Wings (Cert PG)
3 Discs Blu-ray/DVD Combo (Distributor: Eureka) Running Time: 144 minutes approx.
1917 and the US air force is seeking new recruits to be trained and join the war effort in World War I. Two willing enlisters are Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) both of whom happen to be courting the same girl, the affluent Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), although Sylvia is in love with David but is too kind hearted to let Jack down.
Meanwhile Jack is oblivious to the affections of his perky next door neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow), who decides to enlist in the forces as a nurse. Jack and David are stationed together, eventually forming a bond of friendship despite Jack believing Sylvia is in love with him, but the horrors of war will soon prove to be the biggest test for of all of these complicated relationships.
Wings has assured its place in film history by being the first movie to win the prestigious Best Picture Oscar at the very first awards ceremony in 1929. Unfortunately for some people it is little more than the answer to a trivia question which is grossly unfair since William A. Wellman’s near two and half hour war epic offers a great deal to film fans and film makers alike. From the impressive camerawork in the aerial scenes to the straightforward but well plotted story – albeit somewhat a heavy with the patriotic sentiment – its kudos is actually well deserved.
As much as this is a war movie it is also a tale of relationships, be it a buddy movie as well as the complications of being in love. David and Jack don’t get on in the beginning because of their shared affection for Sylvia. Prior to leaving for training Sylvia is about to give David a locket with her photo in it but Jack arrives first and thinks it is for him. Since Sylvia is too nice to say otherwise, David goes without but at least has the knowledge that Sylvia loves him.
During combat training the two rivals duke it out, earning each others respect. With some incredulous speed they both become top tier pilots and having been transferred to France, are soon watching each other’s backs in aerial combat, quickly becoming heroes. The crisis comes when David is shot down during the battle of Battle of Saint-Mihiel and presumed dead, in response to which a vengeful and distraught Jack heads a retaliatory strike.
A slightly heavy handed but well executed way to bring home the message concerning the casualties of war and the bonds that are formed through such conflicts, the inevitable tragedy occurs which reeks of cheesy melodrama by today’s standards but serves the story well and is far from a detrimental factor. Equally ham fisted is the shameless US flag waving and feelgood propaganda (typically ignoring the contributions of the other nations fighting the war who were there from the beginning) that is still restrained compared to some modern manipulation of this nature.
What is beyond criticism is the superb photography both in the aerial battle scenes and those on terra firma. Even today the dogfights look spectacular considering it was all shot – close ups aside, which are superbly staged – hand cranked in the air and not via CGI or models. Wellman was chosen to director as a former pilot himself which Arlen and other cast members also flew during the war (Rogers did not and had to undergo intense training), expertise which clearly benefited the production.
The scenes shot on the land, notably of the tanks stampeding across the frontline are equally impressive; shot from the ground up they create a sense of a claustrophobic terror as the might machine pass over head, claiming some unlucky victims in the proves in some quite graphic scenes for the time.
The film’s publicity was also largely built around Paramount’s biggest star at the time, the inimitable “It Girl” herself Clara Bow, whose last minute addition forced a rewrite although Bow was unhappy with her mere window dressing role. Starting off as the perky girl next door, the “familiar” Clara Bow later appears, sexing up to win Jack man back from a French floozy, is a scene of pure fan service, but Bow brings her immeasurable glamour and comic verve to the film (almost nearly breaking the no nudity taboo of the time too), whilst having the chance to prove she has some dramatic acting chops, yet her presence is minimal compared to her male co-stars, despite receiving top billing.
While Bow’s marquee name helped draw attention her male co-stars lift their game to ensure this was no solo for the It Girl. Rogers may be noted for being the third husband of silent legend Mary Pickford, but here he carries himself and the film as a star; quite why he never reached his potential is a mystery. Richard Arlen is a bit stiff as the snooty David at first but he turns things around in the final act with a stirring and haunting turn. Another credit this film carries with it is for the (albeit brief) debut of Gary Cooper as fated pilot who shares digs with Jack and David.
Receiving its first ever UK release we are treated to a digitally remastered print that looks fantastic with only a few of the aerial scenes occasionally showing their age. This set also has two musical scores to choose from – one with added sound effects, the other a more simple arrangement. Throw in the usual excellent and informative booklet and this is another treat from those fine folk at Eureka, who are spoiling us rotten with these fine silent movie releases from their acclaimed Masters of Cinema series.
If Wings has fallen short of being hailed as a classic film through lack of exposure then now is the time to rectify that. Despite its simplicity, it has all of the qualities in storytelling and technical ingenuity to stand shoulder to shoulder with the more revered films of the period. Silent film fans rejoice!
New 1080p presentation in original 1:33:1 aspect ratio (Blu-ray)
Progressive Encode (DVD)
Two Musical Scores: 1) J.S Zamecnik w/ sound effects by Ben Burtt / 2) Gaylord Carter
Wings: Grandeur In The Sky
Restoring The Power and Beauty Of Wings
Rating – *****
Man In Black