At a whopping 85 years of age and with not a single stand of visible gray hair, Wings, directed by William Wellman, is a marvel of the film industry. Of course you know its history as the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture. That was in 1927. We all do. So far, [and only because The Artist (fingers crossed) could effectively provide its bookend this year], it is the only silent film to receive that distinction. Until you actually sit down and watch, from beginning to end, the actual film will you know why this film trumped all others and continues to “wow” audiences. Wings, released this week from Paramount on blu-ray, is a genuine dewy-eyed masterpiece of aerial vibrato and war-time emotions that has more than a thing or two to teach today’s filmmakers about action sequences and authentic emotion.
Produced (and edited) by Lucien Hubbard, Wings is the tale of two fighter pilots and woman or women who loved them. Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) find themselves as rivals as they struggle for the pre-war affections of a small town siren named Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Powell, knee-deep in car parts and daydreams, fails to see that neighbor Mary Preston (Clara Bow) is, in fact, completely in love with him. When the two men enter World War I, their rivalry enlists with them, but it doesn’t last long. After the death of Cadet White (Gary Cooper in the role that would carry him into the sound era), the two men start their training and become fast friends.
Soon enough, they are in France fighting off German troops in aerial dogfights and exciting escapades over the bluest of skies. Mary has also joined the war effort as an ambulance driver and, upon rescuing a drunk Powell who doesn’t recognize her and effectively tucking him into his bed, she is removed from the war and sent home. Why? Two MP’s catch her slipping out of a borrowed dress into her uniform while in Jack’s room and their imaginations get the best of them.
The war rages on and, during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, David is shot down. Believing him to be dead, Jack goes on a rage and guns down as many Germans as he possibly can. He has no idea that David has survived the crash landing and stolen a German plane in the hopes to get safely back to his territory. Poor Jack…
…what transpires is an epic battle of friendly fire, forgiveness, and fate. As an emblem of the youthful American spirit that rushed to war only to come home shell-shocked and forlorn, writers John Monk Saunders, Hope Loring, and Louis D. Lighton (with title cards by Julian Johnson) provide enough authentic situations to make 99% of the picture 100% believable.
Raw, spirited, and adventurous, Wings does not play around with its audience. War is hell and Wings shows it; embraces it, and twists the patriotic knife into the steeliest of American hearts. If Clara Bow is what the men fought for back on the home soil, then Jack killing David is the end – and only – result. Sometimes man can’t see himself in the faces of his enemies when, if this was a perfect world, he should. Instead we make mistakes; we make wars; we kill and we will kill again. For homes, for country, for women and, yes, even for love. Yes, with Wings, Hollywood gets big (the film cost a cool $2 million to make) and a bit suitably complicated. Much has been made of its innocence, but even that Americana has its own particular brand of complication. Watch the final kiss and you’ll notice it.
Because we had become pretty deft with visuals by the late 20s, the camera, operated by Harry Perry and Wellman, moves and zooms and captures some pretty raw footage of some fantastic aerial dogfights and airplane battles. Wellman, a fighter pilot and the first American to join N.87 escadrille in the Lafayette Flying Corps, knew exactly what it was like to fly the planes in war and captures some combat thrills that will shock and surprise modern day filmgoers. His thumb is certainly on the pulse of battle. Even on the ground, Wellman gets things right. Choreography is quick and perfectly timed and provides zero idle time. Due to the onscreen theatrics, it will be no surprise to learn that Wellman’s nickname during the war was Wild Bill.
The aerial battles are epic and not because of the time period they were recorded in. This isn’t a “wow, look at that!” or a “How did they get that shot” kind of response. No, Wings goes for the throat in dynamic sequences that shock the hell out of you due to their sheer excitement alone. You even forget, during some sequences, that the camera is there. It’s that real. With no green screen, no net below, and everything captured AS IT IS HAPPENING, Wings is a full-on assault of purpose with no midair pause.
Wings has it all and the Academy recognized this by giving it no less than two awards for the 1927/1928 season: Best Film and Best Visual Effects. Paramount, for a long time in the years that followed, believed Wings to be a lost film. No prints survived the initial run or so they thought. Then, by sheer happenstance, a complete nitrate print was found in the Cinémathèque Française film archive in Paris. We are lucky to have found this print, now on film stock, and Paramount, orchestrating the original soundtrack and having the sound effects fine tuned at Skywalker Ranch, knows this, too.
Its release is supposed to coinciding with the centennial anniversary of Paramount, but what matters is that Wings, now on blu-ray, is an example of a remastering job - with just the tiniest of tweaks and adjustments made to the original - that absolutely complements the film with aplomb and good taste. Even if you have seen Wings, you’ve never seen it like this. This is a serious movie fan’s ultimate wet dream.
Wings stands the true test of time…144 minutes without CGI as its hook (only a topless Clara Bow)…and it is entirely thrilling.
MPAA Rating: This title has not been rated by the MPAA.
Director: William A. Wellman
Writer: Hope Loring and Louis D. Lighton
Cast: Clara Bow; Charles "Buddy" Rogers; Richard Arlen; Gary Cooper; Jobyna Ralston
Genre: Classic | War | Drama
Tagline: The war in the air from both sides of the lines
Memorable Movie Quote: "Hey, if youse guys need kissin' *I'll* kiss you - wit' a gun-butt!."
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Release Date: January 5, 1929
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: January 24, 2012
Synopsis: Upscale Font Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) are rivals in the same small American town, both vying for the attentions of pretty Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston). Jack fails to realize that "the girl next door", Mary Preston (Clara Bow), is desperatly in love with him. The two young men both enlist to become combat pilots in the Air Service. When they leave for training camp, Jack mistakenly believes Sylvia prefers him; she is too kindhearted to disillusion him, but lets David know that she loves him.
English SDH, French, Spanish (less)
English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German SDH (less)
Available on Blu-ray - January 24, 2011
Screen Formats: 1.33:1
Subtitles: French, Spanish, Portuguese
Audio: French, Spanish, Portuguese
Discs: 50GB Blu-ray Disc; Single disc (1 BD)
Playback: Region A
Paramount’s 1080p, 1.34:1-framed transfer is soul-stirring. Detail is top-notch and the color-tinted frames are illuminating, making day bright and night deep blue. There are nice flame effects from the machine gun fire that really make a spand faces are textured nicely. Paramount even has fun with its centennial anniversary celebration and goes through its many logo designs during the years of operations as the film’s pre-credit sequence. It’s a fun beginning that prepares audiences for a trip in the way-back machine for this timeless movie. Clarity is top-notch throughout both on land and in the sky, but especially in the sky where even the clouds have texture. There are two soundtrack choices, one being preferred with a newly recorded score composed by J.S. Zamecnik (orchestrated and arranged by Dominik Hauser) complete with NEW sound effects by Ben Burtt. I cannot tell you how much of an exhilarating experience this track is, thumping with airplane engines and machine gun fire. The other a Dolby Digital 2.0 track that offers Gaylord Carter’s pipe organ skills is for purists of the Silent Era.
- Here’s where the ball gets dropped. There is none. No commentary from a film historian or an archivist or anyone who worked on the film’s restoration. While the supplemental material does cover some of the restoration process, there was room and a need for this film to have its own commentary track.
There are three standout featurettes that accompany the film. The first and most important covers the making of the film, Wellman’s casting, the difficulties in making the aerial battles come alive, the cinematic era the film was birthed into, the military’s support, and how quickly the landscape changed around it as a result of its success. In the second, the restoration of the film and the addition of the sound effects are both discussed. While the featurette is way too brief, its interesting topic and dedication of crew behind the scenes is a marvel. We get insight into the recording of the soundtrack and the inclusion of real sounds into a silent film. The third and shortest featurette covers the evolution of the airplane and, as a result, the changes in how aerial battles were fought.
- ‘Wings’: Grandeur in the Sky (26 min)
- Restoring the Power and Beauty of ‘Wings’ (14 min)
- Dogfight! (13 min)