Wings (1927, William A. Wellman)
The major feeling one receives from seeing the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture today, in its opulent recently restored form, is a sense of what an Event it must have been in 1927. Indeed, it’s an Event now, a film that remains an energetic, technically ingenious marvel. Channeling a time when the cinema of spectacle still had so much left to uncover and explore, Wings positively overflows with excitement. The greatest of populist entertainments American cinema would offer don’t begin here; it’s already too late for that — but you could do worse than this as a summation of the bravura and the awesome.
Plot isn’t really the major concern of Wings, nor the reason it’s aged quite well; in fact, overlength and excessive celluloid real estate expended on such matters are the film’s prime faults. You’ve seen it before, and they’d seen it before then — two American airmen in WWI love the same woman, who is not the sweet-natured and doting Mary (Clara Bow), in love with the pluckier and goofier of the pair (Jack, played by Charles Rogers). The two men begin as rivals but, of course, soon settle their differences and become fast friends. Subsequently Mary becomes an army ambulance driver, which in a convoluted fashion gives us reason to be reminded (along with a same-sex kiss later on, and some extreme violence and other sexual undertones) via a clear shot of her breasts that this film predated the Production Code by several years. The climax occurs at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel where Jack and David (Richard Arlen) are separated first by a falling out then by tragedy. Jack gets a hero’s homecoming but it feels hollow with the loss of his friend, though of course he does finally realize that he loves Mary and not the seductive Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston) both men pined for. But so what.
The point of Wings, the reason it’s such a fascinating and gripping film, is the audacious balls-out realism of the dogfighting scenes; you scarcely believe that you’re not watching genuine footage of planes in battle, and there are no shortcuts here. The actors are actually flying the planes, the close-ups aren’t faked, and the special effects are staggering; director Wellman, himself a war pilot, goes so far out on a limb for the sake of moviemaking here it makes Francis Coppola’s onset of insanity during Apocalypse Now seem quaint. Tragically, one pilot operating as a technical escort of sorts lost his life (the Army attributed it to pilot error, not the inherent danger of the production), and a stuntman broke his neck, but reading today about the alarming level of danger the film toyed with (did we mention that the actors who were actually flying the planes were also operating the cameras?), it’s kind of impressive that there were no further serious incidents.
The better part of a century later, these markedly unsafe risks do pay off in the sense that we as a modern audience are provided with a film that has a tremendous fluidity of action (and emotion, especially in the melodramatic climax between the two leads) unseen in this era of heavy CGI and hokey opticals. The action sequences are blended seamlessly with the story yet have the feel of documentary; they go on far longer than they should within any narrative logic and yet you don’t care at all, and all you can do is marvel and wonder at how they managed to make it all look so genuine.
A welcome trend that one discovers on seeing the first few Best Picture winners chronologically is their rather heavy slant toward a kind of matter-of-fact liberalism and even pure feminism that would largely disappear in the ’40s and ’50s, at least when not associated with “message” films. Wings isn’t about the intelligence and independence of Clara Bow’s character, it just accepts as central to its story that she’s a woman who participates of her own accord in the war effort and is interested in matters (such as auto racing) that would frequently be defined as “masculine” — but rather than portray her as a sexless tomboy, the film embraces her androgyny and allows her to be nonchalantly engaging and attractive enough that she kind of takes over the narrative, rendering the midsection rather lopsided. Her subplot clearly has less reason to be in the film than any of its other elements, but it’s still easily as pleasing to see a non-“girly girl” woman character taken so seriously in a 1927 movie, as much as The Broadway Melody‘s scornful treatment of male entitlement is a major redeeming quality of that film, and as much as the antiwar content of All Quiet on the Western Front make it massively more progressive than any similar movie made today would be.
Of course, it’s difficult to ignore the silly love story that overtakes much of Wings and fills it with mildly ridiculous acting on the part of Rogers and Arlen both (and Bow, to a lesser extent); both are fine and capable actors, based on their treatment of the harrowing goodbye scene as David lays dying before his closest friend. Rogers is the more problematic of the two performers; although no actor could probably redeem the horrendous drunken scene in which he rants and raves about “bubbles” like the yellow tang fish from Finding Nemo, he’s given some potentially sobering material at the weepy finale that he doesn’t do a thing with. Both actors seem more at home in the air, given only the harrowing battlefield to play against. The film’s attempts at contextualization, at its large-scale “epic” framing with love story and strained attempts at comedy, don’t do it or its players any favors.
Still, it’s impressive that a war film from 1927 requires so few apologies when seen by a modern audience not reared on silent film; it only cops to its bubbling-under sentimentality at certain key points when it feels almost earned. Wings is one of innumerable films of its kind, but its action is so first-rate and it retains so much charm that it doesn’t seem to have aged as much as many of its contemporaries or descendants. All this time later, it still has the ability to stun and impress, and it’s not much of a stretch when you watch it to picture yourself sitting in a dark theater in the late ’20s enjoying the exact same reactions.