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Wings of Eagles

The Wings of Eagles

1957, M-G-M. Directed by John Ford. With John Wayne, Dan Dailey, Maureen O'Hara, Ward Bond

Sam wrote last week: "I can't think offhand of other John Ford self-referential moments--it seems to me that self-referentiality would generally be too intellectual or too theoretic or coy or snide for him, since self-referentiality tends to interrupt the story-telling."

Heh-heh. Guess Sam forgot about The Wings of Eagles, where right in the middle of the picture an actor dressed as John Ford chats for a while with John Wayne about picture-making.

The Wings of Eagles is in some ways a classic John Ford picture and in other ways wildly atypical. It's a highly Ford-ified biography of Frank "Spig" Wead, a daredevil Navy flier who later wrote screenplays for Ford and others. Wead's career has an interesting symmetry; he broke his back in a fall in mid-life and turned to writing movies about the kinds of adventures he had previously participated in. The switch from Wead-as-actor to Wead-as-spectator divides the movie almost in half.

And right at the dividing point, John Ford shows up. He's called "John Dodge," and he hires Wead to write "a good movie about [aircraft] carriers." Dodge, played by Ford stalwart Ward Bond, wears the dark glasses, hat and boots that were Ford's standard uniform; he smokes Ford's pipe and has an office outfitted with all of Ford's stuff. He has even directed some of Ford's pictures! This is not just a brief in-joke. The Dodge character has several scenes with Wead, scenes that don't really advance the plot but provide an interlude of self-referentiality that, as Sam says, is really striking for a Ford picture.

First there's a scene in a screening room where Dodge and Wead look the 1932 movie Hell Divers (actually writted by Wead but directed by George Hill). They watch a scene where Wallace Beery and a bunch of other sailors slug it out in a bar. This scene, first of all, echoes the men-in-uniform brawls that occupy much of the first half-hour of The Wings of Eagles, and makes us reflect on the artficiality of such scenes. Then Dodge asks the producer who's present "How'd you like that kid with Beery?" The producer says he'll probably sign the kid, which comes as a relief to all of us who have recognized "the kid" as Clark Gable. And then comes the capper. Sitting side by side in the darkened screening room, Dodge and Wead talk about the title Hell Divers. Dodge says that they'll have to run it by the Hays office since "You can't say 'hell' on the screen, you know." The shot holds on Dodge/Ford and Wead/Wayne looking right out at us, deadpan, letting us know that they know that we know.

Well, I suppose that if you were making a movie about a friend who made movies with you, and if you had a third pal of the both of you playing him and a fourth pal playing you, it would be strange not to pause to acknowledge the multiple levels at work.

Ford later claimed that Dodge was no self-portrait, but then Ford claimed a lot of things, including (in my presence) that he didn't direct Seven Women. He told Peter Bogdanovich, "I didn't intend it that way, but he [Ward Bond] did. I woke up one morning and my good hat was gone, my pipe and everything else; they'd taken all the Academy Awards and put them in the office set." Sorry, the myth of a cast & crew pulling on-screen pranks doesn't hold water. This is such a personal, reflective picture that the point would be lost if Wead encountered just any old generic director. Ford should make an appearance; his presence holds this unconventional, oddly-shaped picture together . It's his way of signalling that he's working here at a different level than usual.

Throughout The Wings of Eagles Ford trots out many of his familiar themes, but he can't work up the old enthusiasm. The sorts of things that in earlier Ford films happened spontaneously and gracefully are presented here at a kind of distance, examined rather than believed in. He seems to be taking a critical look at the performers, situations, relationships and bits of business that had been his raw materials for so many years. The Maureen O'Hara/John Wayne romance is shadowed by tragedy almost from the start and O'Hara more or less disappears from the picture half-way through. After some rousing early sequences of Army-Navy rivalry, the men-in-uniform cameraderie goes downhill fast. Dan Dailey makes an unconvincing Irish sidekick. Spig's crippling accident is ludicrously un-heroic (he falls down the stairs during a rare visit with his family) and the long sequence of his rehabilitation is more painful than inspirational. The movie returns Spig to active duty onboard an aircraft carrier, but even there he has to be ignominiously evacuated because of a weak heart.

It seems that putting together this tribute to a friend and fellow film-creator got Ford feeling self-conscious about some of his old tricks. He's working here like a dancer who has started watching his own feet. The ease is gone. But the self-awareness that has replaced it—a self-awareness that Ford underscores by refering overtly to himself and to his (and Wead's) art—is at least as interesting.

One final note: In the last ten minutes of the movie, Wead spends some time on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. Paralyzed, well past middle-age, he can only watch the war raging around him. Here Ford uses actual war footage, some of the most stunning I've ever seen—planes exploding before our eyes, planes hitting the water, crashing into ships, bombs zooming past, pilots bailing out. The footage is poorly matched, of course, but no attempt has been made to standardize the grain or the color. When Ford periodically cuts back to a reaction shot of Wead, it's unmistakably an actor on a set. Everything about the sequence says, "Film!" You forget the story and just marvel at the fact that cameramen in airplanes in war zones risked their lives to capture these amazing scenes. As a tribute to the valor of fighting men and to the noble pursuit of taking films, these few minutes are as heartfelt and moving as anything Ford ever did.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein