|Clara Bow||Mary Preston|
|Charles 'Buddy' Rogers||Jack Powell (as Charles Rogers)|
|Richard Arlen||David Armstrong|
|Gary Cooper||Cadet White|
Genre: War/dramaRun Time: 144 min
Director: William A. Wellman
Jack works on his sports car and dreams of flying. His neighbor Mary is in love with him but he seems not to notice, having been smitten by the fair Sylvia, but he can't see that Sylvia has eyes only for David. The distant drums of war beckon, and Jack and David train to be pilots in the American Expeditionary Corp. Their rivalry soon evolves into camaraderie as they do aerial battle with the Germans in the skies over France. Meanwhile Mary has joined the Women's Motor Corp and despairs that Jack doesn't notice her.
By James Kendrick
Given the depth and breadth of special effects technologies now available in the digital era, one would think that a film about World War I aerial dogfighting from 1927—when synchronized sound was still a novelty—would seem quaint, at best a charming, low-tech relic from an earlier, simpler cinematic era. Wings is anything but. The film's exhilarating action sequences derive their power precisely from the lack of special effects technology available at the time. Without CGI and green screens, director William A. "Wild Bill" Wellman had no choice but to mount cameras on actual planes and send them skyward. Granted, there is some optical printing at work in some shots and a few staged close-ups of planes colliding, but the majority of the aerial battles were filmed for real, with actual Spad VII's, Fokker D.VII's, and MB-3's cutting through the clouds with the real actors at the helm, the mounted camera lens pointed directly at them for both maximum impact and to ensure that the audience had no doubt what they were watching.
Not surprisingly, Wings was a late '20s blockbuster, one of the last of the great silent films before the onslaught of synchronized sound (it was the first and last silent film to win the Best Picture Oscar*). Audiences at the time were enthralled with the mystery and wonder of airplanes, especially since Charles Lindburgh had just made his historic trans-Atlantic flight. Although there had been dozens and dozens of films about World War I since the teens, few of them featured aerial combat, and those that did relied heavily on miniatures and military stock footage. Thus, Wings was a groundbreaking film, bringing audiences directly into a relatively unexplored aspect of warfare via a new cinematic approach. The importance of drawing the viewer into the experience of air battle was heightened by both the use of sound effects from behind the screen, including the roar of airplane engines, the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns, and the thunder of mid-air collisions, but also the use of Magnascope, a system that allowed the projectionist to substantially enlarge the image during action sequences (its closest modern corollary are films like The Dark Knight and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol that use the full IMAX screen for the biggest action).
Running a lengthy 144 minutes in its full roadshow version, Wings has plenty of room to draw out the drama in between its action sequences. Unfortunately, the literal enormity of the aerial battle sequences makes the drama, which has not aged terribly well, feel even punier. The screenplay by Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton from a story by John Monk Saunders centers on two competing pilots from the same hometown: Jack Powell (Charles Rogers), a middle-class boy who already feeds his need for speed with a souped-up hotrod, and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), the son of the town's wealthiest family. The tension between the two men is not so much economic as it is romantic. Jack is enamored with Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), a big-city girl whose heart already belongs to David even though Jack is too smitten to realize it.
He is also willfully blind to his neighbor, a sweetheart named Mary who is played by Clara Bow, the literal "It Girl" of the late '20s who gets top billing even though she appears in less than a quarter of the film.
Casting Bow in this role was clearly intended to draw in audiences, especially since Powell and Arlen were unknown supporting players at the time, and her attention-grabbed presence belies Jack's blindness to her beauty, charm, and desire, making him seem like a idiot, even by romance movie standards (his behavior becomes so infuriating in its thickness that you genuinely don't want him to get the girl in the end and you hope that Mary sets her sights on someone more deserving).
If the romantic elements don't always work, the growing camaraderie and friendship between Jack and David has a moving authenticity (it leads to a dramatic death scene in the final reel that many have willfully misread as indicating repressed homosexual desire). The spaciousness of the narrative also allows room for some amusingly distracting humor courtesy of Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel), a German-American recruit who is constantly having to prove his unassailable patriotism by showing off an American flag tattoo inside his bicep that he makes wave by jiggling his arm back and forth. Wellman also tries to milk humor from a lengthy sequence at Paris's Folies Bergère, where Jack gets so drunk that he is literally seeing champagne bubbles coming out of everything (including his own fingertips) while Mary, who has joined the war effort as an ambulance driver, tries desperately to woo him away from another woman (an obvious plot device to get Clara Bow into some slinky and shimmery).
Although the film is conventional in its story and characters, Wellman clearly felt at ease to experiment and explore with various camera set-ups and moves, including an impressive long tracking shot over the tables at the Folies Bergère and a camera mounted on a swing occupied by David and Sylvia. He also felt confident enough to include some risqué material, including a brief flash of Clara Bow topless while she is changing clothes, as well as gorier-than-expected moments of violence (when a pilot is shot from behind while in the air, we watch as his body begins to sag just before a sizable amount of blood erupts from his mouth). The film's budget has been reported at $2 million, which is more than twice what was typical of expensive productions at the time and does not even include the millions of dollars of free equipment, locations, and manpower provided by the U.S. military. None of it is wasted, though, as every dollar is clearly on display, especially once we go airborne. Some of the film's most beautiful shots give us clear views of the planes taking off from hundreds of feet above, the movement of the camera strikingly synchronized with the ever-increasing pace of the planes lifting off the ground. Wellman, who had flown with the French Foreign Legion's Lafayette Flying Corps during the war, purposefully cast Arlen for his flight experience (he flew with the Royal Canadian Flying Corps) while Powell learned to fly expressly for the production, which allows us to see them in the cockpits in close-up while the world spins and drops behind them.
It is ultimately this unadorned sense of realism that sets Wings apart from so many special-effects-laden action movies today that exchange pixels for stuntmen and computer logarithms for physical reality. Granted, CGI has made possible images that are otherwise impossible (for example, the entirety of Avatar), and when used in that fashion, it makes sense. But so much traditional action, which used to be the domain of stuntmen driving real cars and flying real planes and jumping off real mountains, has been supplanted by weightless special effects that constantly draw attention to their fakery because it entices filmmakers to give us too much too often. Some films, like last summer's Fast Five (2011), do a spectacular job of combining computer effects with real stunts in a way that is frequently seamless, proving the old adage that the best effect is the one you don't see. Movies of that sort, unfortunately, are more the exception than the rule, which is what makes revisiting a silent-era film like Wings such an exciting experience. We can never recreate what those audiences felt in 1927, but we can have our own experience now in which the outdated feels suddenly new—the old-school rush of realism turned into the new cutting edge.
*It should be noted that, while Wings is typically identified as the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, this tells only part of the story. The first year of the Oscars the Best Picture award was divided into two categories: Best Production and Unique and Artistic Production. Wings won for Best Production while F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, which is arguably the greater of the two films, won for Unique and Artistic Production. According to Richard Koszarski in his book An Evening's Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915–1928, official histories at some point decided to elevate the Best Production Award to the status of Best Picture while the Unique and Artistic Production Award was essentially downgraded to a technical or special award. Thus, it is historically accurate to say that Wings shared the Best Picture award of 1927–28 with Sunrise.