04 March 2012

FLYBOYS

Winning Oscars can do terrible things to a film: on the one hand, it's probably the safest guarantee that a movie from the '30s or '40s will continue to get modern eyeballs on it, but it also invariably raises expectations that, the Oscars being the Oscars, don't tend to be sufficiently paid off. And so it is with 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.

5 comments:

Jordyn said...

Please tell me this is the first in a Best Picture Winners retrospective! Even though you've done a few already, I'm curious to see your take on the well-loved Godfather films, the underrated A Man For All Seasons, the overrated Lawrence of Arabia, the "controversial" Midnight Cowboy, the banal as fuck Cavalcade, the polarizing The English Patient, the laughable The Broadway Melody, the adorable Marty...you get the picture.

I watched them all back in 2004-05. It's daunting but worth it!

Andrew Testerman said...

I am also in support of a Best Picture retrospective. It'll be fairly grueling, no doubt, but as Jordyn pointed out, there's a whole mess of well-known (and not) movies that would be fun to revisit with your customary eye towards context (e.g., How Green Was My Valley) and craftsmanship (e.g. The Greatest Show on Earth). Plus, we can finally read your full take on Casablanca!

javi75 said...

I watched this recently on blu-ray too. I agree with most everything you say.

The movie does feel long in some stretches. Especially the first two action sequences once the boys are in the front, they get boring because they have no bearing on the overall plot at all. And in the middle of those two scenes (I believe, or they go just before it) you have the Paris section with Clara Bow, which is the worst part of the movie. I agree it was probably stretched out and played that way to justify her star billing and appease her fans. Her acting there is kind of dated too. But I absolutely loved the bubbles.

I thought the acting was pretty subdued and effective most of the time. It seems to me the best actress in the movie was the girl with Powell in the Paris bubbles scene. I thought she was really good and modern. I wonder why the two leads didn't have much of a career afterwards, after all they were young and had starred in a big hit (I was just introduced to Arlen watching the "Island of lost souls" blu-ray, and I guess he was just an unremarkable guy). I guess the early-talkie era was a really rough and bumpy period for actors.

And then you have the action-driven last third (or longer?) of the movie, when ground action is also featured. I think that's where most of the stuff that's still truly spectacular and awe-inspiring is. After that they neatly, briefly and effectively tie up the character stuff (although the grey hair seemed over the top to me). So overall the movie definitely ends up with a high note and you forget that it was so long.

I liked how Wellman handled the "ordinary" dialogue scenes too, sometimes using some effective, kind of subjective tracking shots when characters move. It never felt like just regular coverage.

I was "shocked" that I didn't mind much about the movie not being "anti-war" the way we're used to. That's how well it works, I think. That makes it more fun and easier to watch (other anti-war classics are too sad and depressing). Although the movie isn't pro-war either. I liked that Cooper's death was such a sombering note so early in the movie.

The movie might not even be aware of male gayness, as you say, but it seems to be aware of lesbians. Check out that bravura shot you point out when the camera flies over several tables at the cafe, and in one of them you have two women who seem to be very much an item.

This movie winning the equivalent of Best Picture Oscar reminds me a little bit of things like "Titanic"(1997) winning it. Both movies are like the big blockbuster of the year, mostly due to its technical achievements and spectacle, with teenage romance thrown in. Although I'm aware that's kind of superficial and the movies have many differences too.

Tim said...

In fact, I actually had a good long thing with myself on that very subject. And while I appreciate the enthusiasm, I'm pretty certain that a full-on retrospective won't happen, if only because life's too short to sit through Cimarron or The Life of Emile Zola a second time, among others. Even though I kind of would like to have the excuse to re-write a King's Speech review that largely consists in arguing "Wow, isn't it funny that we all thought such a delicate trifle of a movie had a shot at winning Best Picture?"

But there will be more reviews of Best Pictures, I am quite comfortable making that promise. Some of them are already on the calendar. And likely other fun things here and there on the subject. I've also gone ahead and added a tag for Best Picture winners reviewed on this blog, of which there have been twelve.

Tim said...

Javi- great points, and I want to single out 2 things you said: one is that Wellman doesn't let the camera settle down during dialogue scenes; so true, and so exactly what I love about him. He's such a kinetic director.

2nd is your observation that the film ends on a high note; definitely much as that self-same Titanic would do 70 years later. I think the skill for ending big and then stopping immediately, before the audience has a chance to come off our high, is one that more action-adventure directors need to cultivate, because it absolutely leaves one with the sense that a film is better overall than is necessarily true.