1927’s Wings was the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. At that first ceremony though there were two categories which were seen as the top award of the night. Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans won Unique and Artistic Production while Wings won Outstanding Picture. The former category was dropped the following year and Outstanding Picture was renamed Best Picture with Wings retroactively considered the overall winner. This seems unfair on Sunrise which in my view is a far superior film which is why I have included it on my Oscar Challenge page.
But back to the matter in hand which is the film Wings. The movie blends elements from a number of genres including action and comedy but is centrally a romantic drama. I say this despite lead actress Clara Bow’s statement that the film was “A man’s picture” in which she played the cream on top of the pie. For me the film is deeper than purely “A man’s picture” and has a highly engaging story about feuding rivals and unrequited love set against the backdrop of the First World War. As America enters the war in 1917 it calls its men to arms and Jack Powell (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rodgers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) answer the call to join the fledgling Air Service. Both men are in love with Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston) and vie for her affections. She only has eyes for David. Meanwhile Jack’s beautiful neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow) is madly in love with Jack but he barely notices her and the feelings are in no way reciprocated. While in France the two men become friends and forget their feud but their love for the same woman remains as an undercurrent of their friendship.
Wings features a delightful story which is moving and full of tension, drama and romance. It’s beautifully written and only gets better as the film moves forward. I have to admit that it took me about half an hour to get to grips with the characters as the majority of the actors weren’t known to me so it was several scenes in before I worked out who was who and where they fit. Another problem was at about the same time I predicted the arc which proved to be 100% accurate. Despite this I enjoyed the two and a half hour journey to the long foreseen ending. In an attempt to create more screen time for Paramount’s main draw Clara Bow, the story incorporates her into the War by making her a part of the Women’s Motor Corps. This doesn’t feel shoe horned in though and her character arc in fact feels natural and fits well within the story of the two central male characters.
There is an outstanding dramatic centrepiece which almost overshadows the incredible action set pieces (which I’ll come to later). While on leave in Paris a drunken Jack, celebrating his latest heroics is waste deep in wine and women when he is spotted by an on duty Mary. Mary tries her best to rip Jack from the arms of his attractive Parisian conquest but he fails to recognise her through his champagne filled eyes. Distraught, Mary sobs in a dressing room where a friendly Frenchwoman suggests she changes out of her uniform and into a sparkly dancer’s dress. The costume change has the desired effect but not because of the wearer but because the inebriated Jack mistakes the sparkles for the bubbles of a champagne bottle. Mary takes Jack to his room to care for him but is caught by the Military Police and dismissed on the grounds of sexual indecency. The entire sequence is played to great melodramatic effect and I was telepathically willing the two characters to fall in love throughout it. The fact that Jack wakes up unaware of Mary’s actions is heart-warming and the whole scene is filled with the type of gooey romance which makes even my dark, stone heart beat a little faster.
Some of the greatest scenes are the aerobatic sequences. Director William Wellman takes his camera to the air on several occasions and each time he does, the effect is jaw dropping. He manages to capture the speed and exhilaration of flight while shooting from a vast array of angles and implementing some incredibly smooth camera moments. It’s easy to forget that at the time of production cinema itself was barely thirty five years old and powered aviation has been invented merely twenty years earlier. To combine these new technologies in such an efficient and beautiful way is testament to Wellman and his cinematographer Harry Perry as well as the camera operators. Credit also has to go to the actors and pilots who recreated scenes of dogfights and bombing raids in crudely made planes. The flying scenes are exciting and tense and you worry for the characters every time they go up in the air. Some of the film’s best scenes are those shot from the perspective of a German Gotha Bomber. The giant plane flies across the French countryside before bombing a small Hamlet below. The effects and overall look of the scene are magical. I honestly couldn’t tell what was shot for real, what were models and what was visual trickery. I think that’s remarkable for an eighty-five year old film.
In addition to the aerial footage, there are several epic battle scenes on the ground. These are large scale and match anything I saw in All Quiet on the Western Front. Tanks, men, shells, barbed wire and trenches all share the screen with planes flying overhead. The result is astounding and although men fall over grabbing their chests in the same way children do when playing war at school, the overall effect is terrific. As good as the ground battles are though, they are nothing compared to the aerial shots. Richard Arlen was actually a member of the Canadian Air Force during the war but saw no action. In contrast his co-star Charles Rodgers had to learn to fly for the movie. In close ups of the two actors they each had to take off, fly and land in addition to operating the motorised camera themselves whilst remembering to act. It’s extraordinary that with all of the mayhem and carnage associated with the picture that there were only two injuries on set. One of these though resulted in the death of an Army Pilot who was on hand to assist production.
Something which struck me about Wings was how close it was made to the war which it is depicting. Although the film may feel ancient to us in twenty-first century with our hover boards and Martian Colonies, Wings was produced closer to The First World War than Zero Dark Thirty was to 9/11. I expect this added to the interest of the film at the time and for us today helps to bring to life a conflict from which actual footage was limited. The film was also undoubtedly bolstered by Charles Lindbergh’s recent transatlantic crossing which peaked people’s interest in aviation. This in addition to the star appeal of Clara Bow meant that the movie played for 63 weeks on its initial release.
Clara Bow’s appeal as a sex symbol of the roaring twenties is obvious to see throughout Wings. Even when in her unflattering uniform she is wildly attractive and has the talent to match her looks. Although she was unhappy about appearing in the movie I think she performed very well. She has emotional depth and a caring side to her as well as an occasional mischievous side. I liked the way she was filmed in early scenes with the edges of the screen out of focus. This was a popular way of drawing attention to a screen beauty and has the desired effect here. I often thought it was strange that Jack didn’t notice her. I didn’t buy this. If Clara Bow complained that she was only in the film as decoration then I don’t know what Jobyna Ralston must have thought. She has nothing to do but be the silent and still focus of the male character’s attentions. Richard Arlen has classic movie star looks and a solemn brow. He always seems serious but gives a good performance. He and Ralston incidentally met and were married on set. Charles Rodgers gives a great performance as the baby faced Jack. He comes out ahead of Arlen but is perhaps given the best scenes. Their bromance is something which I gradually picked up on and close to the end this comes near to becoming a fully fledged romance. Wings is in fact the first film to feature a man kissing another man. I wasn’t a fan of El Brendel’s German born, patriotic American character. His role as go to comic relief felt tired and didn’t make me laugh at all. I was glad to see him phased out. Gary Cooper has a small role which helped to launch him towards stardom. He’s only on screen for a couple of minutes but his screen presence is magnetic.
Overall I think that Wings is a fantastic film which unlike some of the later Best Picture winners has stood the test of time. The story is timeless and the setting is unique. The technology and effects are unmatched by anything I’ve seen from the period and the visual aerobatics are a joy to watch. Occasionally the film is too obvious and predictable but this is forgiveable and while I still think that Sunrise is a better film, all around Wings is one of the most accomplished films I’ve seen from the silent era.
- Wings was the last Silent Film to win a Best Picture Oscar before 2011's The Artist.
- Chocolate syrup was used for blood.
- Director William A. Wellman was himself a pilot in the First World War and was shot down, leaving him with a limp that he carried for the rest of his life.
- Paramount inserted a topless scene of Clara Bow in order to widen appeal. The shot lasts less than a second.