Buddy Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen in Wings.
When the very first Oscar statuette for Best Picture was given out at the Academy Awards back in the spring of 1929, the WWI aerial epic Wings was the winner. This silent classic ranks among the best war movies ever made. The central story of two soldiers that become friends and are in love with the same woman has been copied many times from Hell's Angels to Pearl Harbor.
Middle-class Jack (Buddy Rogers) and rich boy David (Richard Arlen) are both in love with the lovely Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston). She only has eyes for David, but is too polite to tell Jack the truth. Meanwhile girl next door Mary (Clara Bow) openly worships Jack even though he thinks of her more as a little sister.
But this is 1917 and a world war is raging across the Atlantic. Soon Jack and David are in aviation classes together. These rivals get into a fight, which in turn causes a strong bond of friendship to form between them.
The morning of their first flights they meet Cadet White (Gary Cooper). He tells them he has a bad feeling and asks them to make sure his belongings get sent home to his family if anything happens to him. Almost immediately he gets into a plane and crashes down in flames.
These two buddies, however, make it to the front lines and are soon flying dawn patrols together, shooting down many enemy planes. They even do battle with the legendary Flying Circus and shoot down a Zeppelin.
Meanwhile Mary shows up, having joined The Women's Motor Corp. In Paris she saves a very inebriated Jack from a court-marshal by informing him that his leave has been cancelled and he must return immediately for the 'Big Push'. Unfortunately they get caught in a compromising, although completely innocent, situation and Mary is sent home in disgrace. Jack, who was so out of it at the time that he didn't even recognize her, has no idea what happened.
During the 'Big Push' David's plane goes down behind enemy lines and he is presumed dead. In a fit of anger Jack takes off to find his lost buddy and to seek revenge on any Germans he happens to meet. He wreaks havoc on a platoon of marching soldiers and kills a German officer riding in a jeep.
But wait. David is still alive, although badly wounded. His only hope is to steal a German plane and make a mad dash back across the lines.
SPOILER ALERT: As David approaches the safety of the American army, a returning Jack spots him, and naturally assumes him to be a renegade German pilot. The hated Enemy! David, however, sees the painted shooting star on the side of Jack's plane and desperately calls out to his friend. But it is to no avail. David's plane goes down and Jack lands in time to realize what he has done and the two soldiers share a tearful farewell.
The anti-climactic ending shows Jack being forgiven by David's parents and then finally realizing his true feelings for the patient Mary. But the true heart of Wings lies in the relationship between the two men. Once David is dead the point of the story is over.
The aerial photography was probably what impressed the Academy so much. Today it still holds up and is really quite breathtaking. The story and acting are fine but not exceptional. Director William Wellman makes good use of the still developing technique of using tracking shots. One, in particular, at the Paris nightclub stands out. The camera seems to float from table to table in between the different patrons.
By any measure Wings is a magnificent movie.
Richard Arlen and Charles Rogers in Wings
Wings is cliché ridden and occasionally gets lost in war time melodrama. Two men, Jack and David, fight over the same woman and then become best friends and fight a real enemy. They endure stressful war situations and then seek relaxation in a Paris nightclub through booze and broads.
Clara Bow adds her charm as Mary, the girl next door desperately in love with Jack. She is the high light of the films lighter moments. The movie opens with baby faced Charles Rogers fawning over his roadster while Mary stares on dreamily wishing he would fawn over her. There is also the scene in the Paris night club where Clara Bow turns into a flapper to get a drunken Jack’s attention but all he can see is bubbles. For the record, there was no such thing as a flapper in 1917. This is also when Bow does a millisecond breast flash.
There are endless aerial dogfights that are more fascinating production wise than actually entertaining. Richard Arlen already knew how to fly a plane while Rogers had to learn to film his scenes. He had to hold the controls while they filmed him in the air with clouds and other planes behind him. There was no faking the aerial shots.
There are some special effects to be found here though. Whenever a plane is shot down, the flames coming from the burning plane were colorized, as were the gun fire. When Jack is drunk, the bubbles he keeps seeing were animated.
I agree with Patrick that the heart of the film is the friendship between Jack and David. Theirs is the real love story of the film and no, I do not mean that with any sort of homosexual innuendo. Note the scene where David protects Jack from knowing the truth about Sylvia. He tears up her photo, letting Jack think he is doing it to be vindictive when in fact he is saving Jack the pain of knowing that Sylvia loves him and not Jack.
The fact that Jack unknowingly kills David in an attempt to revenge David’s supposed death is one truly agonizing sequence to watch. The scene they share where David lies wounded involves Jack emotionally kissing David. This reminded me of a recent news story of U.S. Army Captain William Swenson , the 79th living recipient of the Medal of Honor. In Afghanistan he was caught on camera giving a quick kiss to a severely wounded soldier as he laid him into a helicopter during a fire fight. “I wanted to make it clear to him that he done good, you’re going home.” He said. I pictured Jack thinking something similar as he kissed David.
Wings is a ground breaking film for many reasons but it is not without its flaws. The running time is needlessly long. Bow is in a thankless role that could have been trimmed. Although Rogers and Arlen have matinee idol good looks, neither is a very good actor. Even with all that working against it, Wings still accomplished more than enough to be revered as one of the last classic silent films ever made.
Clara Bow in Wings.
It is undoubtedly the aerial combat shots that make this movie such a true classic. Even today, almost 90 years after its release, they are still quite impressive. I can only imagine how they would have awed audiences in 1927, 99% of whom would never even have been near a plane in real life. They are made even more impressive because, as my brothers said, there was no faking the aerial shots in those days. Director William Wellman must have felt more like a general than a movie director at times. Here's how he described it in his autobiography, "We had been rehearsing with 3,500 army personnel, and 65-odd pilots for 10 days. Camera positions on one-hundred-foot parallels erected at the apex of a triangle, and at various distances down one side. Seventeen first cameramen and crews plus positions for twenty-eight Imoes electrically controlled. It was a gigantic undertaking, and the only element we couldn't control was the weather."
In many ways this movie created the blueprint for the Hollywood blockbuster that is still with us today. Blockbusters with a long running time filled with big budget action sequences that are interspersed with romance and melodrama like this one still fill cinemas every weekend. Sure the acting styles have changed and we now use CGI to create the special effects, but the format has changed remarkably little. Filming techniques and acting styles have grown more sophisticated and naturalistic, but the narratives remain the same.
One of the most impressive things about watching this movie today is just how well restored it has been. The high quality print available is crystal clear and pristine. There are movies from the 1930s that aren't nearly so clean. Thanks to a $700,000 restoration by Paramount Pictures, in honor of the studio's 100th anniversary, this movie looks better than ever. It has been released on Blu-Ray and its clarity stands up perfectly in eye-popping high definition, right down to being able to clearly see Clara Bow's nipples in that brief nude flash Eric mentioned.
I agree that the two leads weren't the greatest actors, but they were adequate. The film's climax between the two men still manages to evoke some genuine emotion despite the melodrama of it all. Clara Bow is terrific even if, as Eric pointed out, her character was a bit ahead of her time and undoubtedly meant to appeal to women of 1927 rather than accurately represent a small town girl in 1917. She brings a spark of life to the proceedings. Gary Cooper's scene is one that feels odd because of how famous he would become. Then he was just a handsome extra, but now it feels like a famous cameo appearance.
Like too many blockbusters where lavish amounts of money have been spent on special effects, this movie does run long to show them off, but it also runs long in other ways. One of the things that should have been trimmed were all the annoying title cards that describe the action. For example, when Jack flies up at the bottom of the German bomber, a title card appears that says that's what he's doing, as if audiences couldn't see for themselves.
Today Wings is mostly remembered as the answer to the trivia question, "Which movie won the first Oscar for Best Picture?", but it deserves more than that. It's a great movie in its own right and movies today are still imitating its winning formula.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1927)