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U.S. Navy pilot Frank 'Spig' Wead is a fun-loving and rowdy adventurer, but also a fierce proponent of Naval aviation. His dedication to the promotion of the Navy's flying program is so intense that his marriage and family life suffer. When an accident paralyzes him, Spig finds a new means of expressing his love of flying: screenwriting. Successful and acclaimed, he finds the U.S. entry into World War II to be an irresistible call. Pleading that he be reinstated in the Navy despite his paralysis, Spig finds he has an enormous contribution yet to make. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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' tribute.
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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