's story while George Hill, rather than Ford, directed). After authoring a successful play, Wayne returns to Min but immediately the attack on Pearl Harbor happens and Min accepts the inevitable: "If they won't have you, Spig, I will," she says. The Navy takes him on as an instructor and he struggles with a vague idea of what takes shape as "jeep" carriers when a friend plants the right word in his mind and then leaves him immersed in drawing up the scheme. He goes aboard one of the big carriers to see in operation his scheme for supporting "jeeps" to bring up replacements for aircraft lost in action. But the stress of war tells on him and he collapses after three days of tiring duty to be told by a doctor that he has only a short time to live - As he walks off the ship, his friends fine up in farewell tribute, and Ford plays the scene with all the emotional stops out, Wayne moist-eyed and steeling his features to conceal his feelings at their goodbyes.

It is a warm, touching, humorous picture, expanded beyond its formula biography approach by Ford to encompass the broad humor and rich emotions that mean so much to the director.


Frank "Spig" Wead John Wayne
Min Wead Maureen O'Hara
"Jughead" Carson Dan Daily
John Dale Price Ken Curtis
Capt. Herbert Hazard Kenneth Tobey
John Dodge Ward Bond
"Arizona" Pincus Tige Andrews
Nurse Crumley Mae Marsh
Bridy O'Faolain Olive Carey
Dr. John Keye Louis Jean Heydt
Joe McGuffy Jack Pinnick
Party Manager Sig Ruman

Shooting from end July 1956 to end of September/early October 1956.

Released February 22, 1957 (U.S.); May 27, 1957 (G.B.)

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