A rather large burden comes with laying claim to being the first film to ever win a Best Picture Oscar. Such is the case for the 1927 silent film Wings, directed by William Wellman, a prestigious filmmaker who would go on to make a name for himself in the era of talking films as well. If one is to completely detach themselves from the historical relevance of a film like Wings, it is easy to dismiss the work as simple melodrama with a love story that would become standard issue within Hollywood for decades to follow, however, it is too simple to deny the films it place in history, as a magnificent work of cinematic experimentation and storytelling. It would be unlikely that I ever place this film on a short list of my favorite silent films, yet, I cannot deny that if I were to compose a rather lengthy list of historically pertinent films that this would make the cut. Wings is exactly the kind of film you hear older scholars and aging moviegoers refer to when they describe the golden age of filmmaking. The star-studded film, is a spectacle to view between the ethereal acting of Clara Bow and the pristine condition of the high-definition transfer, tragically though, the film simply has not aged well. I, as a viewer, found myself constantly dismissive of the narrative, one that seemed far to steeped in the political ideologies and societal norms that are all but antiquated. That is not to say the movie is not well made and worth watching, I simply argue that it does not stand the test of time as many other works of the era managed to do, like The Jazz Singer, Wings is a film that is necessary viewing, but not necessary to keep around for future viewings. With all this being mentioned, I cannot express how many moments of sheer cinematic magic occur within this film, it possesses a series of amazing battle scenes that would be lost to CGI in the technology-laden world of filmmaking these days. Wings is a great movie, nobody can deny that fact.
Wings, as many war films do, focuses on two small town rivals. The first begin the good ol'boy Jack Powell (Buddy Rodgers) who is so in love with the neighborhood beauty that he fails to realize the girl next door is completely infatuated with him. Second, there is the dashing well-to-do David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) who gains the affects of the towns ideal woman, much to the demise of Jack. It seems, without knowing the plot of the film that Wings will play out as a romantic comedy, however, in a near jarring fashion, warfare overtakes the narrative as both Jack and David become recruits to the U.S. Air Force. Realizing that this war allows her a chance to win over the heart of Jack, Mary Preston (Clara Bow), his neighbor, joins the motor division of the war effort, something females were allowed to engage in during The Great War. During their training, Jack and David emerge as bitter rivals, often tricking one another into messing up during various activities, yet as the training continues and each proves their efforts, the two end up becoming friends and realize their combative natures could be far more well applied to the war effort. The two pour their days into fighting German aircrafts, while witnessing a variety of loss, most notably that of Cadet White, who is played briefly and masterfully by a young Gary Cooper. During one particularly grueling assignment the two risk their lives to fight German planes, David is shot down and assumed to be a casualty of war, while Jack returns safely and is awarded a heroes welcome for his endeavors. His actions allow him to take a leave in Paris, one that is suggested to be full of drinking and fornication. Despite being promised extended leave, Jack is called back to service, an action that is undertaken by Mary, who due to bad timing is caught naked in Jack's room, resulting in her dismissal from service. Jack begrudgingly continues with his service and continues fighting Germans, all the while David, who is still alive, manages to steal a German aircraft and attempt to return home. Unfortunately, Jack mistakes David for a German and shoots him down during a firefight, a mistake he only realizes while on the ground. Jack subsequently returns home to apologize to David's parents, who are clear to blame the war, and not Jack, for the death of their son. As is the case with such films, Jack has a prophetic realization of his love for Mary and the two are shown united in the films closing.
A variety of commentaries are available when discussing a film like Wings. The first that I wish to mention is something that I have brought up whilst discussing a previous silent war film, Flesh and the Devil. In this post, I provide a lengthy analysis of how the two male characters posses a homosocial bond between one another that borders on a sexual nature. While it is certainly not as cataclysmic for the women involved within the narrative of Wings, a homosocial bond exists within Wings, particularly between Jack and David. While the two are at odds in the films beginning, their forced cohabitation together leads them to become close on an emotional level, which leads to an undeniable amount of intimacy. It is especially hard to deny the implicit sexual component of such a bond, particularly in David's death scene, an instance in which Jack literally fondles David and plays with the locks of his hair. This is clearly the overarching criticism available within a film like Wings, yet it is also notable for its depiction of women in the war effort. This activity was something that was somewhat nonexistent within war films, prior to World War II when allied forces depicted women in a variety of films engaging in war related activities, whether at home or on the war front, perhaps the most well known of these being So Proudly We Hail!. The smart choice of the narrative to depict Mary in the war effort is historically accurate, while they may not have been fully involved with work within the motor pool they were certainly present as nurses and the fact that the film even acknowledges her presence is something of note. It is an issue that the film dismisses her from service because of assumed sexual promiscuity, yet it is certainly indicative of then contemporary ideologies. Problematic as it may be it is certainly worth praising for breaking a movie mold.
Key Scene: The entire Paris club scene is cinematic inventiveness at its finest.
While this is a great film, it is certainly not something that needs to sit on your shelf and collect dust. Renting the bluray will be more than justifiable, as it needs to be seen, if purely as a piece of history. Also, it happens to have a bit of Pre-code nudity on the part of Clara Bow, something that surprised my upon viewing.