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If John Ford hadn't made THE WINGS OF EAGLES, Commander Frank W. 'Spig' Wead
would be best known today for the impressive collection of military-oriented
stories he wrote for motion pictures, during the 30s and 40s. Among his
credits are HELL DIVERS (with Wallace Beery and Clark Gable), TEST PILOT
(with Gable and Spencer Tracy), DIVE BOMBER (with Errol Flynn and Fred
MacMurray), and THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (for John Ford, with John Wayne and
Robert Montgomery). He brought to his writing a love of flying, pride in the
military, and an understanding that a 'greater good' must sometimes take
precedence over personal happiness.
In THE WINGS OF EAGLES, director Ford illustrates how Wead's life was every
bit as interesting and dramatic as anything he wrote. A close personal
friend (so much so that he even cast Ward Bond to play a thinly-disguised
version of himself, named 'John Dodge', in the film), Ford was witness to
many of the triumphs and tragedies of the pioneer Naval aviator/engineer's
life. After completing THE SEARCHERS, Ford commemorated the tenth
anniversary of his friend's passing with this sensitive, 'warts-and-all'
Wead (portrayed by John Wayne, in one of his most fully realized
characterizations...he even sacrificed his hairpiece, as the older Wead, for
the sake of authenticity), begins the film as a typical hell-raising Ford
hero, a Navy flier who loved taunting his Army counterparts (led by the
terrific Kenneth Tobey), lived for the sheer joy of flying bi-planes (even
when he was clueless as to HOW to fly them), and had the love of a feisty
yet devoted woman (Maureen O'Hara, of course!) But, in keeping with the tone
of much of the older Ford's work, Wead's life does not tie itself up into a
neat, happy package, but develops into a complex near-tragedy of a man so
consumed with his career that his marriage breaks down, and has his greatest
dream snatched away from him when an accident cripples him. Rather than
falling back on the potential aid a wife could provide, he refuses her help,
relying on his Navy 'family' (represented by Dan Dailey, in one of his most
popular roles) for rehabilitation. With Pearl Harbor, Wead's expertise is
again called upon, and he leaves a successful career as a screenwriter to
rejoin the Navy, becoming the innovator of jeep carriers...only to see his
health fail him, yet again, forcing him out of the service he loved.
It is a story both sad and moving, and Wayne, so often accused of being
'bigger than life' and one-dimensional in his portrayals, again demonstrates
his underrated acting talent, capturing the frustration of a man who never
truly achieves the ultimate triumphs he dreams of. Wead is a 'real' person,
not always likable, but someone you learn to admire for his sheer
determination to contribute, and not surrender to self-pity.
With an excellent supporting cast (particularly Ken Curtis, as Wead's
lifelong friend, John Dale Price), THE WINGS OF EAGLES may disappoint
someone looking for a 'typical' war movie, but, as a film biography, is far
more honest than Hollywood's 'usual' hokum.
'Spig' Wead would have loved it!
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