What’s the Spig idea?
Turner Classic Movies: TCM is showing military-themed movies all weekend, in honor of Memorial Day. At 11 a.m. (Central) time tomorrow, they’re showing a movie I never miss, although I understand its flaws: “The Wings Of Eagles,” directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara and Dan Dailey.
This was a passion project for John Ford — the life story of one of Ford’s close friends. That is both its strength and its weakness.
Frank “Spig” Wead was a pioneering military aviator, but a fall down a staircase left him paralyzed and near death. He beat the odds and was eventually able to walk with braces and canes. He became a screenwriter, pouring his military knowledge and experience onto the page, which was great entertainment and also helped build support for the military.
When World War II broke out, Wead, despite his disability, wanted to contribute, and he enlisted and ended up coming up with a valuable and creative idea for how to resupply aircraft carriers.
Ford wanted to tell his friend’s story, and do it right — but for Ford, doing it right meant cramming in everything. That means the movie has violent shifts of tone — wacky comedy one moment, family pathos the next. It seems heresy to say this about John Ford, a genius of American cinema, but a more disinterested director might have done a better job of focusing the movie.
But even though I know the movie is flawed, I still love it. Wayne gives a great performance — and there’s a big chunk of the movie when he’s confined to bed or a wheelchair, so it’s not the normal swaggering John Wayne character. Maureen O’Hara is just wonderful (goes without saying), and her character Min, Wead’s estranged wife, is a shockingly nuanced heroine for that era of Hollywood history — neither a supportive angel nor a treacherous vamp, but a weary, sort-of-single mother with character flaws and a good heart.
Dailey plays a composite character who pops in and out as the story requires for comic relief, such as sneaking in hooch while Spig Wead is recuperating.
But the real fun for John Ford fans is the role played by Ward Bond. Since the story includes Spig Wead becoming a screenwriter, John Ford becomes a character in his own movie. In the movie, he’s called “John Dodge” (Ford … Dodge … get it?) and is played by Ward Bond, a member of Ford’s stock company. It’s fun to see Ward Bond impersonate the boss, something he clearly has a great time doing.
It’s a movie that makes me smile every time I see it. If you happen to be around a TV, or can set your DVR, I would recommend it, despite its flaws.