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The Wings of Eagles

For aviation nuts, John Ford's The Wings of Eagles (1957) opens with one of the best aerial sequences to be found on film — John Wayne, as young U.S. Navy cadet Frank L. 'Spig' Wead, takes an Army rival for a flight in a Curtiss JN-4 biplane and buzzes several low structures, flies through an open hangar, and crashes into a swimming pool, all before he's even been allowed to solo. It's a stunt-filled sequence with echoes from Ford and Wead's first collaboration, Airmail (1932), although for a film about a famous pilot turned screenwriter, it's the only notable bit of aerobatics. Instead, Eagles is a loose, affectionate look at one of Ford's best friends — a project he claimed that he didn't want to do, but didn't want any other director to undertake either. John Wayne stars as Frank Wead, who reveals his leadership skills early in his naval career, at first by proposing that the Navy compete with the Army's announced "Around the World" flight. However, with congressional support for the armed services at a minimum during the 1920s, Wead's proposal is denied, leading him to enter his pilots into the international Schneider Cup floatplane races, where they win the prize. In the meantime, Wead tries to maintain a relationship with his wife Min (Maureen O'Hara) and their two daughters, which isn't helped by his frequent absences. And after an accident leaves him paralyzed, he does everything he can to get Min to leave him. Stuck in a naval hospital with years of recovery ahead of him, Wead takes up writing, and while most of his initial short stories are rejected, his naval background earns him a job with director John Dodge (Ward Bond) as a screenwriter. Wead even finds success on Broadway and hopes to reunite with Min, although the outbreak of World War II leads him back to the Navy as a strategist. While The Wings of Eagles is a straightforward tribute to a screenwriter who was well liked in the Hollywood community, it's superior to John Ford's only other biopic, The Long Gray Line, wherein Tyrone Power serves as a witness to history at West Point. John Wayne as 'Spig' Wead is a more dynamic character, a man who gladly faces down adversity, but who also tends toward self-absorption, both in his failing marriage and his long-term friendships. Wayne is a good fit for the role, although the script requires him to age over a few decades — in fact, at 50, Wayne was only two years younger than Frank Wead when he died, and while he looks entirely out-of-place as a Navy cadet, he also was willing to forego his hairpiece in later scenes — it's Wayne's only screen appearance with his natural pattern baldness. He's reunited again with leading lady Maureen O'Hara, who only has a small part but looks beautiful in Ford's Technicolor palette. Typical for Ford, comedy is found throughout, including an Army-Navy brawl at an elegant dinner party. For a minor John Ford effort, it's one of his better projects, and it features a cameo of sorts — as director "John Dodge," Ward Bond channels Ford with a fedora, sunglasses, pipe, and handkerchief, while many of the director's own possessions fill out his alter-ego's office. Warner's DVD release of The Wings of Eagles features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from an excellent source-print, with clear Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Trailer, keep-case.

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