Wing and a Prayer
Reviewed in January 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Henry Hathaway. Cast: Don Ameche, William Eythe, Dana Andrews, Kevin O'Shea, Charles Bickford, Harry Morgan, Richard Jaeckel, Murray Alper, Richard Crane, Renny McEvoy, Robert Bailey, Dave Willock, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Reed Hadley. Screenplay: Jerome Cady.

Photo © 1944 20th Century Fox
A World War II drama in the Wake Island mode, with a similar knack for converting an engaging but modest first half, full of broadly familiar character archetypes, into a second half that yields almost as much satisfying thought and emotion as it does aerial derring-do and maritime excitement. Don Ameche is top-billed as the impenetrable Flight Commander who is mostly stuck with the perennial cinematic duty of barking orders at his pilots, especially the friskier ones, while seeming altogether immune to human feeling—though one of the strengths of the screenplay is that Ameche eventually gets a scene wherein he memorably accounts for his rigid, pragmatic demeanor and warns his men of the fate that would befall all of them with a weaker-willed or more sentimentally swayable man in his position. Dana Andrews makes the usual good impression as the Lieutenant Commander who doesn't get an immediate bead on his superior officer's uningratiating style, and William Eythe has perhaps a larger part than he's ready to handle as a matinée idol who carries his Oscar with him in his cockpit, and takes any number of reckless chances just to keep himself interested. Kevin O'Shea gives the best-in-show performance, mercifully but still poignantly underplaying an aviator who has been judged too psychologically fragile to fly and then just barely passes back to the call-list, with uncertain consequences for himself and his comrades.

There's plenty more strong, ensemble-based acting to be found around the aircraft carrier, and a credible sense emerges of the impossible balance between gratifying the pilots' appetite for dangerous heroics while also protecting them from a fearsomely trained set of foes. This negotiation is even more difficult given the factually derived premise of the film, wherein the carrier on which this fleet is stationed has been assigned to a series of quick, zig-zaggy, non-combative moves around the Pacific atolls so as to suggest to Japanese intelligence that there are many more American ships drifting around these warm waters than are actually present—which means that the men's purpose is to court Japanese attention but hold back from any military engagement whatsoever. Given that scenario, it's unsurprising that the men start chafing at their duties or that we vicariously feel the rush of energy as they are finally cleared for combat maneuvers at the end of the movie. Still, the overall sense of the terrible tradeoffs and blunt human costs of warfare is never diminished, even amid the unlikeliest feats of survival and the noblest acts of self-sacrifice. I never know what level of energy, momentum, or depth to expect from director Henry Hathaway, whose films fall pretty much all around the spectrum of quality, but Wing and a Prayer dependably makes virtues out of its unstarry cast and its narrow array of story beats. The film feels tougher and more focused as it continues, and it editorializes much less obviously than most movies of its genre and period do about who on screen is to be admired and who is to be regarded with unresolved ambivalence. I only saw Wing and a Prayer because when I bought the early Best Picture champion Wings at a secondhand store, the VHS for the Hathaway film was wrongly included in the sleeve. Three cheers, then, to fortuitous surprises of all kinds, and if Wing and a Prayer is hardly the technical groundbreaker that Wings was, or even the scary, unfiltered eye-opener that The Battle of Midway was, it's a lean, compelling take on a deceptively straightforward premise. B+

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Original Story: Jerome Cady

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