Wings (United States, 1927)October 24, 2009
Wings was one of the late silent era's epic spectacles - a combination adventure/romance that took the viewer back a mere ten years to what was, at the time, the most pivotal and traumatic event of the new century: World War I. At the time of its August 12, 1927 premiere, Wings was already a member of an endangered species. The Jazz Singer was in the can and would bow less than three months later, ushering in the era of the "talkie." While some of the artier silent films would be able to hang on into the next decade, mainstream movies made a fast shift to sound. By the time Wings received the first-ever Best Picture Academy Award in 1929, silent films were rapidly becoming passé.
Were it not for the prestige of the award, Wings might be, like more than 90% of its contemporaries, a forgotten movie. The film's hallmark aerial dogfights and ground battle scenes would have gone largely unviewed since the late'20s. Admittedly, this movie has not aged as well as many of its contemporaries, but it's not hard to understand why it was accorded the Oscar (a term that, by the way, had not yet been coined). Not only is it visually stunning, but the story - which at first seems obvious and by-the-numbers - closes on a note of bitter irony that underscores the madness of war. The script, at least in some aspects, is more intelligent than it is sometimes given credit for.
The movie begins in an anonymous small American town, where Jack Powell (Charles Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) are rivals for the affection of local beauty Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). David has the upper hand in this romantic engagement - Sylvia prefers him for both his looks and his money - but Jack misreads the signs and thinks he's her favorite. Of course, when it comes to love, Jack is blind; he's oblivious to the fact that Mary Preston (Clara Bow), the girl next door, is head-over-heels for him. She's not subtle in conveying her attraction, but Jack doesn't notice.
Enticed by patriotic fervor and the excitement of adventure, Jack and David join the armed forces to become pilots. Although initially antagonistic toward one another because of their shared passion for Sylvia, they gradually become friends. Soon, they're flying missions together and guarding each other's backs both in the air and on the ground. Meanwhile, Mary has entered the war effort as an ambulance driver; one memorable sequence has her "saving" an intoxicated Jack from the amorous advances of a woman in France. As the war reaches its climax, circumstances place Jack and David in the air support for the Battle of Saint-Mihiel.
At the time Wings was produced, the concept of air travel was considered glamorous, adventurous, and a little dangerous. After all, the first transatlantic flight didn't occur until 1919 and Lindbergh's historic trip from New York to Paris didn't occur until a few months before the theatrical release of Wings. Even today, with their air clogged with planes, the profession of fighter pilot retains its patina of romance - consider that one of the cornerstones to Tom Cruise's status as a movie star was Top Gun. The filmmakers of Wings - director William A. Wellman and screenwriters Hope Loring and Louis Lighton - recognized as early as 1927 that the world's fascination with this new form of travel would make an excellent backdrop for a motion picture.
With its depictions of dogfights and re-creations of epic land battles, Wings proved to be in the earliest class of Hollywood spectacle pictures. It's a big, bold piece of entertainment that explores the limits of what could be achieved in a motion picture. This was a time when special effects were far more primitive, so much of what appears on screen transpired in actuality. For certain scenes, the actors were required to sit in the cockpit while the plane was in flight. Many of the dogfights required expert stunt flying. And the climactic battle was as accurate a re-enactment as there has ever been on film.
One of the reasons the narrative may underwhelm is because aspects of the plot have been regurgitated over the years (most notably in Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor). Little about Wings was fresh and original when the movie was released in 1927, but the intervening 80-plus years have transformed aspects of the storyline into clichés. Nevertheless, the ending retains its power after all that time. Making an unsubtle point about the senseless loss that accompanies any war - even the most "just" of conflicts - Wings closes on a somber note. It's not merely that there's a death, but that the death occurs in the way it does: an audacious act of heroism transformed into a tragedy.
Despite being relegated to the role of the "love interest," Clara Bow gets top billing. It's not hard to understand why. In 1927, she was the original "It Girl," the sassy girl next door who was box office gold. Bow's career was like a shooting star - short and bright - and ended with the arrival of the talkies. (She, like many of her contemporaries, had a voice for silent films.) Wings was not her most prominent role, but it was one of a handful of movies that traded on her immense popularity. Her male co-stars, Charles Rogers and Richard Arlen, are adequate but not terribly memorable. From an historical perspective, the most notable male performance in Wings belongs to a then-unknown Gary Cooper, who makes a one scene appearance as a fighter pilot cadet. Cooper would, of course, go on to become one of Hollywood's legends. Here, he's just a secondary player with a few "lines" and a great smile.
The film's director, William Wellman, was a prominent figure in Hollywood from the 1920s until the 1950s, participating in more than 80 productions. His two best remembered titles are Wings and the 1937 version of A Star Is Born (for which he won his only Oscar, in the screenplay category). Wellman began his motion picture career as an actor, but quickly moved behind the camera. Studios liked him because he worked fast; actors did not because he was widely known as a bully. He brought an added layer of expertise to Wings because, during World War I, he served as both an ambulance driver and a fighter pilot. He was shot down and survived the crash. This helps to explain the verisimilitude achieved during the battle sequences, since Wellman was drawing in part from personal experience.
It's a testimony to the staying power of Wings and the workmanlike nature of its direction that it can hold a viewer's attention many years later. Some of the fascination is undoubtedly due to the film's age. No matter how realistic modern World War I movies may be, none of them can attain the same level of immediacy as one made less than 10 years after the final shots were fired. In that way, Wings functions as a time capsule - a production made before there was a World War II, an atomic bomb, and a Vietnam. Air warfare and battles in general were fought differently in 1917, and their representation in Wings offers a contemporary perspective rather than one filtered through history. Of course, it helps that the story works, that we come to care about the characters, and that there's nothing sugar-coated about the ending.
When the Academy awarded Wings its first-ever Best Picture Award (officially, "Best Picture, Production"), it was making a statement about the movie's scope and its ability to blend artistic elements with those of popular entertainment. It was wildly successful, playing for more than a year in first-run theaters. It was also one of the last big movies made in the pre-Hays Code days. This explains the film's nudity, which includes a brief shot of Clara Bow's breasts and some naked male buttocks - tame stuff by today's standards but almost scandalous in 1927. For many years, Wings was thought to be a lost film (a fate shared by a large number of silent pictures) until a copy was found in Paris. It was duplicated and preserved, ensuring its continued availability. Although it has not been released on a Region 1 DVD, a VHS version is commercially available. There are also overseas DVD editions, although these are merely copies of the videotape release and exhibit degradation. There are rumors that the film will be re-mastered and issued near-term on DVD in North America.
Wings' historical importance should not be overlooked. Although not among the "popular" silent film titles, this is in many ways more representative of the state of filmmaking in the late 1920s, both in terms of what it could and could not accomplish. Obvious technical considerations aside, it holds up surprisingly well after so many years and is not hard to recommend for anyone with an interest in film history and World War I.
Wings (United States, 1927)
Cast: Charles Rogers, Richard Arlen, Clara Bow, Jobyna Ralston, El Brendel, Gary Cooper
Screenplay: Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton
Cinematography: Harry Perry
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
- (There are no more better movies of Charles Rogers)
- (There are no more worst movies of Charles Rogers)
- (There are no more better movies of Richard Arlen)
- (There are no more worst movies of Richard Arlen)
- (There are no more better movies of Clara Bow)
- (There are no more worst movies of Clara Bow)