Fresh off one of several mutual career highs with The Searchers (1956) John Wayne re-teamed with director John Ford for this biopic of Frank 'Spig' Wead: record-setting aviator, naval commander and Hollywood screenwriter. In the latter capacity Spig was a close friend and collaborator with Ford. Hence Ford fashioned The Wings of Eagles in loving tribute. Unfolding in three distinct acts, the film's first third has Spig (John Wayne), a headstrong but amiable pilot and Naval officer in the aftermath of the First World War, struggle to improve the Navy's aviation program and maintain a stable domestic life with his wife, Min (Maureen O'Hara) and their children. Between spectacular aerial hi-jinks and rollicking brawls with an equally bullish army rival (Kenneth Tobey), Spig hits on a promotional idea for a round the world race. He ends up winning the prestigious 'Schneider Cup' but, wracked with guilt for neglecting his family, returns home to the loving Min. One fateful night Spig awakens to the sound of his daughter's cries. Having already lost one child to illness he rushes to his daughter's aid only to fall down stairs, break his back and sustain a crippling spinal injury. Thus begins the toughest battle of Spig's life.
An unjustly overlooked achievement in John Ford's filmography, The Wings of Eagles is propelled by a towering performance from John Wayne, proving there was more to him than swaggering one-dimensional machismo. Given Wayne was neither the first nor last Hollywood star to take on a meaty role in a triumph over crippling adversity story, this may have been intended as a bid for an Oscar nomination that was not to be. At least until True Grit (1969). Ford opens the film in a lighthearted, indulging his sentimental fondness for the Navy and scenes of knockabout comedy brawling. While boorish slapstick hobbled Ford's earlier adaptation of hit Broadway play Mister Roberts (1955) here it bolsters Spig's heartening story with spectacle (the opening aerial stunts that culminate in Spig crashing a plane in a pool at a big Naval party are remarkable), solid laughs and genuine insight into our hero's psychological makeup. Spig's boisterous devil-may-care personality manifests itself itself initially through reckless daring but crucially provides the very same grit and determination allowing him to triumph over adversity. While lovely Maureen O'Hara, in the third of five films she made with John Wayne, proves a fiery a sparring partner as always, the domestic drama is merely one facet of Ford's overall portrait of Spig Wead.
In some ways The Wings of Eagles is aligned with that problematic strain of war dramas typified by Strategic Air Command (1955). Yet whereas the Anthony Mann film unconvincingly asserts it is love of family that compels hero James Stewart to neglect them in favour of maintaining America's military might Ford's film is more honest about the toll Spig's sense of duty takes on his loved ones. It certainly does not critique patriotism (one would not expect that from a John Ford movie starring John Wayne) but empathizes with that sense of loss and sacrifice. In a very Fifties male idea of separating family from personal struggle, Spig sacrifices his marriage so Min won't have to dote on a cripple (a moving scene Wayne performs lying face down where most actors would milk the pathos for all it's worth). Spurred by a shock twist most viewers unfamiliar with the real Frank Wead probably did not see coming, the second act focuses on his slow, agonizing recovery from paralysis. He is aided by cigar-chomping navy pal 'Jughead' Carson in a barnstorming performance from MGM musical star Dan Dailey, on career best form. Very much the unsung hero of the story, Jughead is the one that lifts Spig's spirits and devises his therapy routine, coaxing him to repeat the words: "I'm gonna move that toe." A mantra at once comically simplistic yet heroically defiant.
Later the film segues into Spig's movie career. Ward Bond appears as a character not identified as but very obviously based on John Ford, right down to the sunglasses, pipe and handkerchief permanently gripped in his hand. Despite some amusing in-jokes it is the least substantial portion of the film. Yet still proves the dramatic springboard not only for Spig's heartwarming reunion with Min but also his return to active service following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Once again tenacity and grit allow him to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds as his experience and ingenuity prove invaluable throughout the war and eventually land him command of his own ship. Here staged sequences are inter-cut with Ford's own harrowing documentary footage filmed in the heat of battle.
Beautifully photographed the film has the grandiose quality of a tall tale but grounded by the earthiness of John Ford with his firm grasp of honest human emotion. Though its mix of knockabout comedy, sentimental romance and sobering war drama may seem jarring to modern eyes, Ford fashions The Wings of Eagles into both a stirring ode to good old fashioned heroism and moving testament to the endurance of the human spirit. The final scenes in particular give a poignant sense of a man weighing his life.