Wing and a Prayer
First screened and 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.

Twitter Capsule: Well-acted and tightly compacted human drama in this WW2 tale. Ends amid some exciting, ambivalent aerial feats.

VOR:   I don't frequent the genre enough to gauge this entry's relative merits. But I found its construction exciting and its stances reasonably tough. Waves a flag without being mindless.

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 archetypes, into a second half that yields almost as much rich thought and emotion as it does aerial derring-do and maritime excitement. Don Ameche is top-billed as the impenetrable Flight Commander barking orders at his pilots, especially the friskier ones, while seeming altogether immune to human feeling. That said, 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 more sentimental 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 numerous reckless chances just to keep himself interested. Kevin O'Shea gives the best-in-show performance, mercifully but poignantly underplaying an aviator who has been judged too psychologically fragile to fly and then barely requalifies for the call-list, with uncertain consequences for himself and his comrades.

There's plenty more strong ensemble acting to be found around the aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, 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—and, to an extent, from their own hubristic impulses. This negotiation is even more difficult given the factually derived premise of the film, wherein this fleet's carrier 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. In other words, the men's unenviable purpose is to court Japanese attention but to 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 finally get cleared for combat maneuvers. 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 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 whom we ought to admire and whom we should regard 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. If Wing and a Prayer is hardly the technical groundbreaker that Wings was, nor is it the scary, unfiltered eye-opener that The Battle of Midway was, it's a lean, compelling take on a deceptively straightforward premise. Grade: B+

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Original Story: Jerome Cady

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