#30 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
This almost feels like an admission that John Ford was getting old. This cinematic ode to a man Ford knew and obviously admired approaches the movement of a history that intersects with his own with the expected warmth and humanity that Ford often brought to his films. It also never forgets that the talent and dedication of its main character was countered by a certain heartlessness towards those in his personal life. In addition, it’s a biopic that tries to capture the full scope of a life, and that undermines its overall effect a bit for a couple of different reasons.
John Wayne plays Frank “Spig” Wead, a naval airman after the ending of World War I, and the vision of a fifty-year old Wayne playing a man in his early twenties is a little amusing. He’s a brash young man who takes up an Army man in his plane and performs a series of aerial maneuvers that ends with Spig crashing his plane at an admiral’s garden party with the plan hitting the small pool. What all of this does is ultimately paint Spig as a brash young pilot. The contrast with what happens to Spig later is the ultimate point of these early scenes, but I feel like they take up too much time and rob the later moments the time they need to dig as deeply as they should. There’s a central idea at play here, a man doing whatever he can to help no matter his limitations, and the contrast to him being brash and not exactly helpful is good. However, the time dedicated to his antics, up to and including his rivalry with Army airmen to circumnavigate the globe in record time, would be better spent elsewhere unless Ford had extended the running time of the whole film to about two and a half hours, allowing all of that extra time into the rest of the film.
The other side of the story in these early parts is Spig’s marriage to Min (Maureen O’Hara). They have an infant son that is lost to an illness very young followed by two daughters who survive. Spig has little time for his family, though, as he’s flying around the world and spending most of his free time with his buddies like Jughead (Dan Dailey). When Spig is promoted to squadron commander, though, he has an accident in his home, falling down the stairs and breaking his neck. Despondent, he casts Min away to raise the girls on her own while Jughead stays by his side, offering him the support he needs to will his limbs back into some level of functioning. Think Kill Bill‘s Bride willing her comatose legs back to walking, but over the course of years.
He starts writing and eventually captures the attention of a big time Hollywood filmmaker John Dodge (Ward Bond, obviously basing his performance and look on Ford himself) who brings him on to write about Navy men. Spig wrote the play and screenplay for Hawke’s Ceiling Zero, Ford’s own They Were Expandable, and a couple of dozen more in real life, and he’s enjoying life with the ability to walk with a pair of canes so much that he finally calls Min back and invites her to live with him yet again. However, the outbreak of World War II suspends that, Min knowing automatically that Spig will do whatever he can to get into active service, even with the fact that he’s effectively paralyzed still. His contributions to the naval war effort, effectively coming up with a plan to keep aircraft carriers supplied with new planes in the middle of battle using smaller, slower jeep carriers that stay outside the heat of combat, gets him the respect to help in combat itself. He’s allowed onto aircraft carriers to help organized action in the middle of combat, a duty he performs tirelessly and admirably. When a heart attack puts his health into question, he’s relieved of command and goes home.
Wayne is the real centerpiece of the film, being in every scene, and his performance here is very different from the angry Ethan Edwards of The Searchers. The Spig that Wayne creates (the only role where Wayne did not wear a toupee to cover up his relative baldness) is a proud and wounded man, dedicated to his country and fully aware of some of his weaknesses. It’s also an impressive physical performance as the strong man convincingly, for long stretches of the film, relies on his canes for balance to simply stand, much less walk. It may not be one of Wayne’s greatest performances (Red River and The Searchers have very solid claims to that), but it does show that the man could act.
The heart of this film is in the contrast between Spig’s dedication to his work, his recovery, and his country against the dedication to his family that he spends years apart from. His hot-headedness in his youth doesn’t really play into that, and I’d much rather that his young days be more tightly focused on his relationship with Min, if the young years are to appear at all. I’d rather the film start about the time of his accident, giving Min time to try and connect with her distant husband when he’s ironically strapped to a bed and unable to run away again as a start. His rejection of her because of the fact that he would be a burden to her. Then we could get more detail into how Spig helps the navy beyond a quick scene where he gets his idea and even a fully battle scene later.
That said, the film is an entertaining biopic of a flawed man. The film doesn’t dwell on the flaws without ignoring them, painting a rosier portrait of the man that he might have deserved. His dedication to his country and his overcoming of his injuries were surely admirable, but the treatment of his family is a strong counterpoint. Knowing little of Ford’s personal life, I do wonder if Ford saw himself in Spig, a man so dedicated to his work that family life suffered. Ford was married to the same woman his entire adult life, but he worked at a rate that most filmmakers never come close to for decades while having serious bouts of alcoholism that culminated in his firing off of Mister Roberts. Did he see a kindred spirit in the man he knew who died in the late 1940s? It’s possible, and that could be the source of his desire to tell Spig’s story in the handsome and somewhat thin manner in which he does.