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.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1927)