Wings, the winner at the 1927-'28 ceremony of the Outstanding Picture, Production award, an award never given out under that first name again; you may know it better as Best Picture. Like many Best Picture winners in the subsequent 83 years, Wings has had a fair amount of shit shoveled its way - mostly by people who haven't seen it - because of what didn't win in its place, in this case F.W. Murnau's legendary Sunrise. But even as specious as the "X didn't win!" argument can often be, it's particularly dense here: Murnau's film did win a top Oscar, for Most Unique and Artistic Production. It's just that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in its infinite wisdom, elected to reduce the top categories to just one the following year and every year after, and fairly arbitrarily, but definitively, cited Wings as the retroactive first winner of Best Picture, and Sunrise as the only winner of a quickly-eliminated category. To many people, because Sunrise is one of the all-time masterpieces of American cinema, this is unfair.
And sure, it's unfair; almost as unfair as tossing Wings onto the bonfire of history in response. Because it's a pretty damn good movie - not a very unique, nor an especially artistic production, for sure, but it is one heck of an outstanding picture. It was among the highest-grossing movies of the silent era, for the usual reason something becomes a major blockbuster: jaw-dropping spectacle and very straightforward characters and themes, but mostly spectacle. I cannot think of a better way to sum up just how much spectacle we're talking about than to drag up the figure of my sainted mother, whose response after I showed her the film on its new and hugely impressive Blu-Ray was neither more nor less than: "I didn't know they could do that in 1927! How much did that cost!" A shitload, is the answer. And oh, yes, they could do the hell out of that in 1927, and if you've never seen one of the great mid-'20s silent epics, you owe it to yourself desperately to fix that, soon as possible. This is as good a candidate as any for an entry-level silent film, for even though it is on the long side, at some two hours and twenty minutes, and it feels as long as it is, it isn't chiefly worthwhile for reasons of artistry, but because it is a terrific amount of fun. And not "fun by 1927 standards", I say, not "fun if you put on your Let's Pretend I'm My Great-Grandmother hat" - it is fun to watch right now, every bit as exciting and impressively grand as your average summer blockbuster, that's for damn sure. In fact, it insults the film considerably to say it's only up the average of summer movies, given the dire state of that particular art right now. But I am losing sight of my subject.
Wings is a movie about World War I back when there wasn't a World War II yet, and with that event less than a decade in the past (the film opens ten years exactly before its premiere date), so it was still a national psychic trauma and not the thing that people dimly remember as prefiguring Nazis and involving trenches. It is, naturally enough, about small-town boys heading off to war to fight for America and Mom and Apple Pie and The Cute Girl I Left Behind; as the title almost certainly makes clear, it is specifically about a pair of pilots dogfighting above the French countryside during that one single great war when one-on-one plane battles were prominent and important and romantic. Our heroes are Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) - Jack is a regular fella, David is the son of a wealthy family, and they're both in love with Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), a city girl in town for no apparent reason than to incite young men to lust. She's got her eyes set on David and David alone, though a mistake that she's too kind-hearted to correct leaves Jack thinking he has a chance, and leaves him completely oblivious to the attentions of Mary Preston (Clara Bow, who had earlier that same year turned into one of the all-time great Hot Young Things in the iconic It), the archetypal Girl Next Door. The boys both head to training and the war, hating each other at first and then bonding during a boxing match, and proceed to putter through the fields and skies of Europe, without too very much plot getting in the way, although you would absolutely never notice that until afterward.
First things first: Wings isn't an anti-war film in even the most subdued sense of that phrase, uniquely among the great movies about World War I (which at a glance also includes The Big Parade, All Quiet on the Western Front, Wooden Crosses, and Grand Illusion). It takes the simplistic, even reductive view that the Great War was a fine time for men to test their mettle, to make the ultimate sacrifice and grieve over one another. It is a stunningly male-ish film; so comfortable in its going-ho militarism and amped-up tribute to masculinity that it doesn't even hesitate to present an early example, if not the earliest in cinema, of man-on-man kissing; it's not, like gay (a concept the film does not seem to be aware exists), because that kind of deeply emotional real-ness is just part and parcel of the glory of war. Even at the end, in a handful of impeccable shots that pinpoint the tragedy of losing a loved one to the battlefield, the tone is not in any way, "this is the terrible cost of conflict", as it is, "sometimes good men must lay down their lives for victory."
And yet, it is unmistakably excellent: for starters, very few movies, no matter how technically accomplished or robust in their patriotism, have ever made warfare so thrilling to behold. It's worth pointing out that the only other Oscar Wings won, as well as the only other one it was nominated for, was Best Engineering Effects, another award given out only the once; in practice, it translates to "holy shit, those air battles were amazing!" because they are: a miraculous combination of rear-projection, real planes, and hand-inked fires that create as energetic a ballet of aerial combat as you could ever hope to see with all the powers that eight decades have added to the filmmakers' toolbox - from Howard Hughes's Hell's Angles to Martin Scorsese's making-of-Hell's-Angles scenes in The Aviator, the best anyone has been able to do is to match, and never better, the awe-inspiring dogfighting scenes in Wings.
The ground scenes are just as enthralling, thanks largely to the gusto with which director William A. Wellman throws himself and his cast right into the lustiness of it all. Wellman, to my eyes, is one of the all-time great underrated directors, with masterpieces in at least four distinct genres (this war film, the gangster picture The Public Enemy, the melodrama A Star Is Born, and the Western The Ox-Bow Incident) and at least a couple of other candidates for masterpiece status; his mode is one of unstinting urgency, flying through incidents not because he's already bored with them, but because he literally can't wait to get to the next one and see if it's just as exciting as this last one; he is a director who works almost exclusively in exclamation points. A little bit of that can go a long way if you're not 100% on board, which is maybe why Wellman doesn't seem to get name-dropped much outside of cinephile circles. That's not fair, but we can't right all the wrongs of the world; the point being, Wellman directs Wings with exceptional verve, including a grab bag of arresting visual ideas - Sylvia and David are introduced swinging a garden, with the camera mounted on the swing along with them, so that the whole world seems to bend and fly around; a respite in Paris is introduced with a dumbfounding tracking shot that blasts right through no fewer than four apparently immovable tables - and an equal amount of good old-fashioned solid craftsmanship, the kind that kno9ws exactly how the place cameras to capture the set of a person's face and body to tell us what they're thinking. It's not, of course, artistry on the level of Sunrise, or of fellow Outstanding Picture nominee 7th Heaven; it is, however, irreproachable moviemaking of the best populist sort. Wings isn't looking to be respected, but enjoyed, and that's what ends up making it so respectable.
What it isn't, is subtle or delicate: this isn't much of a character piece. Bow's evocation of ebullient small-town girlishness is pretty fine, anchored by the actress's oddly charming physical flailing and giant anime eyes; but Rogers and Arlen, particularly the latter, don't do much to establish their characters as anything other than types, placeholders whose feelings matter chiefly because they motivate the next scene. To modern viewers, the best performance is the shocking-in-context low key work done by 26-year-old Gary Cooper, playing a sardonic cadet who shows up just long enough to foreshadow his own death half a scene later; the camera adores him to pieces and it's easy to see why he became a star later on, because he's active and commanding even in just a few minutes in a way that Arlen doesn't seem to even try for.
But characterisations are beside the point: most of the film's best moments reduce characters to shapes occupying the front part of moving airplanes, or even less. It is an action film, an adventure, a thriller, a paean to Our Fighting Boys - almost everything it can be other than a character drama, despite a generally well-played series of concluding scenes back in that small town that seem to mostly exist because the screenwriters had to do something to get us back out of the war.
It's all pretty much great, which is not to say it's perfect: the second half begins with a lightly-comic sequence set in Paris that drags on first in spite of, then because of Wellman's gimmicky ideas about using special effects to dramatise Jack's drunkenness (the whole sequence, a deadening 15 minutes right after the intermission that was maybe placed there to accommodate late returners, has no real purpose other than to increase Bow's otherwise negligible impact on the feature and justify her peculiar first-billing). And there's only so much "Gee, war is swell! Too bad about those guys who didn't make it out!" that a modern viewer can take, and at more than two hours, Wings is eager to find what that limit is. But these are not tremendously serious reservations about a film that is too much of a joy to grouse over, and too extraordinary a piece of early popcorn blockbusting to begrudge its singular historical relevance. It's just too damn entertaining to complain about all the things it isn't and better proof than just about anything else that silent cinema is hardly as stuffy and static as popular belief would hold.
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