The title is an audience’s first experience of a play or film. The title conjures images and sets up expectations for what will follow. Søren Kolstrup writes, the title is “a means for guiding our reception and our interpretation”.[i]
But phrase “wings of eagles” does not exist in the film.
So when about to view John Ford’s 1957 film The Wings of Eagles the prophet Isaiah’s famous words might come to mind:
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run , and not be weary ; and they shall walk , and not faint . Isaiah 40:31
The prophet offers the comfort of future blessings, as God continually watches and cares for a nation until His promises are realized. He urges faithfulness to God in spite of the many trials along the way.
Shortly into The Wings of Eagles, we see other kinds of eagles’ wings, those of the emblem of the US Naval Air Force. Eagles have been this favored symbol of military authority, from the Romans through Napoleon to the present day. Theologian N.T. Wright’s commentary on the New Testament notes the competing eagles in Jesus’ day one symbolizing loyalty and dependence on civil authority, the other dependence and faith in the Kingdom of God.
An eagle lives alone, outside a flock, in a tree top nest, the symbol of devotion and strength.
The Wing of Eagles followed The Searchers (1956), Ford’s classic tale of Ethan Edwards, an obsessed loner devoted to a mission of rescue. Like Edwards, The Wings of Eagles’ hero, “Spig” Wead, sacrifices a domestic life for a life of duty to a great cause. For Edwards, the cause was the rescue of his niece. For Ford’s new hero, a navy pilot with no apparent concern for God, his strength and devotion are to his country and, in particular, the U.S. Navy Air Force.
Unlike The Searchers, The Wings of Eagles seems particularly devoid of religious references or allusions. In other films, the soundtrack often carried God’s abiding presence in the hymns counterpointing the action. But no such soundtrack accompanies The Wings of Eagles.
In fact, the only hint of God comes just about mid-way into the film. Wead’s wife leads their two daughters in the nightly prayer:
How I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
And that’s it for references to God in the film. Faith in God is relegated to weak women and little children. In fact, that faith is all that Wead’s family has to hold. The hero’s obsession with the naval eagle of aviation leads to his wife’s alcoholism, the death of their infant son, and the collapse of his marriage. Time and again Ford’s hero chooses time with the navy over time with his wife and daughters. Even when forced out of the navy because of paralysis, he turns, not to his family or God, but to a Hollywood career – writing about the navy air force. When the bombing of Pearl Harbor causes the nation to turn to God, and simultaneously ruins the planned reunion of the Wead family, Ford’s hero hears the call of military duty once again. He seeks and receives immediate reinstatement in the navy. Wife and children remain alone, outside his life on naval eagles’ wings.
But when diagnosed with a terminal illness, Wead’s war service ends as he is forced again into retirement. The final shot of the film is of Ford’s hero literally hanging in thin air, suspended in a boson’s-chair swinging between ships, his future uncertain at best.
One might expect a dramatized tension between the two pairs of eagles wings – those of God and those of man competing for the loyalty of Ford’s hero. But no.
But aside from the children’s prayers, acknowledgement of God is totally absent in this film, just as God is absent from “Spig” Wead’s dramatized life. The obsessions of Wings‘ Wead and Searchers‘ Edwards are so total that they leave no space for any other allegiance, whether familial or spiritual.
Nevertheless, both Wead and Edwards are sustained through the traumas of their lives. Providence sustains Wead’s marriage, even though he forces his wife away. And his daughters, despite his absence, continue to love and honor their father. Providence even restores mobility after his accident and offers him a new career as a playwright and screenwriter. When the Second World War arrives Providence allows him a second chance at military service.
Throughout The Wings of Eagles the audience can sense the God of his children’s prayers sustaining the hero’s life, even if he doesn’t. God’s presence radiates through His absence.
John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles confirms the observation of Thomas Merton in No Man is An Island:
God, Who is everywhere, never leaves us. Yet He seems sometimes to be present, sometimes to be absent. If we do not know Him well, we do not realize that He may be more present to us when He is absent than when He is present.
[i] Søren Kolstrup, “The Film Title and its Historical Ancestors or How did we get where we are?” in P.O.V Number 2, November 1996.