I just watched Ford's The Wings of Eagles, which I know is one of his lesser-regarded films on here (some of you hate it I believe?) but I'm at the point with Ford, especially after so many rewatches in the last few months, that every viewing of a new work of his charges me with intense intellectual activity. I frankly loved this film, and I just spewed a lot of thoughts about it on Letterboxd, and wanted to post them here to, to see if anyone had any responses ideas. Spoilers for Gentleman Jim as well (although that film is, like this one, historical and not particularly spoilable).
This is one of Ford's craziest films––and crazy is perhaps the most perfect word for it. It cycles through the war genre, the domestic drama, comedy, tragedy, backstage story, all within the biopic: it resembles, at times, the Shakespearean comedy and problem play, and the existentialist drama of the midcentury. Its tonal changes are as abrupt as any in Shakespeare, and as clearly demarcated. It features a John Ford stand-in, and makes frequent use of archival footage (both narrative and non-narrative). During one battle scene, I believe entirely reliant on archival footage, any narrative purpose is discarded and it becomes, more than anything else, watching the abstract shape of artillery fire cut across black, blue, sky and ocean backdrops.
It's perhaps Ford's messiest mature film, oftentimes slapdash; this is evidently due to Ford's trying to squeeze in several decades of a man's life into a two hour picture, as the following year's THE LAST HURRAH takes the exact opposite approach, settling on the last few days of a man whose life was evidently not free of interest. That film takes a half hour for its denouement, and it's profoundly touching. Here, the ultimate retirement is shoved into the last few minutes, and it doesn't quite come off. But the rest of the film is so rich in material that it doesn't matter. Just yesterday I remarked that GENTLEMAN JIM ('42) by Raoul Walsh is the quintessential film of this sort of midcentury brawling brothers filmmaking that Ford, Hawks, and Walsh all engage in––men fighting each other. It's clear here as well as in Ford's McLaglen fight off in both SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON and THE QUIET MAN, as well as in the final fight in RED RIVER, and in just about every fight Walsh ever filmed (especially when Alan Hale was presiding) that the fighting was a thin veneer under which a deep brotherly love existed. The men fight to earn each other's respect (John Huston and Errol Flynn's real life battle ended the same way, as well as Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway's) and they garner each other's love. This prime example is, when the Army and the Navy begin brawling, two soldiers and sailors sitting outside begin fighting: one of each get knocked out, and the other two make peace over beers, since the score is "even." In GENTLEMAN JIM, Jim Corbett defeating John L. Sullivan gains his respect and admiration, and the two's concluding address is as tender as the close of a romance.
If that film, GENTLEMAN JIM, is the quintessential film about this fighting amongst men, this film is the final word to that. It depicts this brawling for the first half hour, during which we see all the conventions of this tradition: the sort of consequence-free violence that enables the men to fight without any worrying about suffering long lasting pain. Here, however, this loving violence that characterizes the first quarter of the film comes to a sudden halt when John Wayne tumbles down the stairs in a moment that is characterized not unlike the rest of the slapstick. Yet instead of his getting right back up, he breaks his neck and suffers total bodily paralysis. It is a shocking twist that resets the emotional tenor of the film (which has already suffered from child mortality). We then see John Wayne, one of the most physically noticeable actors of all-time, confined to his bed, unable to move at all. The struggle takes on more than just bodily consequences, as his shame over his impotency casts a shadow over his relationship with his family, not allowing them to see him. He becomes, in this way, not unlike one of Ford's fellow Irish artist Beckett's physically lame characters. Like Lorraine Hansberry, Ford seems to reject Beckett's potential pessimism while internalizing the reality of it: it's clear throughout that Wayne will never walk easily again, and right up until the end his physical impediments impede him, but there's an optimism to it all that urges him forward in his path of recovery. The most telling moment is, after rejecting help from a variety of people, Wayne initially rejects even his estranged but tender wife's assistance, before recognizing his knee-jerk (no pun intended) reaction, and allowing her to help. In Beckett, it's unlikely any help would've come in the first place.