Monday, April 25, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Wings of Eagles" (1957)

"The Wings of Eagle" is supposed to be a biopic of naval commander and screenwriter Frank "Spig" Wead, a tribute from John Wayne, John Ford and others who knew him well. It wants to be epic in scope, but ends up feeling like ham-fisted Cliff Notes version of a man's life.

The film loiters way, way too long on Wead's early days as a hell-raising test pilot, then jumps ahead through long sections of his life after he is paralyzed in an accident and becomes estranged from his family. At one point something like 10 years slips by in a single edit, and suddenly Wead is a rich and famous writer living in a Beverly Hills mansion. Then World War II breaks out and, despite having limited mobility with two canes, he somehow gains a commission as an officer aboard a naval carrier.

Watching it, I thought of a better title: "The Ellipses of Spig Wead."

The film, directed by Ford from a screenplay by William Wister Haines and Frank Fenton, never quite decides what tone it wants to strike. Up until the accident, the movie is fun-n-games with a little undercurrent of darkness about Wead's long-distance relationship with his wife, Min (Maureen O'Hara). Then it suddenly turns on a dime and tries to become an inspiration life story.

There's a long section with Wead in the hospital, laid up in traction with a broken neck, as his friend "Jughead" Carson (an excellent Dan Daily) visits him every day for nearly a year, urging him to wiggle his big toe. "I'm gonna move that toe!" he repeats over and over, a mantra that's supposed to be heartfelt but comes across as just plain silly.

I have to say I found the relationship between Wead and Min rather unconvincing, despite a nuanced performance by O'Hara. Spig will abandon his wife and two daughters for years at a time, then show up on her doorstep and within a matter of minutes, has her falling into his arms again. Min is supposed to be a tough, sassy redhead, but she sure is an easy touch when it comes time for wooing.

John Ford even briefly caricatures himself in the character of John Dodge, played by Ford mainstay Ward Bond, a slick Hollywood honcho who favors dark sunglasses, even indoors.

I also found it interesting that this is one of the very few films in which John Wayne appeared without his hairpiece, in the later sections as Wead grows older. This is especially noteworthy in that Wead himself still had a full head of hair at the time of his death.

I get the sense "The Wings of Eagles" was created to serve two purposes: As a tribute to Frank Wead, and an opportunity for John Wayne to play a more subtle character than we're used to seeing from him. It's not particularly successful at either.

1.5 stars out of four

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