Review by André Crous
More than 90 years after it was first released, Wings continues to impress in large part thanks to the majesty of its aerial combat scenes. The film was directed by William Wellman, who turned 31 towards the end of production and had served as a fighter pilot in the French Foreign Legion during World War I a decade earlier. This experience in the air clearly came in very useful during the shoot, as the most exciting moments all take place high above the earth.
In staging and shooting his “dogfights”, Wellman anticipated what Steven Spielberg would do more than 40 years later in Duel: To impress upon the viewer how fast an object is moving, it needs a background against which its velocity can be made visible. In the case of planes, that means a clear blue sky won’t do, and Wellman allegedly waited days – sometimes weeks – for clouds to form. The results speak for themselves as the camera perfectly captures both the speed and the motion, from a soaring take-off to a tumble through the clouds.
We start somewhere in middle America, where the carefree Jack (played by the clean-cut Buddy Rogers), still very much a boy rather than a man, is the connecting tissue between two separate love triangles. His neighbour, Mary (Clara Bow), whom he considers a friend, likes him as more than just a friend. But he only has eyes for Sylvia, who, in turn, is in a secret relationship with the rich, soft-spoken and socially awkward David (Richard Arlen). When Jack and David heed the call to enlist in the army in 1917, they receive training as combat pilots and, before long, are sent off to the battlefields of Europe.
A title card informs us of the “mighty maelstrom of destruction” that the war turned into over its four years of combat, and the film depicts this apocalyptic vision with vivid scenes of violence. Mortality hits home for the two small-town boys at their training camp when an aviator they just met and will be sharing a tent with crashes overhead.
Wings is at its best during the action scenes, while the romance is as shallow as one would expect from a 1920s production. However, the virtuosity of Wellman and cameraman Harry Perry is not limited to the skies. The battle scenes are equally impressive as we can see and feel the enormity of events.
When the French town of Merval is bombed, one of the explosives hits a church, whose bell tower flies straight off and comes crashing down on an automobile. The trench warfare includes explosions all over that make it seem like the earth is opening up and swallowing the armed forces whole. At another point, as reserves are marching across the countryside, another explosion sends the men and their limbs flying over the fields. Elsewhere, a tank drives across soldiers as bombs go off and others are stabbed with rifles. It is all a ghastly sight but brings the horror of war home, even to a viewer a century later.
The film was recently restored to 145 mint-condition minutes that also include orange colouring to add emphasis for fire, including gunfire. One can easily see how it came to be that the Oscars handed out its first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture (then called the award “for Outstanding Picture”) to Wings, but given the scale of the achievement and, especially, its contemporaries, one might start wondering whether, perhaps, the Oscars were established because Wings simply had to receive its due recognition.
The serious drama on the battlefield is counterweighted, however, by the simplistic melodrama of the duelling romances. One particularly egregious scene takes place at a nightclub in Paris, which starts with a famous track-in across (and seemingly through) a series of tables and bar patrons and ends on Jack, who is already hammered. Mary, who is no wallflower and has already survived at least one major bombing raid in France while serving as a wartime ambulance driver, finds him there but almost immediately collapses into an emotional mess. All of this is quite in keeping with the roles assigned to male and female characters at the time but feels at odds with what appears to be an authentic portrayal of real life on the battlefield.
Although struggling with some overly theatrical acting, Wings more than makes up for its melodramatic lapses with stunningly rendered battles scenes both on land and in the air. From spectacular long shots that fill our field of vision with scenes of mayhem in motion to singular moments of grandeur, like the immolation of an airship depicted 10 years before the infamous Hindenburg disaster, this is a film that could reach its ambition because the art of filmmaking had come so far. This production would not have been possible again for a very long time, as the microphone would have greatly hindered the camera’s movements, and even today, it is worth reminding ourselves what was already possible without special effects in 1927.
Director(s) William Wellman
Screenwriters Hope Loring, Louis D. Lighton
Directors of Photography Harry Perry
Stars Clara Bow, Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, Richard Arlen
Running Time 145 minutes
André Crous is a professional film critic and a member of FIPRESCI. He holds a French honour’s degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. His research examined the works of Francois Truffaut, Mikhail Kalatazov, Martin Scorcese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Winterbottom. He writes about movies in his blog, Celluloid Paradiso and lives in Prague, Czech Republic. | Read More ⟩