TSPDT 2014: The Wings of Eagles
Posted by martinteller on March 4, 2014
Based on his memoirs, this is the story of Frank “Spig” Wead (John Wayne). Spig was a hotshot pilot for the Navy, and earned the branch’s aviation efforts public recognition by entering high-profile racing contests. He and his team broke records for durations, distance and speed. Spig’s career is cut short, however, when a fall down the stairs breaks his neck and leaves him paralyzed. Unwilling to subject his wife Min (Maureen O’Hara) and two daughters to the pain of watching him wither away, he pushes his family away. But with the aid of his friend “Jughead” Carson (Dan Dailey), he manages to walk again… and become a successful screenwriter as well, penning over 30 scripts… most or all of them about naval aviation. When Pearl Harbor is bombed, he rejoins the Navy as a strategist, coming up with an innovative idea for resupplying aircraft carriers.
I had a whole bunch of reasons to hate this movie right off the bat. First, John Ford. I’ve subjected myself to far too many Ford films in the service of earning 100% completion of the TSPDT top 1000 list, and my hopes are that this will be the last. I’ve loved exactly one film — My Darling Clementine — by him, liked a few others. The remaining 15 or so have all left me cold to some degree, several of them to the degree of outright hate (let us never speak of Tobacco Road again). Then there’s John Wayne. I’ve never been a fan of his alpha male bullshit… which is always at its peak when working with Ford. It’s telling that the few Ford films I like don’t involve Wayne and the few Wayne films I like don’t involve Ford (to be fair, though, Stagecoach is pretty decent). And let’s not forget O’Hara. As I said recently in my review of Miracle on 34th Street, I’ve never found anything compelling about her… she’s never been more than a nice head of red hair to me. Plus, it was clear that the movie was going to have a lot of pro-military hooey in it. As if that wasn’t enough, the general consensus on the film is that it’s one of Ford’s worst. Thanks a lot, TSPDT!
And oh yeah, there was a lot to hate. The movie is boilerplate biopic, leaping from Event to Event with little care for an overarching theme… it’s a highlight reel of Wead’s life. The first 45 minutes are particularly dreadful, lots of truly awful comedy (who told Ford he was funny?) and macho swagger by Wayne as he punches guys and takes the risks no one else will take and blah blah blah. Wead’s baby dies, a chance for things to get all poignant for about a minute before it’s abruptly forgotten. And yep, the military is glorified, without any sense of the mindless horror of war. It’s just a bunch of swell Americans aching to get into combat and stick it to the enemy.
And yet… and yet… I kinda sorta liked it. I know, I couldn’t believe it either. If you’ve jumped ahead to my rating, it’s obvious I didn’t love it. But I was expecting way, way worse. For one thing, despite some of the “alpha male” nonsense in the first act, Wayne’s character is softened here. The middle section about his recuperation is actually kind of touching, albeit in a rather Hollywood-ized way. Seeing John Wayne struggle to move his toe, later hobbling around on a pair of canes, really humanized him for me. I saw the sweetness in his smile, the warmth of his feelings towards his friends, his nearly-suicidal melancholy. And there is sweetness, too, in his brief interactions with O’Hara (who still does little for me, but this may be the most I’ve appreciated her). I found myself actually liking this guy.
Some of the time, that is. There are still plenty of cringe-worthy parts, especially when that bad comedy rears its ugly head (at least Ford spoofs himself with “John Dodge”, a director played by Ward Bond… Ford, Dodge, get it? yuk yuk). And the good parts aren’t really that good. But as much as I wanted to write a scathing review — I was working on some kind of zinger involving eagles and bird poop — I gotta admit that portions of this movie were decent, and I wish Wayne had played more characters in this vein. Rating: Fair (61)