Frank “Spig” Wead died at the relatively young age of 52, but his life was packed with enough adventure and accomplishment to fill several lives. He began his career as a Navy pilot, and set several speed and distance records flying Class C seaplanes. His military career was cut short by an injury that left him paralyzed, so he began writing – first cheap pulp novels, then screenplays. He moved to Hollywood and struck up a close friendship with filmmaker John Ford, and eventually earned a pair of Academy Award nominations for writing the acclaimed 1938 dramas Test Pilot and The Citadel. When WWII began, Wead returned to the Navy and served as an advisor, using his expertise to help integrate escort carriers into beach landings.
A decade after Wead's passing, Ford paid tribute to his old pal with The Wings of Eagles, a biopic detailing the majority of Wead's diverse life. Ford enlisted his regular collaborator John Wayne to play Wead, adding a further measure of heroism to the man. Initially, Wayne seems badly miscast in the role: he was 50 at the time, and seems incredibly unconvincing as a 20-something hotshot pilot. However, as the character grows older, Wayne's performances grows richer: we witness a level of vulnerability the actor only occasionally displayed throughout his career. Perhaps humbled by the fact that he's playing a real man that he actually knew, Wayne dispenses with his customary toupee in the film's later scenes. It's the sort of character choice that might have been run-of-the-mill for many actors, but which feels like a strong statement coming from Wayne.
The movie certainly doesn't lack forward momentum or energy. In one early scene, Wead crashes his plane at an admiral's party, much to the surprise of the admiral's well-to-do guests. In another, someone throws a cake in Wead's face and a massive brawl ensues. These feel like outlandish movie moments, but Ford later insisted that both of those things actually happened. Wead was the sort of man who inspired people to say things like, “you can't make this stuff up.”
While the film handles the details of Wead's military and film career well enough, things tend to be a little rocky on the domestic front. Maureen O'Hara (The Quiet Man) is wasted in the thankless, one-dimensional role of Wead's longsuffering wife Min. She spends most of her scenes bemoaning the fact that Spig isn't home often enough. This is undoubtedly an additional reflection of reality, but it's a pity Ford didn't find a way to add something more to the part (particularly when he had an actress of O'Hara's talent at his disposal). There's also one tragic early scene that doesn't have half the weight it needs, mostly due to the fact that Ford rushes it through it far too quickly.
The Wings of Eagles gets misty-eyed as it heads to the finish line, granting Wead a deeply romantic conclusion while fully acknowledging his declining health. I'm generally not a fan of biopics that feel like puff pieces, but this one is different: it's one man's way of honoring his friend. Frequent Ford/Wayne collaborator Ward Bond (The Searchers) plays Ford in the film, though his name has been changed to “John Dodge” (heh). The first time they collaborate, “Dodge” tells Wead what sort of screenplay he needs: “I don't want a story about just ships and planes. I want it about the men who run them – how they live and think and talk. I want it from a pen dipped in salt water, not dry martinis.” Wead gave Ford exactly what he was looking for, and decades later, Ford returned the favor with this simple, lovely flick.
The Wings of Eagles
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Year: 1957