Wings Movie Review
Director: William A. Wellman
Starring: Clara Bow, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Richard Arlen, Jobyna Ralston, El Brendel, Richard Tucker, Gary Cooper, Gunboat Smith, Henry B. Walthall, Roscoe Karns, Julia Swayne Gordon, Arlette Marchala
Oscar Wins: Best Engineering Effects, Best Picture
Other Nominations: No other nomininations.
A little adventure, a little romance, and a whole lot of reading.
The spirit of youth propels Wings, the first movie to ever win the prestigious Academy Award for Best Picture. Released just two years after The Jazz Singer wowed audiences as the first talking picture, Wings was one of the last silent films to see such immense popularity. Through daring stunts and whimsical romances, Wings took viewers back a mere ten years to what was, at the time, the most pivotal and traumatic event of the new century: World War I.
The film begins in an anonymous small town, where Jack Powell (Charles Rogers), a baby-faced, polo-wearing young lad is customizing his hunk-of-junk Ford with the help of Mary (Clara Bow), the dough-eyed girl next door. Mary is head over heels for Jack, but he doesn’t notice (which is shocking because this poor girl is literally THROWING HERSELF at this guy). For Jack has his eyes on someone else…
Enter “the girl from the city”, Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Clad in wealth and beauty, Sylvia is entertaining the hearts of two men. Jack is in competition with the wealthier David Armstrong (Richard Arlen), who Sylvia prefers for his money and looks. However, Jack misreads her signals and believes she only has eyes for him. Typical lovesick puppy dog.
Enticed by patriotism, Jack and David decide to join the armed forces and become pilots. Their rivalry over Sylvia has them hating each other at first, but the two eventually become close friends, watching over each other in air and on the ground.
Ironically, this relationship between Jack and David is the real emotional core of Wings. They share something that isn’t romantic but still goes beyond the realm of traditional friendship. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film, Jack mistakenly shoots down David’s plane, resulting in a horrible crash. After realizing his mistake, Jack holds David in his arms, stroking his hair, and the two share what would become one of the first male same-sex kisses on screen. It was a beautiful moment, one that surely would have spoken to all those watching who had lost loved ones in the war, and especially those who had lost comrades in battle.
That being said, the real wow factor of this film was in its effects. Director William Wellman, himself a wartime aviator, had the full cooperation of the US War department at his disposal. The US Army provided 220 planes and hundreds of skilled extras to fly them. Remember, this was a time when special effects were far more primitive, so what you see most likely transpired as you see it. Crashes actually happened. People were actually injured (one stuntman did die in an accident), and the crew had to wait days to shoot until they had the right cloud formations.
Since a good portion of this film actually takes place in the air, the planes had to be designed to fit an actor and a camera. Cameras were mounted to the front of planes to capture Richard Arlen, who learned to fly in the Canadian Royal Flying Corps, and Charles Rogers, who learned to fly DURING PRODUCTION. These shots are gripping and terrifying because they are real. These brave men did all their own stunts, thousands of feet above the ground. Take that, Bruce Willis.
In terms of budget ($2 million in 1927 – which would equate to about $30 million today) and scope of the project, Wings could easily be compared to the likes of James Cameron’s Titanic. It was wildly successful, playing for more than a year in first-run theaters.
Wings ends on a bittersweet note, as most war films do. Though parts of it are almost comical when you consider the accompanying organ music and pantomime of the silent picture era, there are still elements of real sadness. Friends are lost. Families are torn apart. In one particular scene, one Cadet White (played by a very young Gary Cooper) gets out of bed and is killed in a matter of minutes – the imprint of his body still on his sheets, the teeth marks still on the candy bar he was eating. It’s real and it’s raw and, as one French solder proclaimed, “c’est la guerre”.