The winner of the first Academy Award for Best Production (the award that, the next year, became Best Picture), William Wellman’s Wings is a grand, epic, World War I adventure that operates on simple terms and flies high in that limited space, using a giant canvas to tell a tale of friendship in the face of war. This is the sort of thing that Hollywood was expert at doing for decades. It may not do everything it tries all that well, but most of what it does it does extraordinarily well.
Jack (Charles Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen) are two residents of a small town in the middle of WWI before America’s entry into the overseas conflict. Jack is middle-class and neighbor to Mary (Clara Bow), a girl he’s known since childhood to the point where he’s ignorant of her charms, viewing her more as a sister than a woman. David is the only son of the wealthiest family in town, and is courting a girl from the city, Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), that Jack is also smitten with. Jack, with dreams of flying, lets Mary decorate his roadster with a shooting star while Mary pines after him quietly. America enters the war and both Jack and David sign up. Through bad timing and embarrassment, Sylvia gives Jack a picture of herself that she intends for David while Mary also gives Jack a picture of herself, and the two men are off to war.
Well, first they’re off to flight school, and this is where the conflict between Jack and David becomes a lasting friendship. It’s such a guy thing (the sort of thing that Peckinpah focused on), but during a boxing sparring match Jack goes after David with full force, bloodying the rich kid up, but the rich kid just keeps getting up, his effort igniting a spark of friendship in Jack that is bound to last the rest of their lives. The entire training part of the film is light, entertaining fare designed to help us get to like our main characters, with a slight addition of a game German immigrant, Herman (El Brendel), who has a Stars and Stripes Forever tattoo and gives as good as he gets, functioning purely as a comic relief.
The film moves to Europe and the war, and the film never really does embrace the horrors of war. It’s very much an adventure tale where peril lurks in the skies, but death is always someone else’s problem. The two go up into the sky for their first dawn patrol, and they encounter Captain von Kellerman (Frank Clarke), the German ace with a chivalric sense of battle who lets David go when his gun jams. The aerial stuff in the film is obviously the highlight, and there’s just so much of it. There’s real excitement to be had when we watch real people in real planes doing really dangerous stuff, and the movie never skimps on it. Using intertitles to help explain the action (which, if there are real holes in the footage, is a help), it’s all thrilling stuff, the sort of grand adventure action that the movie excels at repeatedly.
Jack and David make a name for themselves, especially when they fight off a bomber and its escort, and we get an interlude in Paris. This happens right after the intermission, and it’s probably the weakest part of the film. It’s lightly amusing, mostly built around Jack being so drunk that he sees bubbles everywhere. It’s also where Clara Bow gets her time to shine. Bow was the It Girl, obviously, and very pretty, but she barely has anything to do in the film, and her pining after a drunk Jack really isn’t much. She has to fight off a French woman from his drunk attentions, get him to bed, and try to ward off the MP that are looking for every airman to come back to the front for the big push (the Battle of Saint-Mihiel). It’s slight stuff, and it goes on for too long.
Then we get back to the action, and the finale is an extended battle sequence that goes from the air to the ground and back again. There are so many close calls, images of battle, and even some mistaken identities that drive the action, and it’s all told in a clear manner so the audience is never lost, even as it zooms over miles of battlefield. It’s exciting, thrilling stuff, and it really makes the film. The simple emotions of friendship in the place of war is more of a comic book version of the sort of thing that Howard Hawks would do a few years later in The Dawn Patrol more seriously and deeply, but in the grand adventure that is Wings, this is more than good enough.
There’s a bit of real emotion to be mined in the end, with one boy going to visit the parents of the other, the fog of war clouding how responsible one is for actions in war, and it’s a very nice scene, but we must end on the romance, of course. Mary and Jack have their recovered moment under a shooting star, and it’s nice. However, I honestly think that, despite how much I like Clara Bow, Wings would have been better without her character in it at all.
The Academy could have done worse for a first Best Picture award, but I still think this wasn’t really about the story or overall quality of the film but about the size and scale of the production with a good assist from how much money the film made at the box office (it was the number one film of 1927). Still, Wings is the sort of epic entertainment that Hollywood has had the money to pull off for a very long time. That the core of it is so well done is a testament to the physical daring do of the crew, led by director William Wellman, while the writing, though simple, is effective at conveying the friendship in times of war storyline. I do wish they had found a better way to integrate Clara Bow into the story, though.
2 thoughts on “Wings”
One of the first ‘real’ movies I ever saw, though I still don’t like most silent movies, this is solid Hollywood storytelling anchored by real Hollywood personalities. (It’s funny how much Gary Cooper is hyped in the marketing today, considering how small his role is)
The flying is amazing, especially in an age of riskless CGI and wirework stunts. I also prefer Howard Hawk’s take on this story (and the less said about Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, the better)
Yeah, solid movie movie.
Just out of curiosity, I tried to find original posters of the film, and Cooper’s name (but never his face) are listed on most of them. Bow’s face is on all but a couple of them.
It’s just interesting that Cooper, again, has only a two-minute role, but even then, in the 1920s, they were putting his name on the poster. I guess that sex appeal was real and spectacular.
I wouldn’t have minded if the Academy had just honored big, fun adventures for 90 years.