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.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1927)